For most runners, the days leading up to a big race involve picking up your bibs, choosing what clothes to wear, and indulging in giant bowls of pasta. But if you’re following a gluten-free diet or aren’t a fan of noodles, there are plenty of quality carbs that’ll fuel your muscles past the finish line.
“Brown rice, other grains and even whole-wheat pasta are great alternatives. But there’s nothing wrong with regular white pasta as long as you make it a well-rounded meal with a protein source, like chicken, ground beef or turkey,” says Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD, a sports nutrition counselor, and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.“ Whatever you choose, look for a balance of carbs to fuel your muscles, and protein to build and repair the muscles,” Clark says.
A Quick Runner’s Guide to Carb Loading
Fruits and veggies are excellent sources of carbohydrates, but to avoid gastric distress on race day, space them out in your diet. Leslie Bonci, MPH, RDN, CSSD, owner of Active Eating Advice and co-author of Run Your Butt Off, says, “I recommend increasing carbs slightly at every meal three days prior to an event or long training run.” Bonci says to add one serving of carbs to each meal, like a half cup of rice, fruit or a slice of bread. She also recommends eating salty foods, like soy sauce or pickles, to help replenish your sodium levels. With that said, here are 10 carb-loading meals to enjoy a week before your race.
10 Healthy Pasta Alternatives to Carb Load Pre-Race
1. Quinoa Pilaf
In addition to being gluten-free, quinoa is high in magnesium, B vitamins, iron, potassium and protein. To ensure that it’s packed with flavor, cook it with chicken or vegetable broth instead of water, as this recipe suggests. Peppering some carrots, red peppers and other veggies in the ancient grains gives it more antioxidant power, while keeping you fuller longer. Photo and recipe: Kathi and Rachel Kirk / Laughing Spatula
As basic as it sounds, you can’t go wrong with chicken and rice, two classic staples for a wholesome meal. But this perfect combination of carbs and protein is made tastier with garlic, chicken broth and flavorful spices, like paprika, thyme, garlic powder and onion powder. Photo and recipe: Nagi / RecipeTin Eats
Barley is a lesser-known whole grain that’s packed with B vitamins and magnesium and has a similar hearty texture as pasta. Made with dry white wine, a little butter and chicken stock, this delicious barley risotto is a healthier alternative to fettuccine Alfredo, while still tasting indulgent. Spinach and cremini mushrooms provide Popeye-superpower strength to carry you through each leg of the race. Photo and recipe: Erin Clarke / Well Plated
RELATED: 9 Nourishing Buddha Bowl Recipes
What’s the next best comfort food to pasta? Potatoes, which are another favorite of runners. In this dish, they’re paired with omega-3-loaded salmon for a balanced meal that’ll fuel and repair your muscles. Bonus: These foil packets cook in just 30 minutes, and you can prep them ahead to make post-run meals a breeze. The last thing you want to do after a run is chop, cook and clean. Photo and recipe: Averie Sunshine / Averie Cooks
If you go the homemade route and use a light hand on the cheese, pizza is just what the marathon gods ordered. In this vegetarian-friendly recipe, top a whole-wheat crust with roasted artichoke hearts, mushrooms, caramelized onions, red peppers and eggplant. If you don’t have time to prepare the dough, opt for whole-wheat pita bread or tortillas. Photo and recipe: Sally / Sally’s Baking Addiction
These super filling bowls are a real treat after a hard training run. Sweet potatoes are give runners the extra push they need by fueling their bodies with muscle-loving carbs, vitamin A and fiber. And if you want a larger boost of protein, steak is the way to go. (You’ve earned those calories!) In this recipe, a soy sauce-ginger marinade infuses the steak with mouthwatering flavor, while the avocado-cilantro dressing rounds out the tastes and the meal with healthy fats. Photo and recipe: Kristin Porter / Iowa Girl Eats
If you love a good Greek salad, this Mediterranean-inspired farro bowl is for you. Brimming with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, olives and artichoke hearts, you’ll get an array of essential vitamins and nutrients. The lemon vinaigrette ties all the ingredients together with tangy red wine vinegar and oregano. Photo and recipe: Elena Tomasi / As Easy As Apple Pie
Don’t let the word “fried” fool you! You use only a little coconut oil and some eggs to fry the brown rice. To save time in the kitchen, we suggest defrosting a bag of mixed vegetables during the day and then steaming them. This fried rice dish is perfect with everything, but we like eating it with salmon, chicken or steak. Photo and recipe: Aggie Goodman / Aggie’s Kitchen
Stir-fries are another versatile dinner option that can be packed with carbs and key nutrients. And the great thing is you can prepare them just about any way you like them. Here, we cook broccoli, bell peppers, zucchini and chicken thighs in a large wok, and then dressed them in a honey and ginger sauce. Enjoy this dish with a side of rice, and you’ve got all your pre-race nutrition bases covered. Photo and recipe: Natalie Gruendl / Tastes Lovely
This dish is freakin’ good thanks to freekeh, a nutty-tasting grain, that pairs well with the almond pesto and garlicky asparagus. We guarantee this recipe will satisfy your runger needs, but it will be tough to keep leftovers! Be sure to make extra to enjoy throughout the week and share with your running buddy. Photo and recipe: Gaby Dalkin / What’s Gaby Cooking