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The Run Around: The Case FOR Carbs

Low carb diets for runners are gaining in popularity to help with weight loss and to train the body to burn fat. This post argues against it. Pass the rice!

Today I am so happy to have my good buddy Christian taking over the blog for the latest post in The Run Around. I met Christian at Top Tier CrossFit where he regularly kicks my butt in the bootcamp workouts. We quickly bonded over our love of running, food, and smushy-faced dogs. Sadly he and Django will be moving away from Winston in July (which I’m still not-so-silently protesting, along with many other friends at Top Tier who are bummed about it).

Christian and DJ
DJ Christian is an amazing well-rounded athlete and has been an invaluable resource for me as I’ve worked through some recent running injuries and fueling woes. Today, he’s talking about the case FOR carbs, especially if you are an athlete. And if you work out (running, crossfit, group fitness, cycling, dancer, anything), you are an athlete! Alright, over to you Christian! (Thanks again for writing this!!)

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Greetings to the blogosphere! (do people still call it that?)

I am a bit of a blog novice, in fact Teri’s is the first I’ve ever followed! So, when she asked that contribute to hers I felt both honored and a bit nervous. Anyways, Christian here, runner, climber, hiker. I’m a second year grad student at Appalachian State University studying Nutrition Science. I also have an academic background in Exercise Science holding both CSCS and RCEP credentials, which has allowed me to work with professional and collegiate level sports teams and really get a feel for sound training principals across the athletic spectrum. Sadly, I will be leaving Winston-Salem in the fall for Birmingham to keep the school train chugging towards a PhD in Nutrition.

Christian

Enough about me! On to the point.

The Case FOR Carbs.

I can not even begin to tell you the number of times I have heard someone (athlete or not) say, “I don’t do carbs” or “I’m on a carb restricted diet” or for Austin Powers fans “Carbs are the enemy”. Those words are like nails on a chalkboard to me.

Carbohydrates (CHO) are single handedly the most important aspect of any diet and absolutely essential to the diet of any athlete.

I know that may sound like a bold claim, but it is the irrefutable truth! Granted, all three macronutrients deserve their spot in the limelight, however CHO is most effectively and preferentially broken down into glucose, the body’s primary source of energy and the only source of fuel for the brain (important).

Now, knowing how important CHOs are means nothing if you aren’t consuming foods that supply your body with the CHOs that it so desperately desires, when it so desperately desires them. This brings up two important points that, when melded together correctly, will put you well on the way to reaching your ultimate athletic potential:

  • Nutritional adequacy/CHO content
  • Nutrient timing

The following are really great visual representations of how your plate should change depending on your phase of training.

Notice how the portion of the plate referencing whole grains increases as training volume/load increases. This is because the kind of CHO you receive from whole grains provides glucose in a more systematic and deliberate fashion, delivering over an extended period of time (the kind of energy needed on a long run or race day).

Picture1

Picture2

Picture3

As distance athletes, most of our competitions occur in the early mornings which can hinder our ability and desire to consume a meal as hearty as the ones depicted above. This points to the importance of CHO loading not just the night before competition, but up to 4 days prior to competition (this is an arguable training principal known as “glycogen loading”). This maximizes the body’s glycogen (storage form of glucose that accumulates in the muscle and liver).

The body has the ability to store ~500g (or ~2000 kcals, 18-19 miles of a marathon) of glycogen. Glycogen is converted to glucose to provide energy when blood glucose levels fall.

What is important to remember during this period of CHO loading is to consume small frequent meals throughout the day.

The second hunger strikes, carb it up! This will minimize the degree to which the body relies on glycogen thus keeping your stores maximized for use during performance.

There is a really great book written by a couple super renowned sports nutritionists Skolnik and Chernus titled “Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance: The Right Food, the Right Time, the Right Results”. It’s very well written and provides a practical guide to help athletes gain maximum performance, recover quickly, reduce risk of injury, diminish muscle breakdown and enhance immune function. *End plug* [Teri chiming in here: I read this book (and loved it) after Christian recommended it to me when I casually mentioned I was experimenting with a low carb diet and he flipped out. I’m happy to report that my energy levels and workout performance are one billion times better since increasing my carbs.]

This last little bit goes a little away from the main topic of CHO, however I feel that it is an essential practice for any athlete.

The best and most consistent results that I have seen in athletic performance has come from athletes who understand the importance of eating ALL DAY LONG.

I tell all of the athletes I work with that the biggest favor they can do for themselves to maximize energy stores for performance is to take 5-10 minutes every night before they go to bed and pack food for the next day (because we all know we don’t want to do it in the morning) [Oh hey, this sounds familiar!]

Depending on the kind of training you are doing, having anywhere from 5-10 small snacks to graze on all day is best practice. Be cognizant of what your body is telling you and the very second you feel a glimmer of hunger coming on, put something in your mouth! Bar, nuts, granola, cherry tomato’s, fruit cups, PB&J, cheese cubes, etc. Snacks that are anywhere between 90 and 180 kcals are what you should aim for. This provides an even and constant supply of glucose, preventing crashes and reducing glycogen sequestering. Additionally, it provides increased mental clarity and an overall better you!

