Abby Housefield

Written by Abby Housefield

10 COMMENTS

The Best Carbohydrates for Runners

Carbohydrates are an essential part of an endurance runner’s diet, but not all carbohydrates are created equal. Sure, technically speaking, 1 gram of carbohydrates will always equal 4 calories. But as a runner who constantly requires so much from your body, you need to get as much nutrition from each gram of carbohydrates as possible.

Below, I have created tables to help you explore and compare different forms of carbohydrates.  Use these as a resource to increase the variety of carbohydrates in your diet as well as get the most bang for your buck with each gram of carbohydrates you consume.

Pasta

Pasta has been a part of the running world for a long time. Enjoying pasta before long runs or races starts at a young age and continues through our entire running careers. Middle and high school students meet before major cross country or track events for pasta dinners. Local running teams and communities gather for pasta potlucks before races, and every running website has pre-race or long run pasta recipes.

I will begin by comparing white pasta to whole wheat pasta and spaghetti squash. Both whole wheat pasta and spaghetti squash are superior to white pasta, but for different reasons.

Whole wheat pasta

Whole wheat pasta is a better choice than white pasta because it offers more fiber, more vitamins and minerals, and even a few essential fatty acids. Spaghetti squash is also a betteroption than white pasta, especially if weight loss is your goal, because two cups of cooked spaghetti squash is only 84 calories, compared to 221 calories per cup of white pasta.

Spaghetti squash

Spaghetti squash, as a vegetable, is also a great source of vitamins and minerals and a better source of omega-3 fatty acids than whole wheat pasta.  Omega-3 fatty acids help decrease the inflammation that can take place in your muscles after a hard workout or long run.

White pasta is still a good source of carbohydrates, but to get the most nutrition for your calories, whole wheat pasta or spaghetti squash are much better options. To get the bestof both worlds, mix whole wheat spaghetti and spaghetti squash in your next pasta dish. This will increase the vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids you are consuming while decreasing calories.

Here is an easy and helpful comparison table of pastas:

Unenriched Spaghetti

Whole Wheat Spaghetti

Spaghetti Squash (per 2 cups)

Calories (per cooked cup) 221 174 84
Fat 1g 1g 0.4g
Carbohydrates 43 g 37g 20 g
Fiber 2 g 6g 4g
Protein 8g 7g 2g
Vitamins & Minerals > 10% Daily Value (DV) 10% Iron23% Manganese53% Selenium 10% Thiamin11% Magnesium12% Phosphorus12% Coppers

97% Manganese

52% Selenium

18% Vitamin C12% Niacin16% Vitamin B612% Pantothenic Acid

10% Potassium

16% Manganese

Omega 3 14 mg 121 mg
Omega 6 284 mg 72.8 mg

 

Rice

If rice is your go-to carbohydrate before long runs or races, opt for wild rice over white or brown rice. Of these three, white rice is a good source of carbohydrates; however, brown rice is better, and wild rice is the best option when all nutritional factors are taken into consideration.

For example, wild rice has 50 less calories than brown rice, and almost 100 calories less than white rice, but offers more protein and more omega-3s, along with similar vitamins and minerals as brown rice.

White Rice

Brown Rice

Wild Rice

Calories per cooked cup 267 216 166
Fat .4g 1.8g .6g
Carbohydrates 59g 45g 35
Fiber 4g 3g
Protein 5g 5g 7g
Vitamins & Minerals > 10% Daily Value (DV) 37% Manganese 12% Thiamin15% Niacin14% Vitamin B6 21% Magnesium16% Phosphorus

10% Copper

88% Manganese

27% Selenium

11% Niacin11% Vitamin B611% Folate13% Magnesium

13% Phosphorus

15% Zinc

10% Copper

23% Manganese

Omega 3 18.4 mg 27 mg 156 mg
Omega 6 84 mg 603 mg 195 mg

 

Potatoes

With all the low-carb diets floating around in the last two decades, potatoes have gotten a bad rap. Potatoes should not be forgotten or thrown out in a runner’s diet. Both white potatoes and sweet potatoes actually have more vitamins and minerals to offer than pasta. Between the two, sweet potatoes are the best option.

As you can see from the chart below, the amounts of vitamin A and C in sweet potatoes are excellent, and the extra fiber is a bonus. Don’t hesitate to mix things up in your diet and switch out your morning oatmeal for a baked sweet potato with cinnamon for a boost in vitamins A and C.

White Potato

Sweet Potato

Calories(per 1 medium potato w. skin) 161 162
Fat .2 g 0.3 g
Carbohydrates 37g 37g
Fiber 4g 6g
Protein 4g 4g
Vitamins & Minerals > 10% Daily Value (DV) 28% Vitamin C12% Niacin27% Vitamin B612% Folate

10% Iron

12% Magnesium

12% Phosphorus

26% Potassium

10% Copper

19% Manganese

692% Vitamin A59% Vitamin C13% Thiamin11% Riboflavin

13% Niacin

26% Vitamin B6

16% Pantothenic Acid

12% Magnesium

10% Phosphorus

24% Potassium

14% Copper

45% Manganese

Omega 3 22.5 mg 7.2 mg
Omega 6 74.4 mg 108 mg

 

Ancient Grains

If you are not acquainted with ancient grains, it may surprise you that they offer more nutrition per cooked cup and are better options than white rice or white pasta.

