Are you an athlete that feels tired or sluggish when exercising, and think it might be related to nutrition? Maybe you’re not sure about proper fueling, or maybe you can’t eat some of the mainstream go-tos (like the classic pre-run bagel) due to celiac disease or a wheat allergy.
Not to worry! Let’s take a look at helpful fueling info along with some examples of gluten free carbs for athletes. These tips will help you stay energized throughout your entire workout.
This post was written by Mel Colman, Candidate for Bachelors in Exercise and Bachelors in Nutrition Health and Wellness at Simmons University. It has been reviewed and edited by Chrissy Carroll, MPH, RD.
Disclaimer: The information provided is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical or nutrition advice. Always read labels on products to ensure they fit your nutritional needs, as manufacturer formulations can change.
Why do athletes need carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are important for athletes as they are one of your main fuel sources for energy. Your muscles store carbohydrates as glycogen, which is then used for energy during exercise. This is particularly true during intense exercise – think a HIIT treadmill workout, a powerlifting session, or plyometric drills.
When you are consuming the correct amount of carbohydrates to help fuel your body, you’re able to make sure all those muscles stores have the right amount. That can help your performance.
(Chrissy’s note – There is some research on lower carbohydrate diets and endurance athletes. However, most research shows there is equivalent performance – or occasionally reduced performance – associated with these diets. As a dietitian, I much prefer a less restrictive diet that includes carbohydrates, as these foods provide valuable nutrients and enjoyment in the diet).
What is a gluten free diet?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, which are all ingredients found in many popular sources of carbohydrates.
People with celiac disease need to avoid gluten, as it can cause damage to their intestinal tract. Some people also have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or non-celiac wheat sensitivity) which may cause uncomfortable symptoms.
If you fall into one of these categories and are also an athlete, you might find it challenging to make sure you are consuming the right amount of carbohydrates. The good news is there are plenty of gluten-free sources of carbohydrates available!
Note that gluten is not inherently “bad”; it is only harmful for people who have medical conditions that are affected by it. If you don’t have any conditions, you don’t need to eliminate gluten.
Gluten Free Carbohydrate Sources
Here are many different carbohydrates that are gluten free. These are perfect for individuals who have a gluten intolerance.
These carbs contain important vitamins like Vitamin C, potassium, and beta carotene. They also contain some fiber to support digestive health, and are filling. Plus, they can be boiled, baked, steamed or fried, making them very versatile!
- Sweet potato, brussels sprouts, and plantain hash
- Sweet potato breakfast bowl with nut butter and raisins
- BBQ ground beef stuffed sweet potatoes (be sure to choose a gluten-free Worcestershire sauce)
The humble potato! Often villainized but actually nutritious and delicious – one of my favorite gluten free carbs for athletes. Potatoes are a good source of potassium and Vitamin C, and provide great athlete-friendly carbohydrates to fuel those workouts.
- Vegan dill potato salad with fiddleheads
- Seasoned air fryer potato wedges (yummy snack!)
- Greek yogurt mashed potatoes
Legumes include beans, peas, and lentils. Research shows that not many people eat these each day, but these are so nutritious! They provide fiber, B vitamins, iron, and magnesium. You can incorporate them into salads, soups, stews, chili, grain bowls and more.
- Cookie dough hummus
- Lentil quinoa bowl with peanut sauce (use tamari or coconut aminos instead of soy sauce)
- Chocolate chip chickpea and oatmeal bars
Rice – both brown and white! – is gluten free and rich in carbohydrate. Rice is versatile and can be used in breakfast, dinner, or even dessert. Brown rice does have a little more fiber and magnesium compared to white rice, but white rice can certainly fit into a balanced diet as well.
- Stuffed cabbage rolls
- Pineapple fried rice (use tamari or coconut aminos instead of soy sauce)
This whole grain (technically a seed, classified with grains) contains a variety of nutrients as well as antioxidants. It doesn’t take very long to cook and you can eat it in a variety of dishes. It also contains some protein in addition to being a great gluten free carbohydrate.
- Butternut squash and quinoa chili (be sure to purchase gluten free chipotles in adobo, as some do contain wheat starch)
- Cranberry apple breakfast quinoa
Oatmeal is another whole grain that can be used in a variety of breakfast preparations or baked goods. Be sure to choose certified gluten free oats, though, as some oats are grown or processed near wheat, which can contaminate them with gluten. Certified products give you reassurance that they are safe to eat.
Oats contain a unique type of fiber called beta-glucan, which may help promote heart health. They also provide antioxidants, magnesium, and fiber.
Fruits are completely gluten free and they are also a great carbohydrate source. Apples, mangos, bananas, pineapples, grapes…you name it! Fruits are typically good sources of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (plant-based compounds that have a variety of health benefits).
Different types of fruits provide different benefits, so try to eat a rainbow throughout the week.
Gluten Free Pastas or Bread
If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, you still don’t have to give up pasta or bread all together. You simply need to search for gluten free alternatives! Keep in mind that these products can have a slightly different taste or texture, so experiment with different brands to see what you like.
What About Gluten Free Exercise Fueling?
You now know that you can include the carbohydrates above in your everyday diet – they’re perfect for athlete meal prep and regular recipes that you love. But what about fueling surrounding exercise? Like pre-workout, during exercise, and post-workout nutrition?
Let’s break it down…
What should you eat before a workout?
Before a workout, you want to fuel your body with carbohydrates and some protein. There can be fat and fiber in the meal if you’re eating a few hours in advance, but if you’re eating close to your workout, it’s best to keep those on the lower end (too much fat and fiber can cause GI upset during exercise).
When it comes to the carbohydrates in your pre-workout meal, keep in mind there are two kinds of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are sugars, like those found in foods like candy, sports drinks, or fruit juice. These are broken down and released into the blood stream quickly.
Complex carbohydrates include starches and sometimes fiber, and tend to be broken down more slowly – though this depends on the food, type of starches, and how much fiber is in the product. Foods with complex carbohydrates also tend to have more nutritional value as opposed to those with predominately simple carbohydrates (though there are exceptions). Foods like sweet potatoes, beans, and raspberries are rich in complex carbohydrates.
Most people will fare well choosing foods rich in complex carbohydrates a couple hours before a workout, since it generally provides more sustained energy, or choosing foods/drinks with simple carbs within the 30-60 minutes before a workout.
However, don’t get too tied down in this. The best pre-workout meal is one that feels good for your body, provides energy for your workout, and doesn’t give you GI problems during exercise.
What carbs should you eat during a workout?
If you’ve got a short workout on the docket, there’s no need to worry about eating carbs during the workout.
However, if you’re planning to do an endurance workout lasting more than 75-90 minutes (like a long run or long bike ride), or you’ve got a prolonged high-intensity sport game (like hockey) it’s important to consume some carbohydrates during the exercise session. This will help fuel your muscles.
Research suggests eating 30-60 grams of carbs per hour, with ultra-endurance athletes potentially needing up to 90 grams of carbs per hour during longer events.
Gluten free carb choices during exercise can include:
- Sports drinks – Drinks like Gatorade or Powerade are good choices during exercise, as you’ll use the sugar in those sports drinks for fuel, and they also contain electrolytes. Most sports drinks do not contain gluten ingredients; always check labels to confirm. Note that sports drinks are not recommended as the only fueling product in very long endurance workouts, as overhydrating to meet fueling needs can increase the risk of hyponatremia (diluted blood sodium levels). These can be used alongside other fueling products in those situations though.
- Gummies, Chews, Bloks – Many athletes enjoy these options. Gatorade Chews are not made with any gluten-containing ingredients, and Clif Bloks are also gluten free.
- Energy Gels – Easy to carry and convenient – but you need to be careful searching for gluten free varieties. At the time of publish, many GU energy gels were gluten free, but Clif Shot energy gels are not gluten free. [Learn more about energy gels for runners.]
- Whole Foods – From salted mashed potatoes to bananas, gluten-free fig bars to raisins – there are plenty of whole food products you can use during long workouts. Keep in mind that sports nutrition products are typically engineered with optimal amounts of different carbohydrate sources for the most benefit with the least risk of GI distress. Some people may experience more GI upset using whole foods. However, this is very independent, and others may have better luck with them. Whole food products can give you those carbs you need to keep you energized during your workout.
What should you eat after a workout?
For most casual fitness folks, your everyday diet will help you recover just fine from your workouts. However, if you are an athlete with an intense training regimen, you’ll want to eat some carbohydrates and protein after your workout.
Within the 1-2 hours after a workout, your body is in its ideal state to absorb nutrients. You’ll want carbohydrates to help replenish those energy stores in the muscles, and protein to help start the repair and recovery process. This can be in a purposeful post-workout snack, or it can be in a regularly scheduled meal.
Any of the gluten-free carbs for athletes discussed in the list earlier in this post can be good choices during this time, paired with protein sources like whole foods (chicken, Greek yogurt, fish, etc) or protein powders (like whey or a plant protein complex). Note that if you are doing two-a-day training sessions, you may want to focus specifically on quickly absorbed carbs in the post-workout time frame after your first session of the day.
Putting it All Together
Carbohydrates are essential, especially if you are an athlete. Make sure you are always fueling your body, which can include eating a variety of carbohydrates. Just because you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance doesn’t mean you can’t meet your needs – there are many gluten free carbohydrate options to keep you full for days!
About the Author:
Mel Colman is a current student at Simmons University graduating in May with B.S. in Exercise Science and B.S. in Nutrition Health and Wellness Promotion. Mel works full time as a personal trainer at Equinox and loves helping others through movement and food!
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This was so helpful, thank you Mel!