[1] While a traditional spaghetti dinner may be the go-to for high school cross country teams across the nation, the benefits of a carbo-load are greatly overstated for the 5K distance.

[2] Mueller, Ali, Et al., “Effects of Carbo Loading on High Performance Athletes.” Retrieved November 2 2017.

[3] Pletsch, Elizabeth, Et al., "Brown rice compared to white rice slows gastric emptying in humans." 2017.

[4] Gill, Jennifer. "Vitamins and Minerals for Leg Cramps." 2017.

[5] One of my favorite recipes is "Quinoa Stir-Fry With Vegetables and Chicken." Retrieved November 2 2017.

Eat What You Know Works For You

But perhaps the most important thing is to eat what you’re comfortable with. If you haven’t been prepping before any of your long runs with spaghetti sandwiches, it might be risky throw that into the mix the night before you go conquer 26.2. When I was in college, the majority of Kenyans on my team would opt for a pre-10k meal of a rack of ribs and a frothy glass of milk. While the thought of that may be enough to make your stomach turn, as it does mine, it worked for them.

Non-Pasta Options

Pasta or dinner rolls work for some runners, but not all, especially those with particular dietary restraints. Fortunately, there are plenty of high-carbohydrate foods that won’t upset your stomach in the way that pasta may. If you’re interested in some pasta alternatives for your next marathon, start working them into the rotation before long runs or hard workouts to see how your body reacts. Here are four that we would recommend trying out.

  1. Rice: Basically any meal you would eat with pasta, you can also eat with rice. Brown rice will provide more complex carbohydrates, giving more sustained energy (and plenty of fiber). White rice is more easily digestible, and is a great option for the night before a race. [3].

  2. Quinoa: Quinoa is another solid source of carbohydrates, while also being high in protein. It’s also a solid source of potassium, which can help stave off cramps.[4].  It pairs great with chicken and vegetables. [5].

  3. Sweet Potato: One cup of sweet potatoes provides 27 grams of carbohydrates. While sweet potatoes have slightly less carbs than white potatoes, they’re much higher in vitamin A and vitamin C.

  4. Cauliflower: A head of cauliflower has 29 grams of carbohydrates. While a whole head may seem like a lot, when prepared in the right way, you’ll want to eat all that and more. Try roasting it with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and cumin. Or use a food processor to create a rice-substitute.

Properly fueling for a longer race can play a big role in how well you run, and while a balanced diet is always recommended, even those who tend to eat fewer carbs should increase their intake before a marathon.

Why Carbohydrates?

Carbs serve as your body’s main energy source. During digestion, your body breaks carbs down into sugar, which then is stored in your muscles as glycogen. By increasing your carbohydrate intake, you can store more energy in your muscles which allows you to make it farther into the race before being completely depleted. And as any marathoner who has suffered through a run-in with the infamous “wall” knows, running out of glycogen can destroy any hopes of a great marathon performance.

Don’t leave all your carbo-loading for dinner.

You want to have a solid stream of carbs in the days leading up to the race. Three to four days before the marathon, you should increase intake to somewhere between 7 and 12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. If you wait until 12 hours before the race, your body won’t have time to adapt in the way you might hope. You simply can’t fill your tank up in just one meal.

A University of Minnesota paper, titled “Effects of Carbohydrate Loading on High Performance Athletics,”outlined a study where a group of mountain bikers was given a higher carbohydrate diet than their competitors.[2]. The high carb racers ultimately performed three percent better than the low carb racers.  While this study wasn't directly about runners, it does suggest that carbohydrates are an important consideration for endurance athletes. Three percent might not seem like a lot on its face, but every second counts in endurance sports.


In any race where you’re running for more than 90 minutes, ensuring that you have proper levels of carbohydrates leading up to the race can be the difference between a huge personal record and going home disappointed. [1].


Coach Alexander Lowe

Coach Alexander Lowe is a firm believer in doing all the little things it takes to stay healthy, whether it be strength work, flexibility exercise, or cross training. His goal is to ensure that every athlete he works with stays injury free. 

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