Low carb diets for runners are gaining in popularity to help with weight loss and to train the body to burn fat. This post argues against it. Pass the oatmeal!
Today I am republishing a post that my dear friend Christian wrote for me a few years ago: the case FOR carbs. There is so much content out there right now about the keto diet and low carb diets to lose weight and improve energy (especially around the new year). I want to remind athletes just how important carbs are since there isn’t enough out there about that. Whether your workout of choice is running, crossfit, group fitness, cycling, dancing, anything, you are an athlete! And YOU NEED CARBS if you want to perform your best.
A little bit about Christian: he is an avid runner, climber, hiker and gardener. He is a professor at Appalachian State University and is a Registered Dietitian. He also has academic background in Exercise Science, holding both CSCS and RCEP credentials. Those credentials have allowed him to work with professional and collegiate level sports teams and really get a feel for sound training principals across the athletic spectrum. In short, he has the credentials to back up what he is saying.
Over to you Christian! (Don’t miss the cute pic of Christian and his french bulldog at the bottom of the post!)
First and foremost, as Teri mentioned above, there is A LOT of information out there on a seemingly endless number of different “diets”. Many of them, when appropriately employed can serve as highly effective tools for weight loss/maintenance, improving health, and athletic performance. With that said, all diet information should be taken with grain of salt – everyone’s body (and lifestyle) is different. No one diet or eating pattern works for everyone. It’s important to do the research, and consult with experts to determine what’s best to meet and exceed your diet/health/performance goals!
I can not even begin to tell you the number of times I have heard someone (athlete or not) say, “I don’t do carbs” or “I’m on a carb-restricted diet”. Those words are like nails on a chalkboard to me.
I know that may sound like a bold claim, but there is a lot of evidence and science to back it up! Granted, all three macronutrients deserve their spot in the limelight, however, carbs are most effectively and preferentially broken down into glucose, the body’s primary source of energy and critical source of fuel for the brain (important).
Now, knowing how important carbohydrates are means nothing if you aren’t consuming foods that supply your body with the carbs that it desires, when it desires them. This brings up two important points that, when melded together correctly, will put you well on the way to reaching your ultimate athletic potential:
Notice how the portion of the plate referencing whole grains increases as training volume/load increases. This is because the kind of carbs you receive from whole grains provides glucose in a more systematic and deliberate fashion, delivering over an extended period of time (the kind of energy needed on a long run or race day).
As distance athletes, most of our competitions occur in the early mornings which can hinder our ability and desire to consume a meal as hearty as the ones depicted above. This points to the importance of carb-loading not just the night before competition, but up to 4 days prior to competition (this is an arguable training principal known as “glycogen loading”). This maximizes the body’s glycogen (storage form of glucose that accumulates in the muscle and liver).
The body has the ability to store ~500g (or ~2000 kcals, 18-19 miles of a marathon) of glycogen. Glycogen is converted to glucose to provide energy when blood glucose levels fall.
The second hunger strikes, carb it up! This will minimize the degree to which the body relies on glycogen thus keeping your stores maximized for use during performance.
There is a really great book written by a couple super renowned sports nutritionists Skolnik and Chernus titled “Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance: The Right Food, the Right Time, the Right Results”. It’s very well written and provides a practical guide to help athletes gain maximum performance, recover quickly, reduce risk of injury, diminish muscle breakdown and enhance immune function. *End plug* [Teri chiming in here: I read this book (and loved it) after Christian recommended it to me when I casually mentioned I was experimenting with a low carb diet and he flipped out. I’m happy to report that my energy levels and workout performance are one billion times better since increasing my carbs.]
This last little bit goes a little away from the main topic of carbs, however I feel that it is an essential practice for any athlete.
I tell all of the athletes I work with that the biggest favor they can do for themselves to maximize energy stores for performance is to take 5-10 minutes every night before they go to bed and pack food for the next day (because we all know we don’t want to do it in the morning)
Depending on the kind of training you are doing, having anywhere from 5-10 small snacks to graze on all day is best practice. Be cognizant of what your body is telling you and the very second you feel a glimmer of hunger coming on, put something in your mouth! Bar, nuts, granola, cherry tomatoes, fruit cups, PB&J, cheese cubes, etc. Snacks that are anywhere between 90 and 180 kcals are what you should aim for. This provides an even and constant supply of glucose, preventing crashes and reducing glycogen sequestering. Additionally, it provides increased mental clarity and an overall better you!
What are your thoughts on low-carb diets for runners or athletes? Have you seen a marked improvement in your workouts when increasing carbs? And Christian is happy to answer any questions you may have! (I just offered that up without asking him. Sorrrrry Christian. But I know you will. 😉 )
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8 responses to “The Case FOR Carbs”
Hi Teri! I don’t think I’ve ever commented on your blog. Glad to see you’re doing so well 🙂
Great post Christian! And very interesting. Quick tangent: I was on the path to going to graduate school for nutrition but after taking several nutrition courses as part of my undergrad degree I realized the ever changing theories and ideas around nutrition science was too frustrating for me. With that said, you’re obviously much more qualified on this topic than I am. I am a marathon runner myself and major carb-lover. I definitely feel most energized in my life and on my runs when I’m eating plenty of carbs!
