Coach Heather on Conscious Carbohydrates

When I talk about how to consciously load up on carbohydrates with athletes, there seem to be two main groups of thinkers. In one corner I see Paleo-ish enthusiasts, and in the other are those making up the low-carb high-fat ketosis-type eaters. 

One of the questions I’m asked MOST frequently – at least once per week – is “what do you think of the Paleo diet?” and I always have to pause and consider the best answer for that moment, and that person. The truth is that there isn’t ONE SINGLE DIET that I’d slap a stamp of approval on for everyone. There’s no cookie-cutter approach to nutrition or meal-planning. That’s the beauty of the science to me, but the source of frustration for many. I highlight the Paleo diet here because a) it seems to really spark curiosity in people, especially athletes and b) it has blurred the imaginary-dietary line between strength trainers and endurance athletes. What started as a way for CrossFitters to build more muscle, “eat clean” and stay true to “ancestral” digestive capacities, has become more of a lifestyle amongst those who want to be lean, strong and fast.

On the flip side: the fading, but still very-much-alive, diet of bagel breakfasts, burrito/rice-bowl lunches and pasta dinners, with a few rolls or pastries in between and some candy to top it all off at night. And then the questions of: why am I feeling so low-energy in the afternoon? Why don’t I feel like I have JET-POWER on every run?! I eat all of the carbs!

Here’s the deal: as an endurance athlete you need carbohydrates, you need whole foods that fuel your body (specifically your muscle tissues) with the right nutrients to recover from your training and build strength, and you need a balance of both of those things. As an endurance athlete, carbs can’t be “all or nothing.” Instead, think about fueling as a conscious effort to supply your body with carbohydrates timed to complement your training. 

How to make adjustments to the Paleo-ish style of eating to power your training? Here are a few tips:

  • If you normally eat eggs or a protein-heavy breakfast, add one serving of carbohydrate in the form of oatmeal, granola, rice or sweet potatoes on the 2-3 days a week with heavier training sessions and the 2-3 days prior to a race.
  • Add a cup of quinoa, rice or other cooked whole grain to your salads or as a side with lunch/dinner the day before a big training session.
  • Enjoy some ethnic cuisine (but keep the spices light unless you’re used to spicy foods*)! Sushi, Thai Food, Indian or Mexican food can be great choices – they use a variety of starchy foods and are typically rice-based with proteins and vegetables. *Don’t experiment with this the week of a race unless you’re very familiar with the restaurant, spices and cooking methods – otherwise you could be in for an unexpected surprise from your digestive system.
  • Incorporate more starchy vegetables into all three meals. This is a win-win – you get a variety of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants) and also a hefty dose of carbohydrates. Think: potatoes (sweet, red and/or “white”), squash, beans, peas and organic corn.
  • And of course, fruit. But fruit should be something you incorporate with meals or as an easy pre-workout snack, not something you use primarily as your “sugar”.

Piling on the carbs excessively will put your body in a constant state of insulin-high which will eventually leave you fatigued and looking for the best place to take a nap vs. energized and ready for your workout. Thinking you can skip them entirely and rely on just a few potatoes or a banana here and there will quickly leave you in a depleted state and eventually stall your endurance training progress. Instead, teach your body to understand that when you are delivering carbohydrates, it means wake up, it’s time to do work!  And find the balance in the middle by consciously carbing up with foods that you digest well and make you feel good.