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Types of Carbs That Are Good for Distance Runners to Consume

Posted by George Parker on

By George Parker, Georgia Tech Chemist & Engineer, 7x Boston Marathon Qualifying Runner, and Founder of Peregrune®, which engineers vitamins and supplements exclusively for runners.  


Runners love carbs, right? We should because carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for endurance athletes. Carbohydrates, as compared to protein and fat, are easily and quickly converted to glucose, which is then used by muscles as an immediate energy source. Understanding the types of carbohydrates and how they benefit running performance can help athletes optimize their diet for better energy management and recovery. Here’s a detailed look at the kinds of carbs that are beneficial for distance runners:

1. Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are composed of longer chains of sugar molecules, which means they take longer to break down and provide a steady release of energy. This makes them ideal for long-duration activities like distance running.


  • Whole Grains: Foods like brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and whole wheat bread are excellent sources of complex carbs. They not only provide sustained energy but also come with additional nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

  • Starchy Vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn are rich in complex carbohydrates and provide essential nutrients like potassium and vitamin C, vital for muscle function and recovery.

2. Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates consist of one or two sugar molecules and are digested quickly, providing a rapid energy source. These are useful for consuming immediately before, during, or after a run to replenish glycogen stores quickly.


  • Fruits: Bananas, berries, and oranges are not only quick sources of energy but also packed with vitamins, antioxidants, and hydration.

  • Dairy: Low-fat yogurt and milk combine simple carbs and protein, which is beneficial for recovery post-run.

  • Natural Sugars: Honey and maple syrup can be used in small amounts to boost energy, especially during long runs.

3. Glycemic Index Considerations

The glycemic index (GI) measures how quickly a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood sugar levels. Low-GI foods are absorbed more slowly and gradually release energy, whereas high-GI foods provide quick energy.

Low-GI Foods:

  • Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas are low-GI options that offer long-lasting energy and are high in protein and fiber.

  • Non-Starchy Vegetables: Vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and carrots are low-GI and provide essential vitamins and minerals without causing rapid spikes in blood sugar.

High-GI Foods:

  • White Bread and Rice: These can be consumed in moderation, particularly around training sessions when quick energy is needed.

  • Sports Drinks and Gels: Specifically designed for athletes, these products provide easily digestible carbs for immediate energy during long runs or races.

4. Timing and Balance

For distance runners, the timing of carbohydrate consumption is as important as the type of carbs. Pre-run meals should focus on complex carbs for sustained energy, while during-run snacks can include simple carbs for quick boosts. Post-run meals should combine both to replenish glycogen stores and support recovery.

Pre-Run Meal:

  • Example: Oatmeal topped with bananas and a drizzle of honey provides a balanced mix of complex and simple carbs.

During-Run Snack:

  • Example: Energy gels or chews that offer quick-digesting sugars to keep you fueled mid-run.

Post-Run Recovery:

  • Example: A smoothie with yogurt, berries, and a handful of spinach provides carbs, protein, and essential nutrients for recovery.


Incorporating the right types of carbohydrates into a distance runner’s diet is essential for maintaining energy levels, enhancing performance, and promoting recovery. By understanding the benefits of complex and simple carbs and the importance of timing, runners can optimize their nutrition to support their training and racing goals. Remember to balance your carb intake with adequate protein and fats to ensure a well-rounded diet that fuels your body efficiently.


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