Carbs are the literal fuel that power an athlete’s pursuits. During a long run or ride, you look for fast-acting carbs in their simplest form, typically sugar, but in your meals, you want to stick to high-quality, complex grains. “Whole grains—meaning grains that are intact and include the bran, endosperm, and germ—will aid in athletic performance and overall health,” says Felicia Spence, a nutritionist at Hilton Head Health, a wellness facility in South Carolina. Athletes should aim to get three servings of the stuff each day. And while brown rice is a solid go-to, there’s a whole world beyond the staple grain. Here are seven of our favorites.
If you aren’t eating this gluten-free grain yet, you should start ASAP. “Amaranth is 15 percent protein, making it a powerhouse when compared to other grains,” says Sarah Asay, nutritionist for BistroMD. “It’s a complete protein source that contains all nine essential amino acids.” Amaranth also provides calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium, all of which aid in recovery after exercising. Have it for breakfast as you would a bowl of oatmeal: with fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, and cinnamon.
“Inflammation can be a problem for all athletes when they don’t give their bodies time to recover,” says Amy Goodson, a Dallas-based sports dietitian. “Farro contains a compound called cyanogenic glucosides, which has been shown to boost the immune system and help keep your inflammation in control after exceptionally tough training.” Next time you’re packing a protein and rice combo for lunch, swap out the rice with this winning grain. It contains more fiber than its classic counterpart and will keep you fuller for longer.
Although quinoa is already well-known to many, it merits a mention on this list nevertheless. “Quinoa is high in fiber, which increases satiety and improves digestion,” says Rebecca Lewis, nutritionist at HelloFresh. “It’s also a great choice for athletes, because it’s a plant-based complete protein and provides iron and magnesium, two minerals that are key for endurance performance.” Our favorite thing about quinoa? It cooks faster than most grains (only ten to 12 minutes rather than 40 minutes for most other grains), ideal for the time-crunched athlete.
Although it’s no larger than a poppy seed, “teff provides more than your daily needs of copper per serving,” says Spence. “Copper is integral for energy production and regulation of heart rhythm.” Beyond its role as an energy booster, teff is higher in calcium and iron compared to other common grains, she says. Eat it as a hot cereal for breakfast, similar to a quinoa porridge.
This supergrain works wonderfully as the hearty carb in a salad, prepped as a side for dinner, swapped for rice as a risotto base, or popped into kernels as a healthy snack. “Sorghum contains a ton of complex carbs—75 percent of its makeup, in fact. That makes it an effective replacement for depleted muscle glycogen post-exercise and an efficient way to stockpile energy reserves that will support you through your longer efforts,” says Lewis.
Oats are an endurance athlete favorite, and for good reason. With more than ten grams of protein and nearly that same amount of fiber in a half-cup, oats do it all, says Gibson. They provide enough energy to power you through a tough workout, enough fiber to keep you full for a while, and enough protein to make sure you have gas left in the tank toward the end of a long run or ride. “One serving of oats also boasts roughly 10 percent of your daily iron needs. This is important because iron is the center of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to the cells to help athletes run, jump, and perform at their highest level,” Gibson says. You know oats are great for breakfast with nut butter and a banana, but try them with greens and an egg for a savory twist, or make overnight oats for a filling on-the-go snack.
“This grain is high in an antioxidant called rutin, which helps fight off inflammation produced from training,” says Spence. It also stimulates the production of collagen, a protein that’s specifically meant to facilitate skin, bone, and connective tissue repair, she says. Try buckwheat groats in lieu of cereal in the morning, or slip some into your favorite soup or chili recipe instead of pasta or rice.