Hanging Rock

Take away points:

  • Quality carbs are ESSENTIAL, not just to performance but to life
  • As a general rule, 1/3 of your daily kcals should come from CHO (obviously tailor this on hard training days and before competition) – AT LEAST 6g CHO/kg/day. (You can find your kg weight here.)
  • EAT ALL DAY!
  • CHO = Happiness

Tricks and hints (from evidence-based research)

  • Ingesting bananas before and during prolonged intense exercise can support athletic performance as effectively as ingesting a commercially available sport beverage.
  • Whole food CHO sources, raisins in particular, are associated with similar blood glucose responses and running performance as a commercially available CHO sport food.

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What are your thoughts on low-carb diets?  Have you seen a marked improvement in your workouts when increasing carbs? And Christian is happy to answer any questions you may have! (I just offered that up without asking him. Sorrrrry Christian. But I know you will. 😉 )

Previous posts in The Run Around series:

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  • Deveree
    at

    Hi Teri! I don’t think I’ve ever commented on your blog. Glad to see you’re doing so well 🙂

    Great post Christian! And very interesting. Quick tangent: I was on the path to going to graduate school for nutrition but after taking several nutrition courses as part of my undergrad degree I realized the ever changing theories and ideas around nutrition science was too frustrating for me. With that said, you’re obviously much more qualified on this topic than I am. I am a marathon runner myself and major carb-lover. I definitely feel most energized in my life and on my runs when I’m eating plenty of carbs!

    With that in mind, I’m curious if you are familiar with Timothy Noakes? I’m sure you are given your education. I was not until I heard an interview with him on RadioWest and it was so fascinating. Apparently he was at the forefront of promoting carb-loading for runners. Recently though he changed his stance and is now on board with the low carb, high fat diet. Just curious what your thoughts are on that? I’ve loooooong been opposed to the low carb craze too, but the way he presented his stance and how he got did give me pause.

    Anyway, great post! Here is the interview I’m referring to if ya’ll are interested in listening. (I highly recommend!) http://radiowest.kuer.org/post/timothy-noakes-and-challenging-health-beliefs

    • Christian
      at

      Deveree,
      Thanks for your comment/question!
      First and foremost, I can 100% identify with your apprehension entering into the field of nutrition sciences. The concern that you brought up is one that I question myself almost daily. Unfortunately there is far more nutrition “quackery”available for the masses to read, digest, and marinate on than there is scientific, evidence-based research. Also unfortunate is the fact that much of the research done through clinical trials shedding light on the most cutting edge nutrition research is only made available to academics and medical professionals, leaving the masses to gather their nutrition information from articles in pop culture magazines that are more often than not funded by the very organizations that stand to gain from readership.
      Hopefully one day this will not be the case…

      Commenting on the second portion of your post, this afternoon I listened to the Noakes interview that you posted. I was certainly intrigued by his view on the carb debate and before I interject much further I will say that what information and knowledge I have on the subject comes solely from what I have learned/read through my own academic studies or through leisure reading. Dr. Noakes is a credentialed and tenured professional. With that said, after your post I did a little digging into his research and couldn’t help but to find a few discrepancies. First and foremost, he really doesn’t have a great deal of published literature on the idea of low-carb-high-fat diets with respect to endurance training. Secondly, what literature he does have published is grounded on studies with a questionably small sample size (one study he did on long distance cyclists only had 7 participants total!).
      I am by no means in a position to debunk the ideology of someone so well known and respected in his field; however, when you immerse yourself in the research that is currently available (and consistently being reaffirmed), carbohydrate is indispensable to peak athletic performance. On a cellular level, the fat in our bodies is only able to be used as a substrate for energy in the “flame” of carbohydrate. Meaning that without an adequate supply of CHO, fat cannot efficiently be utilized as source of energy.
      As endurance athletes, fat is an imperative energy source. However, on a metabolic level, fat cannot be utilized to the extent that we need it when going the extra mile, without a sustained provision of CHO.

      I hope that helps to answer your question.

      • Deveree
        at

        Christian,

        Thank you for the thoughtful and detailed response. And for taking it a step further by looking into Dr. Noakes’ research after listening to the interview! I’ve got to say, I’m not very surprised that he has only a handful of published research on the topic considering he focused and researched the high carb diet for so long. It is surprising that he would have studies with such small sample sizes though!

        Your post and response are very helpful, thanks again. Nutrition is always such a nuanced and complicated subject, I commend you for sticking with it!

        And if you’re interested, another very interesting, worth listening to podcast about nutritional science and the case against low-fat diets: http://radiowest.kuer.org/post/big-fat-surprise

  • Kate | HappyForks.com
    at

    Teri, Christian, I’m really glad for your cooperations – this article is a light in the tunel for many beginners who are lost in between all carb myths! A handful of raisins (30g) provides 90 kcal. Will grab one next time when I go for longer run.

  • Chris Felici
    at

    Well done Christian; great blog post! You took it back a biochemistry level that just makes sense intuitively and scientifically. The glycogen that is stored in the liver and muscles is there for a reason…because many of us deplete our immediate source, glucose, so the body has a backup. The human body is an amazing machine that protects vital functions adaptively, but treating it well with the proper food sources improves every aspect of its functioning.
    I wonder if the doc mentioned who supports the high fat low carb diet is someone who may be feeling the effect of aging. Would it then make sense to reduce carbs a little as activity decreases or muscle depletion occurs?? Or is there a strict positive correlation between training level, despite age? I also wonder if the way to completely balance, when not glycogen loading, is to strictly monitor glucose and keep it at an optimal level and keep gherlin low and lepton high in the process??
    Again, very informative and sensible post Christian.