Decoding Carbohydrates: The Ultimate Guide for Runners

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Cross Training For Runners
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David Dack

Carbohydrates are your body’s premium-grade fuel, just like your car relies on petrol to hit the road. But here’s the twist – not all carbs are created equal! Some are your body’s best friend, while others can be a bit of a tricky character.

Would you like to learn how to get the most out of this valuable macronutrient? Then you’re in the right place.

In today’s post, I’ll dive deep into the importance and applications of carbs for runners.  Imagine complex carbs as the slow-burning, marathon-running buddies, mainly found in grains. They take their sweet time to digest, offering a steady and reliable stream of energy. Perfect for runners craving that continuous source of fuel.

Now, on the flip side, simple carbs are the sprinters, hanging out in sugary drinks and sweets. They deliver a quick burst of energy but can leave you crashing down. Not exactly the ideal companions for your run, right?

So, how do you strike the perfect balance between these carb buddies? And what’s the magic number when it comes to your daily carb intake? Buckle up as we navigate the world of carbs and unravel the mystery of fueling your runs!

The Main Building Blocks

Carbohydrates are organic molecular compounds made from a cool trio of elements—carbon (C), hydrogen, and oxygen (H2O). What’s intriguing is their unique hydrogen-to-oxygen ratio—twice that of carbon.

These molecular compounds are divided into two main categories:

  • The complex carbohydrates—the polysaccharides (mostly starches and fiber) and
  • The simple carbohydrates—the monosaccharides and disaccharides (mostly sugars).

Both types, as we are going to see, differ in their chemical structure and the impact they have on your body.

The Carb Conversion Process:

When you munch on carbohydrates, your body works its magic. It breaks them down into glucose. This glucose isn’t just any ordinary sugar; it’s the VIP energy source for your muscles, liver, and bloodstream. Your body knows how precious it is, so it stashes it away in the form of glycogen.

But here’s the kicker: after a long and intense run, your glycogen stores can run pretty low. That’s why it’s crucial to replenish them post-workout. If you don’t, your next run might feel like a drag, with fatigue and reduced performance crashing your running party.

The Carb-Weight Connection:

When you consume more carbs than your body uses, the excess gets squirreled away as fat. It’s your body’s way of saving up for later, like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter.

This is one of the reasons low-carb diets have gained popularity—they trim down the squirrel’s stash. But here’s the catch: your body needs some fat for various functions. So, it’s not about cutting out carbs completely but finding that sweet spot where you have enough energy without squirreling away too much fat.

Simple Vs. Complex

Alright, folks, it’s time for the showdown of the century: Simple Carbs vs. Complex Carbs. Picture this – it’s a dramatic play, and each type of carb is a character with a unique role. But here’s the twist: one’s the villain and the other? Well, it’s the hero we’ve all been waiting for!

The Simple Carbs

Now, let’s dive into the world of simple carbs – or, as we like to call them, the not-so-sweet villains of the nutrition story. If you’ve ever associated soda cans and chocolate bars with this category, you’re right on the money.

The Villains Unveiled:

Simple carbs are like the bad apples of the carbohydrate family, consisting of monosaccharides (carbs with one sugar unit) and disaccharides (carbs with two sugar units). They may seem delightful at first, providing a quick energy kick without the need for any further processing by enzymes – they’re basically the fast food of carbs.

But Wait, There’s a Twist:

Now, here comes the plot twist – the dark side of simple carbs. Simple carbs are notorious for being low in fiber and nutrients. In essence, they’re the “empty calories” – offering little more than a calorie punch to your diet. It’s like paying top dollar for a movie ticket only to find out the show’s been canceled.

The Grim Consequences:

Studies have sounded the alarm on these nutritional mischief-makers. Consuming simple carbs has been linked to a laundry list of health problems, including the dreaded duo of type 2 diabetes and obesity. It’s as if they’re pulling the strings in a puppet show, leading your health astray.

The Golden Rule:

So, here’s the golden rule – avoid these carb culprits like the plague…well, almost. While I firmly stand by keeping simple carbs at bay, I’ll give them a pass for the occasional indulgence or cheat day. After all, life’s too short not to enjoy a sweet treat every now and then.

The Main Sources of Simple Carbs

Here are the main sources.

  • Sugar: The sweet saboteur that lurks in everything from your morning coffee to your favorite desserts.
  • Syrup: Whether it’s drizzled on pancakes or hidden in processed foods, it’s a sugar-packed trap.
  • Candy: The ultimate temptation, promising a quick sugar rush but delivering nothing more than empty calories.
  • Cake: A celebration favorite that packs a sugary punch, leaving your health in the lurch.
  • Soda: Carbonated trouble in a can, loaded with sugar and devoid of nutrients.
  • Beer: Yes, even your beloved brewski can be a source of simple carbs.
  • Fruit Juices: These seemingly innocent beverages often harbor high sugar content, making them a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
  • White Bread: The refined cousin of whole-grain bread, offering little more than starchy simplicity.
  • Pastries: Delightful in taste, disastrous for your diet – pastries are sugar and fat-laden temptations.
  • White Pasta: The refined counterpart to whole-grain pasta, giving you empty carbs with each bite.

The Complex Carbs

In a world where simple carbs often steal the spotlight, complex carbs are the unsung heroes waiting in the wings. They might not be the stars of the show, but they bring substance and vitality to your diet.