Amaranth and quinoa are very comparable sources of carbohydrates and can be used interchangeably. Both amaranth and quinoa offer more protein, vitamins, and minerals per cooked cup than most of the typical carbohydrate sources in our diets.

Amaranth

Barley

Quinoa

Calories(per 1 cooked cup) 251 193 222
Fat 3.9g .7g 3.6g
Carbohydrates 46g 44g 39g
Fiber 5g 6g 5g
Protein 9g 4g 8g
Vitamins & Minerals > 10% DV 14% Vitamin B614% Folate12% Calcium29% Iron

40% Magnesium

36% Phosphorus

14%Zinc

18% Copper

105% Manganese 19% Selenium

 

16% Niacin12% Iron20% Manganese19% Selenium 15% Iron13% Thiamin12% Riboflavin11% Vitamin B6

19% Folate

30% Magnesium

28% Phosphorus

13% Zinc

58% Manganese

Omega 3 33 mg
Omega 6 303 mg

 

To Wrap It Up

In each group of mentioned carbohydrate groups, there are good, better, and best options. Ultimately, eating the best of all the sources and varying your diet is going to ensure you consume the healthiest carbohydrates possible. Use these charts to mix up your carbohydrates and try something new; the variety of your diet will keep you enjoying each meal and will increase your overall nutrition and performance.

Resources

Simopoulos, Artemis P. (October 2002). “The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids”. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 56 (8): 365–379.
Evans and Hughes. “Dietary carbohydrates and endurance exercise”. Am J Clin Nutr May 1985 vol. 41no. 5 1146-1154

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References

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10 Responses on “The Best Carbohydrates for Runners

  1. I really appreciate the attention to detail in this article, and I’m impressed that you mentioned spaghetti squash as an alternative to pasta. I also like the focus on potatoes and sweet potatoes/yams.

    However, your analysis is missing a factor: the toxin load of the food. All grains contain significant amounts of toxins, with wheat being the worst offender. Did you know that 85% of people show an immune response to wheat gluten? Other grain toxins include WGA, phytic acid, and saponins. Runners in particular should avoid wheat and other grains, because even though they may not notice any problems with digestions, the toxins will increase inflammation.

    With this in mind, white rice actually becomes the healthiest form of rice, because the only toxins in rice are in the husk, which is completely remove in white rice. So white rice is a safe source of carbs (like potatoes & squash).

    (the same does not apply to wheat or other grains — white flour still has plenty of gluten and other toxins, so both whole wheat and white flour should be avoided)

    • Mike,
      Thanks for the comment and bringing up another perspective. The idea that some grains, legumes and plants have “anti-nutrients” is something I have heard a handful of times and have not yet had the chance to do enough research myself to see where I fall. On the other hand, from the research and studying I have done, I found that many of those “anti-nutrients” get broken down in legumes and plants when they are cooked, sprouted or eaten with fermented foods. For example, lectins, phytic acid and protease inhibitors are all “deactivated” by cooking, sprouting or fermentation. Also, some of these “anti-nutrients” like, saponins found in spinach and oats, have some positive aspects. Saponins may increase and accelerate the body’s ability to absorb calcium and silicon.

      Here is one theory I have regarding these “anti-nutrients”. Are we experiencing more negative effects from grains, legumes and plants because we are not longer taking the time to prepare the food properly. History shows the preparation of wheat used to consist of soaking, sprouting, milling, then cooking. Now, as a nation, we have cut out the soaking and sprouting and jumped to the milling and cooking for a cheaper, quicker process.

      We also are not eating many fermented foods anymore, because fermentation takes time and we no longer “need” to ferment foods to keep them good with refrigerators and freezers.

      So, are we experiencing more issues with grains and legumes, simply because we are no longer taking the time to prepare the appropriately?

      Mike, your thoughts are great, and I believe they bring up some great questions! I will continue to research this topic specifically to see what I find. Thanks for your comment!!

      • Hi, sorry I never followed up on your comment. I just wanted to mention that you should look up the book “The Perfect Health Diet” by Dr. Paul Jaminet & Dr. Shou-Ching Jaminet. They discuss a lot of these concepts. They also have a website/blog at http://perfecthealthdiet.com/ .
        Happy running!
        Mike

  2. GREAT ARTICLE!!!! I’m doing a half next week so this will help me a TON for my meal preparations this week.

    You should do a similar article on protein for the post-recovery.

  3. Thanks Jeff. I always enjoy the advice on RunnersConnect. I like that you are science based. My only question is about all the fiber pre-race. Doesn’t this increase the chances you will need a bathroom break during the marathon? I read elsewhere to avoid all the fiber by eating regular pasta and white rice … Runner’s trots can kill your time! What are your thoughts on this?

  4. Pingback: Carbohydrate Loading: 3 Methods For Marathon Success

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