5 Plant-Based, Nutrient-Rich Carbs to Fuel Runners
If you’re a runner, you had better not underestimate the value of carbs in your diet. Carbohydrates play many important roles in fueling exercise performance, promoting recovery, optimizing mental focus, limiting fatigue, and promoting overall health.1 Thus, runners need more carbohydrates than most other athletes; however, they often do not get enough.2 We’re sharing our top 5 plant-based, nutrient-rich carb to fuel your run.
What is a Carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that are easily digested, providing our body a quick source of fuel, or energy, in the form of calories. When consuming carbohydrates, they are broken down to simple sugars, such as glucose, fructose, and galactose, and are converted to adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is needed to fuel muscle contraction and many other energy-dependent functions.3 Glucose, found in all carbohydrate foods, is used to maintain blood sugar and provides energy for the brain. When carbohydrates are not used in our body, they are stored in the muscle as glycogen, acting as an energy reserve for fueling exercise.4 Interestingly, glycogen can be readily used, which is great for sudden, intense activity. Therefore, eating enough carbohydrate optimizes muscle glycogen levels and endurance!1
Carbohydrates, Glycogen and Performance
5 Plant-Based, Nutrient-Rich Carbs to Fuel Your Run
Plant-based, nutrient-rich carbohydrate foods provide sustained energy and maximize nutrient intake. They contain a variety of key vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and other phytonutrients to facilitate ATP production, strengthen bones, optimize the immune system, improve oxygen delivery to muscle tissue, maintain fluid and electrolyte balance, regulate digestion, and improve overall health.
1. Whole Grains. Whole grains foods contain more protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals compared to processed versions (i.e., white bread, pasta, rice, etc.). These nutrients aid in energy metabolism, oxygen delivery, and exercise recovery, and help runners feel more satisfied after eating. Whole grain versions of these foods digest at an even rate and avoid a quick increase in blood sugar, which may leave a runner feeling tired and hungry.
- When selecting whole grain crackers, bread, pasta, granola bars, cereal, choose options with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
- Avoid options (i.e., cereals and granola bars) with added sugar, which can also leave runners feeling tired and hungry.
2. Fruits. Runners can enjoy and benefit from all types of fruit! Select a variety of fruits, ranging in colors, to benefit from different vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients. While fresh fruit typically provides the best source of nutrients and fiber, frozen and dried fruit (without added sugar) are also great options to add in smoothies (frozen), sprinkle on oatmeal, cereal, yogurt (frozen or dried), or mix in with nuts and whole grain cereal (dried) for a homemade, high-energy trail mix.
- Choose fresh fruit in-season for the best flavor and price.
- Select options (especially frozen, dried, canned) without added sugar.
3. Vegetables. Like fruit, vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients that help runners with a variety of key processes, including energy metabolism, electrolyte and fluid balance, blood health, growth, exercise recovery, immune system function, reducing oxidative stress/inflammation, among other benefits. However, it is not uncommon for athletes to struggle to meet their need of fitting in 2 ½ cups of vegetables per day.5 Aim to fit vegetables in several meals and snacks per day. Portable versions that can be easily stored for snacks and meals include baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, sliced bell pepper, cucumber, jicama, and snap peas. Pair with a bean dip, hummus, or nut butter for a delicious, balanced snack. A cup of spinach or kale can also be mixed in to a recovery smoothie with plant-based milk alternatives and fresh or frozen fruit (i.e., banana, berries). You can also add extra onions, mushrooms, asparagus, bell peppers, carrots, eggplant, zucchini, and celery to a casserole or pasta sauce to get more vegetables in your diet.
- Select options that are in-season for the least expensive and tasty options.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment with new vegetables and recipes!
4. Beans and Legumes. Like whole grains and starchy vegetables, beans and legumes provide a compact source of carbohydrate and deliver additional key vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. In fact, beans and legumes, provide one of the richest sources of soluble fiber and serve as a great source of plant-based protein. Beans and legumes help to maintain feelings of satiety and balance blood sugar. They are also high in magnesium, folate, potassium, and provide a plant-based source of iron. Beans are great in soups, chili, casseroles, burritos, burrito bowls, served with tacos, enchiladas, paired with rice for an easy & balanced meal. They can be mashed with spices, onion, garlic for a delicious spread (i.e. hummus, black bean dip). While beans and legumes are great for eating throughout the day, avoid eating these or other foods high in fiber within an hour or so pre-exercise to avoid stomach cramping!
- While runners often need additional sodium, due to daily, potentially, heavy sweating, especially in warmer climates, if sodium is a concern, choose low-sodium options or rinse canned beans in water prior to eating.
- Read more about How to Prepare Dried Beans to Avoid Antinutrients.
5. Plant-Based Milk Alternatives. Some non-dairy alternatives, such as soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, and coconut milk, also provide a good amount of carbohydrates and can also be fortified with vitamin D and B12 to help meet needs. Specifically, soy milk options contain protein in addition to carbohydrate, making these options great for post-exercise recovery as they help runners maintain and build bone and reduce risk of a bone stress injury. Here is a Plant-Based Milk Guide when searching for the best option for you.
- Select products lower in added sugar, aim for flavored yogurt containing more (or similar amount of) protein compared to sugar per serving.
Written by Jenny Y. Nguyen Dietetic Intern and Sharon Palmer, RDN
- Hawley JA, Leckey JJ. Carbohydrate dependence during prolonged, intense endurance exercise. Sports Med. 2015;45(S1):5-12. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0400-1
- Zawila LG, Steib C-SM, Hoogenboom B. The female collegiate cross-country runner: nutritional knowledge and attitudes. J Athl Train. 2003;38(1):67-74.
- Gropper SS, Smith JL. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. 6th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning; 2013.
- Stellingwerff T, Cox GR. Systematic review: carbohydrate supplementation on exercise performance or capacity of varying durations. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014;39(9):998-1011. doi:10.1139/apnm-2014-0027
- Burkhart SJ, Pelly FE. Dietary intake of athletes seeking nutrition advice at a major international competition. Nutrients. 2016;8(10). doi:10.3390/nu8100638