With that in mind, I’m curious if you are familiar with Timothy Noakes? I’m sure you are given your education. I was not until I heard an interview with him on RadioWest and it was so fascinating. Apparently he was at the forefront of promoting carb-loading for runners. Recently though he changed his stance and is now on board with the low carb, high fat diet. Just curious what your thoughts are on that? I’ve loooooong been opposed to the low carb craze too, but the way he presented his stance and how he got did give me pause.
Anyway, great post! Here is the interview I’m referring to if ya’ll are interested in listening. (I highly recommend!) http://radiowest.kuer.org/post/timothy-noakes-and-challenging-health-beliefs
Thanks for your comment/question!
First and foremost, I can 100% identify with your apprehension entering into the field of nutrition sciences. The concern that you brought up is one that I question myself almost daily. Unfortunately there is far more nutrition “quackery”available for the masses to read, digest, and marinate on than there is scientific, evidence-based research. Also unfortunate is the fact that much of the research done through clinical trials shedding light on the most cutting edge nutrition research is only made available to academics and medical professionals, leaving the masses to gather their nutrition information from articles in pop culture magazines that are more often than not funded by the very organizations that stand to gain from readership.
Hopefully one day this will not be the case…
Commenting on the second portion of your post, this afternoon I listened to the Noakes interview that you posted. I was certainly intrigued by his view on the carb debate and before I interject much further I will say that what information and knowledge I have on the subject comes solely from what I have learned/read through my own academic studies or through leisure reading. Dr. Noakes is a credentialed and tenured professional. With that said, after your post I did a little digging into his research and couldn’t help but to find a few discrepancies. First and foremost, he really doesn’t have a great deal of published literature on the idea of low-carb-high-fat diets with respect to endurance training. Secondly, what literature he does have published is grounded on studies with a questionably small sample size (one study he did on long distance cyclists only had 7 participants total!).
I am by no means in a position to debunk the ideology of someone so well known and respected in his field; however, when you immerse yourself in the research that is currently available (and consistently being reaffirmed), carbohydrate is indispensable to peak athletic performance. On a cellular level, the fat in our bodies is only able to be used as a substrate for energy in the “flame” of carbohydrate. Meaning that without an adequate supply of CHO, fat cannot efficiently be utilized as source of energy.
As endurance athletes, fat is an imperative energy source. However, on a metabolic level, fat cannot be utilized to the extent that we need it when going the extra mile, without a sustained provision of CHO.
I hope that helps to answer your question.
Thank you for the thoughtful and detailed response. And for taking it a step further by looking into Dr. Noakes’ research after listening to the interview! I’ve got to say, I’m not very surprised that he has only a handful of published research on the topic considering he focused and researched the high carb diet for so long. It is surprising that he would have studies with such small sample sizes though!
Your post and response are very helpful, thanks again. Nutrition is always such a nuanced and complicated subject, I commend you for sticking with it!
And if you’re interested, another very interesting, worth listening to podcast about nutritional science and the case against low-fat diets: http://radiowest.kuer.org/post/big-fat-surprise
Teri, Christian, I’m really glad for your cooperations – this article is a light in the tunel for many beginners who are lost in between all carb myths! A handful of raisins (30g) provides 90 kcal. Will grab one next time when I go for longer run.
Well done Christian; great blog post! You took it back a biochemistry level that just makes sense intuitively and scientifically. The glycogen that is stored in the liver and muscles is there for a reason…because many of us deplete our immediate source, glucose, so the body has a backup. The human body is an amazing machine that protects vital functions adaptively, but treating it well with the proper food sources improves every aspect of its functioning.
I wonder if the doc mentioned who supports the high fat low carb diet is someone who may be feeling the effect of aging. Would it then make sense to reduce carbs a little as activity decreases or muscle depletion occurs?? Or is there a strict positive correlation between training level, despite age? I also wonder if the way to completely balance, when not glycogen loading, is to strictly monitor glucose and keep it at an optimal level and keep gherlin low and lepton high in the process??
Again, very informative and sensible post Christian.
thanks for the guest post. I love carbs, I’m vegan so carb is about 80% of my daily calories if not more. Good quality carbs give me energy, makes me feel strong. Yet, I am not sure about the grazing throughout the day advise. Shouldn’t we give our GI some rest between meals? I’m not into IF because I get dizzy without food for too long, but also not convinced that eating all day long is a good idea. Is there evidence to support this claim?
Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I’ve said it before on previous posts, but people need more info like this. There is so much on the internet that is made up of someone’s opinion, yet so many people believe it because “it was on the internet.”
Thank you for your feedback!!! I completely agree! 🙂