Carbs may get a bad rap, but they're the best source of energy for your body -- a definite plus when it comes to running. When you eat carbs, your body converts them into glucose for instantly accessible energy, and even stores some glycogen in your muscles for later on. While you shouldn't scarf down a box of cookies or other unhealthy carbs before athletic activity, choosing nutritious, carbohydrate-rich foods in the days and hours leading up to a long run can fuel you for speed and endurance.
Carbs and Running
Everyone needs carbs for energy, but you need even more if you run. The sustained activity requires a steady supply of fuel, and carbs are simply the best source, fighting fatigue to increase endurance. However, there are also many other factors that determine performance, so don't count on food alone. You also need to stay hydrated during your activity, and consume electrolytes during extended runs. In addition, it's important to eat carbs after your workout to replenish your body's glycogen supply.
You may have heard of carb loading to enhance performance for long running events. Carb loading can increase glycogen stores to last you beyond the typical 90 minutes, helping to combat exhaustion. To do this, up your carbs to about 50 percent of your calorie intake a week before the event, and train as usual. A few days before the event, go to 70 percent carbs. Eat fewer fats as a trade-off, and scale back your exercise routine. Don't work out at all the day before the big race, and bring snacks or sports gels to sustain you as you run.
For running, complex carbohydrates from breads and pastas are superior to simple carbs from candy and soft drinks. That's because your body absorbs simple carbs rapidly for a jolt of energy that quickly ebbs. Complex carbs, however, are absorbed more slowly for sustained energy. Your pre-run meal should be highest in complex carbs, but also contain some protein as well as a very small portion of fat.
If you aren't training for a long event, there's no need to pig out on carbs before going for your usual run. It's more important to focus on balanced meals that include healthy carbohydrates as well as vegetables, lean proteins and small amounts of fats from plant sources, such as nuts and avocado. Carbs should make up 45 to 65 percent of your diet, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If you're an active runner, lean towards the higher number.
Nina K. is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has been published by USAToday.com, Fitday.com, Healthy Living Magazine, Organic Authority and numerous other print and web publications. She has a philosophy degree from the University of Colorado and a journalism certificate from UCLA.