Nutrient-Rich Powerhouses:

Complex carbs aren’t just about filling your plate; they’re about nourishing your body. When you indulge in these nutritional treasures, you’re not just consuming calories – you’re fueling your body with a cocktail of vitamins, minerals, and fiber that keep your digestive system running like a well-oiled machine.

Calorie-Smart Champions:

The beauty of complex carbs is that they allow you to eat heartily without worrying about calorie overload. You can savor the flavors and textures you love while keeping your weight goals firmly in check. It’s a win-win situation that’s hard to beat.

The Main Sources of Simple Carbs

Here’s where to find them:

  • Whole Grains: Think beyond basic white bread – embrace the goodness of quinoa, brown rice, and whole-grain pasta. These options are brimming with fiber and nutrients.
  • Vegetables: Broccoli, the stalwart of greens, leads the pack, joined by nutrient-rich sweet potatoes and others. They’re complex carbs in a veggie disguise.
  • Legumes: Lentils and beans aren’t just protein powerhouses; they’re complex carb kings, too. Incorporate them into your diet for a double dose of nutrition.
  • Pasta: Yes, you can still enjoy pasta! Opt for whole-grain varieties that provide complex carbs with every forkful.
  • Fresh and Dried Fruits: Nature’s candy and fruits like apples, berries, and oranges are not only delicious but also packed with complex carbs, vitamins, and antioxidants.

Macros For Runners – Carbs Needs

So, you’ve laced up your running shoes, and you’re ready to hit the pavement. But have you considered how to fuel your body properly for the journey ahead? Carbohydrates are your best running buddies, and knowing how much to consume can be a game-changer.

Here’s the scoop:

The Bare Minimum:

According to the Institute of Medicine, the recommended daily carb intake for the average Joe or Jane is about 130 grams. That’s the bare minimum required to keep your brain, central nervous system, and red blood cells firing on all cylinders.

If you’re a runner, you’re in a league of your own. You’ll need more than that 130-gram baseline. But how much more? Well, that’s where things get interesting.

Carbs Needs to be Based on Training Intensity

Your training regimen plays a pivotal role in determining how many carbs you should consume. Here’s a simple guide to help you find your sweet spot, but remember, one gram of carbs equals four calories.

  • Low to Moderate Intensity (45-60 minutes a day): Aim for 2 to 4 grams of carbs per pound of body weight (or 4 to 8 grams per kilogram).
  • Moderate to Somewhat Intense Endurance Exercise (60-120 minutes a day): Up the ante with 2.5 to 5 grams of carbs per pound (or 5 to 10 grams per kilogram).
  • High-Intensity Endurance Exercise (Over 3 hours a day): This is where it gets exciting. Shoot for 4 to 8 grams of carbs per pound (or 8 to 16 grams per kilogram).

Let’s put theory into practice with an example. If you’re 180 pounds and you’re hitting the pavement, running, and cross-training intensely for 1 to 2 hours daily, you’d want to aim for around 450 to 900 grams of carbs each day.

The Simple Formula

Calculate calorie intake first, then break it down into the right proportions (do the same thing with the other macros)

Here is the simple formula for determining your carb needs in grams:

Step 1.

Multiply the average number of calories you consume in a day by 0.55 to 0.65 (the lower and upper limit of carb consumption).

This helps you work out the average amount of calories from carbohydrates.

Step 2.

Divide the number of calories from carbs by 4 (carbohydrates contain four calories in each gram).

For example, for a 2,300-calorie diet,  Make sure that at least 1300 to 1500 of your calories come from carb sources every day.

Where To Find Them

Here is a list of some of the most common sources of carbohydrates, along with portion size and exact content.

  • One cup of sliced plantains = 48 grams
  • One medium baked potato = 37 grams
  • One cup of yum = 37 grams
  • One cup of parsnips = 26 grams
  • One medium sweet potato = 24 grams
  • One cup of butternut squash = 22 grams
  • One cup of acorn squash = 22 grams
  • ½ cup of cooked greens or orange veggies (spinach, broccoli, or carrot) = 20 grams
  • One cup of tomato sauce = 16 grams
  • One cup of beets = 16 grams
  • One slice of bread = 15 grams
  • One cup of canned/diced fruit = 15 grams
  • ½ cup of cooked pasta, rice, quinoa, or polenta = 15 grams
  • ½ cup of cooked porridge = 15 grams
  • ¼ cup muesli = 15 grams
  • One cup of canned/diced fruit = 15 grams
  • 1/2 cup of cooked or dried beans, peas, and lentils = 15 grams
  • One medium banana, orange, or apple = 12 to 15 grams
  • One medium artichoke = 14 grams
  • One cup of Brussel sprouts = 12 grams
  • One cup of sliced carrots = 12 grams
  • One cup of rutabagas = 12 grams
  • One cup of broccoli = 12 grams
  • One cup of mashed pumpkin = 12 grams
  • One cup of sliced jicama = 11 grams
  • One cup of collards = 11 grams
  • One cup of sliced jicama = 11 grams
  • One cup of red cabbage = 11 grams
  • One medium cucumber = 11 grams
  • One medium potato = 10 grams
  • One cup of eggplant = 9 grams
  • One cup of turnips = 8 grams
  • One cup of okra = 7 grams
  • One cup of asparagus = 7 grams
  • One cup of Swiss chard = 7 grams
  • One cup of spaghetti squash = 7 grams
  • One cup of mustard greens = 6 grams
  • One medium tomato = 5 grams
  • One cup of green bell pepper = 5 grams
  • One cup of cauliflower = 5 grams

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