“Carbs” (short for carbohydrates of course) have been a topic of confusion, controversy, intense debate and discussion, and general disagreement amongst nutrition professionals, athletes, doctors, and regular people alike. It seems like everyone has an opionion about “carbs” and many of those opinions are tied to strong emotional reactions along with a feeling that the “other side” is “crazy” and “stupid” (just an observation on my part). In my random pursuits of online knowledge I have seen entire books and websites devoted to tearing down the “other side” both morally and scientifically. I am naturally a skeptic about both sides of most issues (don’t believe anything is black and white) and I have no strong feelings on either side or anywhere in between on the “carb debate”. I do know there is a whole lot of science, everyone’s body is different, and almost nothing is conclusive.
However, as a person who loves distance running, there are SOME things I have come across in my own experiences related to carb consumption, especially while transitioning over to a Paleo style of eating. Here is some of what I’ve noticed, along with some outside thoughts on the subject.
- Carbs are Not Enough. Prior to eating paleo, I, like many runners and non-runners, ate a diet that consisted primarily of both complex and simple carbs. And I was CONSTANTLY hungry. And my stomach hurt pretty often too. I was eating mainly whole grain cereals, breads, fruit, some veggies, some nut butters, some meat, a ton of pasta and rice (both whole grain and white), and a whole lot of pita chips and pretzles as snacks. I was eating probably 6-7 times a day and never feeling satisfied. Looking back I believe my diet was too low in protein and fat to be nourishing enough to sustain my activity level (about 40-50 miles per week of running). I was also most likely a “sugar burner” versus being “fat adapted” as Mark Sisson describes on his website Mark’s Daily Apple: “A fat-burning beast can rely more on fat for energy during exercise, sparing glycogen for when he or she really needs it. As I’ve discussed before, being able to mobilize and oxidize stored fat during exercise can reduce an athlete’s reliance on glycogen. This is the classic “train low, race high” phenomenon, and it can improve performance, save the glycogen for the truly intense segments of a session, and burn more body fat. If you can handle exercising without having to carb-load, you’re probably fat-adapted. If you can workout effectively in a fasted state, you’re definitely fat-adapted.” Of course, it’s not that simple. You can’t eat no carbs and expect to be a competitive runner performing on fat alone. That type of performance requires more.
- The Right Carbs at the Right Time Leads to Peak Performance. “If you’re an endurance athlete, carbohydrates are the main source of energy to fuel your training and racing, despite what some fad diets might lead you to believe. Carbs are particularly important for performing at a high level (whatever that means for you) in distance events like the marathon, Ironman and century rides.” – Active Cookbook: Healthy Carbs for Endurance Athletes. Okay so I think they may have a point. Even after I found myself settled into a Paleo lifestyle, I could not deny that there were some foods that I NEEDED in my diet to feel good in my daily life while training for a marathon. These foods were starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, plantains (had to slip those in), bananas, all fruits (fresh and dried), and squash. On the occasions that my meals did not include enough of these foods, I DID notice that speed did not come easy although ENDURANCE was not noticeably altered. I was still able to run at a slower, steady pace for 2 or more hours (long runs) and felt pretty much the same as I did when I ate tons of carbs (less aching joints though!) Assuming you are gearing up for a big race or hard training session where peak performance is key, you will want to include the right carbs at the right times: “The key, said Friel, is dividing an athlete’s diet into stages. During most of an athlete’s meals the basic Paleo diet should be followed, but before, during and immediately after workouts some adjustments could be needed.” – This article is quoting Joe Friel, a U.S. Olympic triathlon coach and author the seminal Cyclists’ Training Bible and Triathletes’ Training Bible. He explains that “About two hours prior to a long or hard workout or race, an athlete should eat food with a low to moderate glycemic index and low fiber content. During an extended athletic event or race, most athletes will still need quickly-processed carbohydrates in the form of sports drink or gels.” You can read more of what he has to say here. He also co-authored the book “The Paleo Diet for Athletes” with Loren Cordain, which I would recommend for any runner or endurance athlete considering a Paleo lifestyle. The book covers extensively the science of exercise metabolism, Paleo nutrition, and outlines a specific plan for competitive endurance athletes eating a Paleo diet.
- Carbs are Needed for Recovery, NOT Just Performance. The most critical time, in my experience, to include as many carbs in my diet as possible is within the first hour or two after a long or hard run. I can eat all the protein and fat I want after that initial window, but if I skip the carbs in that window I know all the protein and fat in the world won’t save me! I found myself looking at fatigue and jello-legs on my next run since I was not properly recovered from the last workout. While I learned my lesson quickly, I can imagine that continuing to neglect carbs as a critical part of recovery would have led to my runs becoming a waste of time being that I was trying to gain fitness. It turns out that there is some scientific evidence supporting my observation (isn’t there always?) “Insulin is a very important hormone in the metabolic energy and recovery process. Insulin facilitates the transport of glucose from the blood into the muscle cell, where it can be metabolized to produce energy. Meanwhile, carbohydrates and insulin also stimulate the recovery process by driving critical nutrients, including protein, to damaged muscles. Therefore, it is critical athletes include carbohydrates in their diet; specifically, before and after workouts, which are the most critical time windows for running performance and recovery.” – This article on RunnersConnect.net continues to describe “carb cycling” for runners. While I do not believe in counting grams of carbs or anything else in your diet, I DO think a basic understanding of exercise metabolism – as well as your own observations of how different types of food make you feel before, during, and after running – can be a general guide to finding where and how carbs can best fit into your diet.
Okay I’m tired. Obviously there’s always more to talk about on the subject of carbs, and certainly no shortage of opinions to listen to! I plan to write another post of the “types of carbs” I ate pre-paleo compared to what I eat now and the difference I feel it has made. But for now, I’ll just grab some banana chips and leave you to think.
Do you have a stance on “carbs”? What works best for you as a runner? Do you “carb load” before a race, and, if so, how is it different from your typical diet?