Carbohydrates, Protein and Fueling Performance

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With the start of my marathon training, I’ve renewed my focus on nutrition and just finished reading Matt Fitgerald’s book Racing Weight to get a better understanding of the specific needs of endurance athletes. The premise is simple: the more non-power-producing weight (i.e. fat) you are carrying, the slower you will be relative to your leaner self. This is pretty obvious to most of us, but what I like about Racing Weight is the way it approaches what is often (but not always) weight loss.

An important reminder for me is that the goal of optimizing my nutrition is not to lose weight, the goal is to get faster. Being a controlling A-type personality with lots of willpower means I can starve myself into slower race times without even realizing it, because I’m not even coming close to meeting my nutritional needs. Remember: the goal is to get faster; the goal is not to lose weight, although losing weight may be a means to the goal.

There is some wonderfully detailed (and scientifically-backed) discussion covering how improvements in your diet quality will optimize your body composition and provide the energy and nutrients needed to fuel and recover from workouts, and specifically what is required for athletes as a subset of the general population. While a large section is dedicated to methods of quantifying and improving diet quality (which is a huge component of proper nutrition), the part I am most excited about discusses macronutrient requirements – specifically carbohydrates and protein – which is precisely the information I have had so much trouble finding!

Carbohydrates

Carbs are the primary fuel used in muscle contraction so obviously endurance athletes need a lot more of them, which is why I’m stuffing my face with a banana as we speak (you think I’m kidding). What nobody seems to agree on is how much us crazy endurance athletes actually need!

Carbohydrate requirements actually increase with training volume, so a single number isn’t going to work for everyone all the time. Based in the information in Matt’s book, my training volume of about 7 hours per week means my daily requirement is about 395g, and more during heavy weeks. Because I’d like to eat as many carbs as required without overdoing it in the calorie department (I have a very “efficient” metabolism), I came up with a list of foods which have the greatest quantities of carbohydrates per calorie and thought it might be useful information for anyone else in the same situation. Of course my overall strategy of focusing on less processed and more natural foods still applies, so just because sweetened dried cranberries are high up on the list doesn’t mean I consider them a staple!

Another interesting tidbit: pure carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram; lower numbers mean that the carb total includes insoluble fibres which aren’t absorbed, and higher numbers mean calories are provided by nutrients other than carbohydrates (and you’ll notice that many of the foods in the carb list also have significant amounts of protein).

Also, there is a very good likelihood that I missed your favourite carb. This is not cause for alarm, simply let me know and I’ll add it.

Source (serving) CHO (g) Energy (cal) Cal/g
Raisins (1/4c) 32 120 3.75
Dried dates (6) 31 117 3.77
Orange 18 68 3.78
Apple 25 95 3.80
Banana 29 112 3.86
Dried Cranberries (1/3c) 33 130 3.94
Strawberries (1c) 12 49 4.08
Peach 14 59 4.21
Baby carrots (9) 14 60 4.29
Apricot 3.9 17 4.36
Sweet potato 37 162 4.38
Potato 37 163 4.41
White rice (1/4c dry) 45 205 4.56
Brown rice (1/4c dry) 39 180 4.62
Catelli pasta (3/4c dry) 66 310 4.70
Cauliflower (1c) 5.3 25 4.72
Pretzels (10 twists) 48 228 4.75
Pumpernickel bagel 42 203 4.83
Couscous (1/4c) 33 160 4.85
Popcorn (1/4c unpopped) 37 180 4.86
Puffed corn (2c) 24 120 5.00
Fig newtons (2) 22 110 5.00
Plain rice cakes (2) 14 70 5.00
Broccoli (1c) 5.8 30 5.17
Homemade bread (slice) 19 100 5.26
Frozen corn (3/4c) 15 80 5.33
Banana bread (slice) 34 184 5.41
Tomato sauce (1/2c) 8 45 5.63
Amaranth 32 180 5.63
Quinoa (1/4c dry) 30 170 5.67
Steelcut oats (1/4c dry) 29 170 5.86
Spaghetti squash 18 144 8.00

Protein

Protein has always been a touchy subject for me because usually the first question I get upon revealing that I am primarily vegetarian is: “but how do you get enough protein?” First of all, most people eat far more protein than they require (daily recommendation is about 0.8g/kg), and second, protein is in a far greater variety of foods than people imagine. Many vegetables and grains contain significant amounts of protein, and while they may not contain all the essential amino acids on their own, eating a varied diet throughout the day is usually adequate for meeting your amino acid requirements.

