Anyone participating in endurance sports needs to think carefully about how much carbohydrate they need to include in their diet in order to provide adequate fuel, in the form of muscle glycogen, to enable them to perform at an optimal level in both training and races, and to recover well. The daily amount of carbohydrate that you need varies according to the length and intensity of your training: between 6-10g of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight would be appropriate for an endurance athlete in training. For example, a 75kg man might aim for 450g of carbs on a day with one hour of moderate intensity training or 675g on a day with two sessions totalling three hours, part of which is high intensity work. If you want to calculate the amount of carbs in the foods you are eating, there are several website or mobile phone apps that enable you to do this, eg My Fitness Pal or Training Peaks.
These amounts would include any carbohydrates in sports nutrition products such as energy drinks, gels or recovery bars, used during or immediately after training, plus fruits and vegetables. But it is the starchy carbohydrates eaten as part of meals and snacks that will form the majority of your intake. You may currently be doing this by eating processed breakfast cereals, commercially produced sandwiches, granola bars and ready meals with pasta. These processed foods will give you carbohydrate, but you won’t be optimising your intake of vitamins, minerals and fibre, all of which have an important role to play in keeping you healthy and helping you to perform at your best. Plus, these types of foods are predominantly wheat based. While many people can digest wheat with no problems, others may find that too much makes them feel bloated and uncomfortable.
If you would like to get the more nutrition from your starches, and at the same time eat less wheat, here are some alternatives to try:
- Oats: make porridge for breakfast using porridge oats without an added flavour. Make with semi-skimmed milk and add 2 tablespoons of ground nuts for protein and healthy fats. Sweeten with berries, apple, chopped banana or a tablespoon of dried fruit. All these additions will increase the carb content and add extra nutrients. Alternatively, make your own muesli using jumbo oats with nuts and dried fruit. For a healthy snack, have oatcakes topped with hummus or nut butter.
- Quinoa: this seed is packed with protein as well as carbohydrate, and works well as an alternative to Bulgur wheat in salads or couscous with stews and tagines. Cook for c 15 minutes in vegetable stock until the seeds have burst open. Quinoa flakes are also available to make porridge.
- Starchy vegetables: try to include brightly coloured starchy vegetables such as butternut squash, sweet potato, peas, carrots and beetroot in your diet on a regular basis. Use squash or sweet potato alongside or instead of white potatoes, eg in a mash or baked in the oven. Add peas, carrots and beetroot to salads or use to accompany an evening meal.
- Rice: choose rice with low glycaemic index for longer lasting energy, such as basmati or short grain brown rice. Try making a risotto with added chicken or seafood and vegetables for supper, and take the leftovers to work for lunch next day. Or make extra brown rice when you cook your evening meal and use it as the base of a chicken or fish salad for lunch. Use rice in place of wheat-based noodles with a stir-fry.
- Beans and lentils: as well as being a good source of protein for vegetarians, beans and lentils contain significant amounts of low glycaemic starch, making them a good way to obtain sustained energy. Choose soups containing beans and lentils for lunch, include beans in stews for extra carbohydrate, use puy lentils as the base for a chicken or cheese salad, or order a lentil dahl as a side dish if you are treating yourself to a curry.
If you are an endurance athlete looking to reduce body fat, a different strategy is called for when it comes to carbohydrate intake. That will be the subject of a future blog!
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk