Carbohydrates are the source of energy for a body, derived from starches and sugars in food. They are stored in the muscles as glycogen, but are depleted with activity such as running. Any strenuous activity of 90 minutes or more can deplete glycogen and cause fatigue and low performance. Runners, especially long distance runners, need to build up stores of glycogen in advance with a diet high in carbohydrates.
Breads, Fruits, Vegetables
Medical authorities like the Mayo Clinic say a good diet for most people should have 50 percent carbohydrates, preferably from starches and natural sugars like fruits. Distance runners and other endurance athletes should get 60 to 70 percent of total diet from carbohydrates, such as breads, fruits and vegetables, with raw vegetables providing more than cooked varieties. Foods like beans and pasta are especially good sources. Spaghetti and bananas are staples for many distance runners.
A MayoClinic.com diet for endurance runners building carbohydrates in advance of an event includes three meals with morning and afternoon snacks, loaded with fruits, juices, vegetables and cereals, with very low protein and fat content. The National Institute of Health offers a basic three-meal carbohydrate diet with yogurt for snacks. Fat content is low and portions are generally modest.
MayoClinic.com starts a typical menu with breakfast of grain bagel, peanut butter and honey followed by a morning snack of fig bars, raisins and grape juice. Lunch is whole wheat bread, roasted chicken without skin, lettuce and tomato salad with mayonnaise dressing, baby carrots and tortilla chips. Dinner is baked salmon, brown rice and broccoli, lettuce and tomato salad with carrots and a wheat roll. A snack of strawberries and yogurt completes the day.
The NIH diet is simpler. Breakfast is shredded wheat cereal with raisins and a small banana with whole-wheat toast and jelly. Lunch is a smoked turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, lettuce and tomato salad and apple slices. Dinner is a loin steak with mashed potatoes and steamed carrots, with a whole wheat roll and honey. Snacks are low-fat yogurt.
A good runner's diet has about 2,000 calories a day with about 60 percent from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are simple, with one source of sugar like fructose from fruits, double with two sources like table sugar and some vegetables and complex with three or more sugar sources like beans, starchy vegetables and whole grain cereals and breads. Complex carbohydrates are preferred.
Distance runners also get carbohydrates, especially during events and long training runs, from sport drinks, energy bars and energy gels. These provide quick supplements of glycogen. Experts like the Mayo Clinic and marathon trainers say the best preparation for distance running competition is "carbo loading," increasing carbohydrate intake to about 70 percent of total diet three or four days in advance and reducing training so glycogen stores are built up. MayoClinic.com cautions that men benefit more than women from this and all runners should consult a doctor for diet advice.
- MedLine Plus: Carbohydrates
- MayoClinic.com: Carbohydrate-Loading Diet
- Road Runner Sports: Performance Foods for Runners; Nancy Ling
- British Journal of Sport Medicine; High Carbohydrate Diet for Long Distance Runners; M. Fogelhom, et al.
- Marathon Guide; Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete; Allegra Burton
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: The Role of Carbohydrates in Exercise and Physical Performance