Athletes typically need more protein than the general population as it assists with muscle repair and recovery, and helps replace your carbohydrate stores following a workout. I have seen a huge range in the quantity of protein recommended for athletes (anywhere from 1.1 to 1.6 g/kg), but Matt Fitzgerald more specifically recommends 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight; I would suggest trying more and less to see what makes you feel better, since not everyone needs the same amount. I have always targeted about 60g of protein per day, and was pleasantly surprised to find I was already close to my calculated daily requirement of 66g.

For the same reasons I mentioned above, I like knowing my most efficient protein sources on a calorie basis. The important thing to keep in mind is that many foods that are not calorically efficient as a protein source still contain healthy fats and other nutrients and minerals that are incredibly healthy and part of maintaining a varied diet. Don’t avoid almonds just because they pack 27 calories per gram of protein – you’ll still benefit from eating them!

As with carbohydrates, proteins contain 4 calories per gram; typically foods on this list contain more fats and other nutrients, which results in a greater number of calories per gram of protein. Be careful about consuming too much fat with protein as it can interfere with absorption.

The list below is tailored to my diet, since I am primarily vegetarian plus fish and do occasionally eat chicken and other meats. I didn’t include your delicious t-bone steak and definitely have some foods that not everyone likes, so if you would like me to add a food just let me know (adding phrases like “pretty please, with a cherry on top?” generally gets my attention faster).

Source (serving) Protein (g) Energy (cal) Cal/g
Tuna (1 can) 30 130 4.3
Vega protein choc. (1 scoop) 25 130 5.2
Greek yogurt, 0% plain (3/4c) 18 120 6.7
Yves veggie ground (1/2c) 13.5 90 6.7
Cottage cheese 2% (1/2c) 13 90 6.9
M&M Veggie Burger 17 140 8.2
Chicken Breast (1/2, 145g) 30 250 8.3
Tofu medium firm (1/5 block) 8 70 8.8
Cottage cheese 4% (1/2c) 12 110 9.2
Greek yogurt, 2% plain (3/4c) 16 150 9.4
Salmon filet (6oz) 34 354 10.4
Edamame (1/2c beans) 11 120 10.9
Broccoli (1c) 2.6 30 11.5
Egg (1 large) 6 72 12.0
Lentils (1/4c dry) 13 170 13.6
PC Meatless Chicken (4 strips) 14 190 13.6
Cow’s milk 2% (1c) 9 130 14.4
Soy milk original (1c) 7 110 15.7
Peas (3/4c frozen) 5 80 16.0
Cheddar cheese (2 slices) 10 160 16.0
Goat cheese (1cm slice, 30g) 5 80 16.0
Refried beans (1/2c) 6 110 18.3
Schneider Chick’n nuggets (4) 12 220 18.3
Feta cheese (1″ cube) 2.4 45 18.8
Chickpeas (1/2c canned) 5.5 105 19.1
Natural peanut butter (1T) 5 100 20.0
Hummus (1/4c) 5 102 20.4
Quinoa (1/4c dry) 7 170 24.3
Steelcut oats (1/4c dry) 7 170 24.3
Balkan style yogurt (1/2c) 4 100 25.0
Almonds (12 nuts) 3 80 26.7

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that I didn’t talk about fats at all. That’s on purpose, and due to the simple facts that they’re not as important to endurance sports as protein and carbohydrates, and most people more than meet their daily fat requirements just through eating normal amounts of healthy food. I eat more fat because I find that I feel much better on a higher fat diet, have fewer non-hunger food cravings and have healthier skin and nails than when I restrict my fat intake. I also prefer full-fat dairy products because they’re less processed and therefore more natural, and because they taste so much better than low-fat versions – and honestly? I don’t eat food that doesn’t taste good, no matter how healthy it is! Just ask me how long it took to find a way I like kale, and how vehemently I refused to eat it before then.

Speaking of kale, I believe there will be a kale recipe joining the blog before long, so keep your eyes peeled so you don’t miss it. I know how disappointed you would be.

Happy eating!

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