THE RUNNING RESEARCH NEWS WEEKLY TRAINING UPDATE
ISSUE # 13 FEBRUARY 20, 2004
(Edited for the Esperanza Cross Country Website)
The other day as I was driving down one of the broad boulevards of beautiful Lansing, Michigan, I spied a curious sign in the front window of a Burger-King (trademark) establishment (I should disclose that there is no commercial affiliation between Running Research News and Burger King and that I own no Burger-King stock, although I did once eat in a Burger King in Cincinnati). "LOW-CARB MENU," the sign proclaimed in bold letters, causing a number of questions to run through my mind. Haven't "fast-food" establishments always featured low-carb eating, I thought? And since low-carb eating in this case is synonymous with high-fat fare, is it really something to brag about? How have carbs earned such a bad rap?
Carbohydrate is not dreaded in Kenya, a country filled with lithe and athletic people. During one of my visits to Kenya several years ago, I decided to visit the Kahawa Army Garrison, not because of a keen interest in Kenyan military training nor even in carbohydrate consumption per se, but rather because the garrison was the home of the Kahawa Running Team, which historically had been one of the very best in Kenya (it featured such notables as John Ngugi, Godfrey Kiprotich, and Sammy Nyangincha, for example). At the time of my visit, the team was in residence at an army camp in Nyahururu (the runners also trained at a coffee plantation near Nairobi, accounting for the name Kahawa, which means "coffee" in Kiswahili), and so I rented a car at Nairobi International Airport and began driving on the main road leading northwest out of the capital. At the Nyahururu turn-off in Nakuru, I pulled over to stretch my legs for a moment and was approached by a small boy holding a large bag.
"Unataka matunda?" he said, and I was glad I had studied Swahili fairly intently before visiting the jewel of East Africa. When one travels around solo in the Kenyan "bush," it is important to know a bit more than the popular "Hakuna matata," as many situations will be encountered in which there are some problems after all. The young fellow was asking if I wanted some fruit, and I was happy to see that his bag held several dozen nice-looking passion fruits. We quickly negotiated a price, and the yellow orbs were mine.
That night by a camp fire, I cut open a dozen of the ripe fruits, scooped out the seeds and pulp, and dumped all but the rinds into about a cup of water which was bubbling along in a pot above the orange flames. I added a little sugar to sweeten things up, dropped in some leaves which the Kenyan boy had kindly left in the bag (passion-fruit foliage is said to have a calming effect), let the concoction simmer for a few moments, and then set the pot on the ground to cool. In a few moments, I had a wondrously soothing drink, a great recovery beverage after a hard day on the road. One passion fruit contains about four grams of carbs, and so with my added sugar I was able to ingest more than 50 grams of much-needed carbohydrate, along with rich lodes of vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, and iron. Calmed by the carbs and/or the passion leaves, I was soon sleeping peacefully, the nearby shrieks of monkeys mattering little to my tired but well-fed brain and muscles.
When I finally reached the Kahawa camp, I quickly learned that the Kenyan runners had a similar fondness for carb-containing foods. Endurance athletes in general, of course, need to emphasize the consumption of carbohydrate in order to optimize their muscle and liver glycogen stores. At the sizzling intensities associated with high-quality training and the high power outputs associated with distance competitions, carbohydrate provides most of the fuel for muscle contractions, with fat and protein chipping in very little usable energy. In addition, when stores of muscle glycogen become low, the risk of performance-thwarting fatigue increases dramatically. Exercise scientists tell us that if we are training 60 to 90 minutes per day, we should ingest about eight to 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight daily, which works out to be 3.6 to 4.5 grams per pound of body weight per day (1). If you train more than this, you need even more carbohydrate; on a day when you train less, you can cut back a little.
Endurance runners do have some feeling for this situation, since reports indicate, for example, that after individuals decide to run a marathon they do begin eating greater amounts of high-carb food, including cereals, pasta, grains, fruits, beans, and peas. In spite of this, most studies indicate that carbohydrate intakes by endurance athletes usually fall well below the recommended amounts (2).
That is unfortunate, because research also reveals that low-carb runners have more trouble carrying out high-quality training, compete less successfully, and even suffer from a higher risk of injury, compared with their high-carb peers.
Do you know how much carbohydrate you have eaten today? If you are serious about your training and competing, that is an important question, and there is no real reason why you should not know. You can look up the carb contents of the food you eat in any good nutrition textbook, but an even better way to do it is to use the United States Department of Agriculture web site. Simply go tohttp://www.usda.gov, and - at the bottom of the USDA's home page - click on the icon representing the "Interactive Healthy Eating Index." Within moments, you could be typing in everything you have eaten for the day - to see how your carb intake stacks up. Importantly, the Index also provides you with information about the overall quality of your diet.
If you find that you are ingesting just two grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day (as is the case for many endurance athletes), instead of the recommended 3.6 to 4.5, should you immediately begin stuffing in more carbs? Of course not, unless you want to feel like a hippo at your next 10K! Eating is like training, in the sense that both should be carried out progressively. If your body is used to intakes of two grams of carbs per pound of your weight per day, it will be quite shocked by a doubling to four grams. Rather than taking such drastic action, gradually increase your carbohydrate intake, and as you do so take note of how great you are beginning to feel, how much easier it is to carry out your quality workouts, and how much better you can race! Many runners also report a diminishment of muscle soreness as their carb eating becomes gradually more copious. That's why Kenyans make high-carb eating a standard and necessary part of their training. Carbs are definitely right for endurance runners.
Very kindest regards,
Owen Anderson, Ph. D.
Editor, Running Research News and The Running Research News Weekly Training Update
(1) "Substrate Utilization during Exercise in Active People," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 61 (Supplement), pp. 968S-979S, 1995
(2) "Physical Fitness and Vegetarian Diets: Is There a Relation?" American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 70 (
Supplement), pp. 570S-575S, 1999