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 oatmeal!
Low Carb Diets for Runners?
Today I am republishing a post that my dear friend Christian wrote for me a few years ago: the case FOR carbs. There is so much content out there right now about the keto diet and low carb diets to lose weight and improve energy (especially around the new year). I want to remind athletes just how important carbs are since there isn’t enough out there about that. Whether your workout of choice is running, crossfit, group fitness, cycling, dancing, anything, you are an athlete! And YOU NEED CARBS if you want to perform your best.
A little bit about Christian: he is an avid runner, climber and hiker. He studied Nutrition Science at Appalachian State University and is a Registered Dietitian. He also has academic background in Exercise Science, holding both CSCS and RCEP credentials. Those credentials have allowed him to work with professional and collegiate level sports teams and really get a feel for sound training principals across the athletic spectrum. Christian is now in the final stages of getting his Ph.D. in in Nutrition at the University of Alabama. In short, he has the credentials to back up what he is saying.
Over to you Christian! (Don’t miss the cute pic of Christian and his french bulldog at the bottom of the post!)
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”. Those words are like nails on a chalkboard to me.
Carbohydrates 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, carbs are 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 carbohydrates are means nothing if you aren’t consuming foods that supply your body with the carbs 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/carb 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 carbs 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).
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 carb-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 carb-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 carbs, 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)
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!
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 carb sources, raisins in particular, are associated with similar blood glucose responses and running performance as a commercially available carbohydrate sport food.
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 carbohydrates (obviously tailor this on hard training days and before competition) – AT LEAST 6g carbs/kg/day. (You can find your kg weight here.)
- EAT ALL DAY!
- CARBOHYDRATES = Happiness
- Puppies = Happiness
What are your thoughts on low-carb diets for runners or athletes? 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. 😉 )
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