11 Best Healthy Carbs For Athletes

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Last updated on January 7th, 2022 at 12:15 pm

Grab the list of 11 best healthy carbs for endurance athletes to fuel their workouts.

With the popularity of many low-carb eating plans, it’s no wonder there is so much confusion around whether or not athletes need carbohydrates. Spoiler alert- you do!

Why are carbs important?

Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient for any type of athlete, whether you’re a pro, elite or everyday athlete. They serve as a primary energy source for working muscles and the brain, especially during exercise. [Learn more about carb loading here.]

Carbohydrates provide quick energy as you’re heading out the door for your run. Plus, they are necessary for recovery to replace glycogen stores, preparing your body for tomorrow’s workout. [Check out the list of top recovery foods.]

As an added bonus, carbohydrates also contain fiber, which is an essential nutrient that not only helps to keep your digestive system regular, but it can help with weight management, blood sugar control, and reductions in blood cholesterol levels.

How many carbs do athletes need?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45-65% of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates. This translates to about 3 to 5 grams per kilogram (1.3 to 2.2 grams per pound) of body weight per day. For a 150-pound person, that’s about 195 to 330 grams of carbs each day. 

However, athletes involved in moderate and high-volume training need greater amounts of carbohydrate in their diet. For those who train intensely (1 to 3 hours per day of intense exercise 5 to 6 times per week), carb needs are higher.

Those athletes should aim for 5 to 8 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram (2.2 to 3.6 grams per pound) of body weight per day. For the same 150-pound athlete, that equals about 330 to 540 grams of carbs each day. 

What happens if athletes go low-carb?

When you skimp on carbs, your body sends signals to the muscles and fat to break down for energy. Mobilizing fat sounds like a good thing, but it’s a highly inefficient process that puts a lot of strain on the body.

While fat and protein can be used for energy, they take a lot longer to digest than carbohydrates. In other words, it’s more difficult for the body to use fat and protein, and you will likely feel sluggish during your workout.

So what carbs should you be eating? Think unrefined, minimally processed carbs. Here are the best carb sources for athletes.

Best carbs for endurance athletes

The word “carb” gets thrown around a lot, but carbs are more than bread, potatoes and sweet treats. Carbohydrates are the main nutrient in important foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes and dairy.

These good-for-you foods have a ton of beneficial nutrients, like fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. That means that these types of carbs not only provide energy for everyday activities, but they also keep your body functioning properly.

Although many people think of carbs as foods that spike your blood sugar and lead to a crash, these nutrient rich carbs also contain plenty of protein and fiber that keep you full. When eating carbs throughout the day, opt for ones that are from natural whole food sources.

That said, it is important to remember that not all carbs are created equal. As a matter of fact, there are certainly some carbohydrate-rich foods you should be limiting. Refined carbohydrates, such as sweets, candy, cookies and chips, are not a healthy part of the diet. These empty calorie foods can lead to weight gain and actually increase hunger.

1. Brown rice

With 2 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein, 26 grams of carbohydrates and just 120 calories in ½ cup, brown rice is a naturally gluten-free grain that works well in stir-fries, soups or stuffed into veggies like peppers and tomatoes.

This Coconut Fried Rice is a healthier, easier and more affordable version of a take-out classic. Find out the SECRET ingredients that make this so simple to make!

Try this Coconut Fried Rice for a little inspiration. And take a look at this handy chart to find out which is right for you here.

2. Quinoa

In just ½ cup, quinoa serves up 4 grams of protein and 20 grams of good-for-you carbs. Not to mention it has 2.5 grams, or 10% the daily recommendation, of filling fiber. Enjoy it sweet as a breakfast cereal or savory in a grain bowl.

3. Sweet potatoes

With only 100 calories and 25 grams of healthy carbs in one medium potato, sweet potatoes are the perfect carb to fuel and recover from a workout. Try cubing and roasting to throw into salads and rice dishes.

4. Oats

Oats, a long-term breakfast favorite, are a versatile whole grain that can be enjoyed any time of the day. They’re a low glycemic carb, which means they won’t spike your blood sugar. Oats are also a great source of soluble fiber, which can help keep you fuller longer and lower cholesterol levels.

protein overnight oats recipe

A warm bowl of oatmeal is always satisfying, or try your hand at making overnight oats for busy mornings.

5. Bananas

Every athlete knows and loves this perfect on-the-go fuel. With 100 calories and 26 grams of healthy carbs, they serve as the perfect pre-workout snack. Plus, bananas pack in plenty of potassium, a needed electrolyte that is lost in sweat. They also make perfect addition to your post-run smoothie.

Sunshine Smoothie: Mango, Clementine, Banana, Coconut smoothie with no added sugar and 13 grams of protein

Bananas are also a great way to sweeten baked goods without any added sugar, like in these No Added Sugar Blueberry Pancakes.

6. Sprouted breads

Sprouted grain breads are made from a variety of whole grains and legumes. The grains have already been broken down by enzymes, making them a little easier to digest for those with sensitive guts. Top with your favorite nut butter or mashed avocado.

7. Dried fruit

Dried fruit is rich in natural sugar, making it perfect pre-workout carb to provide lots of energy. For distance runners, dried fruit also works well as an easy to carry fuel source for during a long run. Just be sure to look for “no sugar added” varieties.

Recipe for Peanut Butter Pretzel Date Balls. Pre-workout energy balls #preworkout #vegansnack #snack #fuel

Some of my go-to picks are dried mango, dates and raisin. Try adding some into DIY trail mix, energy balls oatmeal and yogurt.

8. Whole grain pasta

It is no coincidence this has long been a favorite pre-long run meal. This high-carb food can help fill up your glycogen stores so you have plenty of energy throughout your workout.

By choosing whole grain varieties, it not only helps to keep you satiated, but you’ll also be providing your body with plenty of B vitamins that are necessary for energy.

9. Beans

A vegetarian staple, beans are not only a good source of healthy carbs, but protein as well, making them a great choice for post-workout recovery. Enjoy beans in a variety of ways, like tacos, salads and soups or blended into dips.

Recipe for vegan bean tacos

10. Spaghetti squash

This carb may be low in calories, but it packs in tons of vitamins and minerals – most notably fiber, Vitamin C and B6. And believe it or not, you’ll also find omega-3 fatty acids in spaghetti squash, which can help ease post-run inflammation.

Slice a spaghetti squash in half, remove the seeds and roast it in the oven until it caramelizes and the strings are soft and easily separate from the skin. After roasting, the inside transforms into thin strands that resemble spaghetti. Top with your favorite tomato sauce or pesto.

11. Yogurt

You may not think of yogurt as a carb-rich food, but thanks to the lactose, you’ll get close to 20 grams of carbs in 1 cup of regular yogurt and 10 grams in Greek. Opt for plain varieties to avoid added sugars and sweeten yourself with fruit or a touch of honey.

Pro tip– plain Greek yogurt is a wonderful addition to savory dishes. Try it as a sauce in this Chickpea Wrap.

Vegetarian chickpea wrap


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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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