Should You Eat Carbs After an Evening Run?
by Katrin Kleinesper (Sport & Food)
Everybody is talking about carbohydrates, or carbs as they are commonly called. Your body requires carbs to provide it with energy and it is good at making efficient use of them. The macronutrient can be burned with (aerobic) or without (anaerobic) oxygen. Fat, on the other hand, always requires plenty of oxygen. Plus, it takes twice as long to provide the same amount of energy as carbohydrates. That is why we have to reduce our pace and breathe more deeply or rapidly when we want to burn fat while running. This is also when it starts to hurt. You might catch yourself thinking that the couch looks awful comfy right now. Or the question “What the hell am I doing?” keeps popping into your head. But once you have conquered these mental hurdles, things will start to get easier.
Your body stores carbs in the form of glycogen in your liver and muscles. They are important energy reserves — especially for ambitious runners. The more glycogen you have stored in your muscles, the higher and longer they can perform.
In general, the following nutrient ratio is recommended for endurance athletes:
Better, faster, farther
Carbs are your muscles’ fuel. The macronutrient is very important for runners looking to enhance their performance (for instance, for a marathon) — not only before workouts, but also after you finish running. If you refill your glycogen stores right after a run, your body will recover faster. This helps your body adapt better to a new or harder workout and builds up your immune system faster again after your training. The more often or intense you train, the more important a diet rich in carbohydrates is to your recovery.
The right window of opportunity
The best time for your body to replenish its glycogen stores is within the first 30 minutes after your workout. Runners should use this half hour to eat simple carbohydrates like fruit, cereal, bread with jelly, or pretzel sticks. These carbohydrates are easy to digest, and the body absorbs them quickly. After 30 minutes, the window starts to gradually close, and your body is no longer able to absorb carbs as efficiently and quickly. The amount of carbs you need depends on your body weight and the intensity of your training:
- low intensity 0.5-0.7 g of carbs per kg of body weight
- medium intensity 0.7-1 g of carbs per kg of body weight
- high (maximum) intensity 1-1.2 g of carbs per kg of body weight
The evening meal after your run
An hour after your run, you should eat a full meal with carbs, protein and fat. To be more exact, your meal should contain a 4:1 carbs to protein ratio. Carbs are still important at this point, but your body also needs protein to build muscles. Too much of this macronutrient, however, can interfere with efficient absorption of carbohydrates and disturb your body’s fluid balance.
Good post-run meals are, for example, a kidney bean wrap, fish with potatoes and vegetables, or pasta with chicken breast.
Many people are under the mistaken impression that fasting after a run boosts the fat burning effect. However, the fact is that your body draws energy from the muscles first and only later from your fat stores.(1) In order to avoid this, you should replenish your energy reserves after your run instead of waiting until you get really hungry. Have a snack 15 minutes after finishing and then eat a larger meal within the next two hours. If you don’t have any time to cook, a Power Smoothie will keep you going in the meantime. Refilling your glycogen stores will give you more energy for the next run and speed up recovery.
The key to losing weight is fewer carbs
Runners whose top priority is to lose weight should try to avoid eating too many carbs. This applies particularly to simple carbohydrates. Complex ones are necessary as part of a balanced diet, as we shall see below. Short endurance runs (like 5K runs) do not deplete our glycogen stores — so you don’t need to replenish them during your run (for example, with isotonic sports drinks) or after the run. The best thing in this case is water. Take advantage of the afterburn effect during the first half hour after your run and wait to eat a meal. Afterwards, you should eat a mix of complex carbohydrates and protein, as described above. But at the end of the day, if you are looking to lose weight, what matters is a negative energy balance (approx. 500 calories/day). This means you should burn more calories than you consume.
Complex carbohydrates are the good ones, right?
Runners looking to lose weight need to pay attention to what they eat, as well as their training. The best thing for you to eat is complex carbohydrates. These not only keep you feeling full longer, but they provide you with plenty of additional important minerals and vitamins for your metabolism and immune system. Complex carbohydrates are found, for instance, in whole-grain products (like pasta and bread) and brown rice. Whole-grain foods include all the original parts (bran, germ, and endosperm) as well as all their nutrients. Simple carbohydrates are obtained by removing the outside and only keeping the endosperm. Other foods containing complex carbohydrates are potatoes with the skin on them, legumes, and vegetables.
Where are different types of carbohydrates found?
take longer to digest and provide plenty of vitamins, minerals, trace elements and fiber that boost your metabolism and strengthen your immune system:
- Whole-grain products incl. pasta, bread, and rolls
- Potatoes with the skin on them
- Brown rice
- Beans, lentils and peas
- Vegetables, 100% vegetable juice
are a quick source of energy because they are digested rapidly. They cause your blood sugar and thus your insulin levels to rise:
- pastry flour and products, cakes, cookies, bread, and rolls
- white pasta
- soft drinks
- sugar and sweets
About Katrin Kleinesper:
Katrin, the founder of Sport & Food, has been working as a professional food coach in Hamburg for 20 years. She provides training and advice to athletes, coaches and managers in one-on-one sessions, seminars, cooking courses and even grocery shopping tours.