5 Gluten-Free Carbohydrate Foods for Athletes

BY Nell Stephenson

As athletes, we need carbohydrates to stay fueled for training. Here are five gluten-free carbohydrate foods that will keep you ready to train. 

While there may be controversy over many of the sports nutrition related topics we as athletes see on a daily basis, there’s one thing that is hard to debate: the fact that we need carbohydrates.

Regardless of whether you follow the Paleo diet, a vegan diet or any other of the many different eating approaches out there, it makes the most sense to get the carbohydrate part of your meal from the most natural, least refined sources.

Many of us rely on carbohydrate gel during a training session or race, but before and after a workout, there’s no reason why we can’t eat something fresh off the tree (or vine or from the earth)!

Reasons to try a Gluten-Free Diet

Lately, many people have been interested in going gluten-free whether or not they have Celiac disease, because studies have shown health benefits to this type of approach. The Celiac Foundation reports that 1 in 133 people are at least mildly intolerant to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, rye, oats* and their derivative products. According to their site, www.celiac.org, “those affected suffer damage to the villi (shortening and villous flattening) in the lamina propria and crypt regions of their intestines when they eat specific food-grain antigens (toxic amino acid sequences) that are found in wheat, rye, and barley.” *Oats have traditionally been considered to be toxic to celiacs, but recent scientific studies have shown otherwise.

Symptoms of gluten intolerance don’t stop in the gut; one can experience skin issues, chronic fatigue, migraines, joint pain and exacerbation of auto immune conditions, just to name a handful of some of the other health effects seen after ingesting gluten over the course of a lifetime.

On a personal note, even though I was tested for Celiac and fortunately, learned I did not have it, I still found that cutting gluten from my diet eight years ago proved to be the single thing that halted a lifetime of stomach issues in a mere three days. The way I see it, if done correctly there’s no down side to going gluten-free, athlete or not, so why not give it a chance? Even if you’re training and racing without issue, you’ll never know if you might feel even better!

Some Gluten-Free Carbohydrate Foods and Meals

Ready to try it but feeling at a loss in terms of what to eat to replace that bagel or your morning bowl of oats?

Here’s a sampling of five carbohydrate-rich foods (that also happen to be Paleo-friendly):

  • Banana: One medium- 7- 8” long has 27 g CHO
  • Yam or Sweet Potato (no, they’re not the same thing). One cup of yams has 38 g CHO, one cup of sweet potatoes has 58 g CHO
  • Dried Dates have 18 g CHO each
  • Large, Fresh Figs: 2” diameter has 12 g CHO each
  • Raisins: Small box has 34 g CHO

How much to eat will depend on a few factors including:

  • Size of the athlete (body weight)
  • Intensity and duration of the workout to come, or just completed
  • Personal goals (is the athlete trying to reach a more lean body weight? If so, implanting some fasted training may be indicated)

As a rule of thumb, we can refer to the American College of Sports Medicine, who recommends the following:

Before workout

If you have three or four hours, eat 300-600 calories, primarily of carbohydrate (2-3g/kg body weight), moderate in protein and low in fat

During a workout

30-60 grams of carbohydrate (120-240 calories) per hour during workouts

Post workout

Within 30 minutes of exercise, an endurance athlete should have a snack of 300-400 calories containing carbohydrate (75-100 grams) and protein (6 grams). The carbohydrate-to-protein ratio should be 2:1 after short, low- to medium-intensity workouts or 3:1 after long, high-intensity workouts.

In addition, above and beyond the number on a piece of paper, it is also very important to tune in to our body to listen to how much, and when we need to eat.

Some easy examples of gluten-free, carbohydrate rich snacks to eat before shorter sessions include:

  • A mashed ripe banana with some egg protein powder
  • Yam (skin removed) baked in water with some sliced, lean turkey

For longer sessions, like those long aerobic base training rides followed by a brick run, a larger meal with a bit of fat would be indicated such as:

  • A homemade smoothie using ripe banana, egg powder, coconut oil and chilled, brewed green tea, whizzed in a blender with ice; and
  • Baked yam with a pinch of salt on the side

After the shorter sessions, one could try:

  • A few dates with some shredded chicken breast
  • Sliced pineapple with a soft-boiled six-minute egg

To recover from a long workout, I recommend using the recipe found in The Paleo Diet for Athletes, by Loren Cordain, PhD and Joe Friel, for “Homebrew”.

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About Nell Stephenson

Nell Stephenson, personal fitness trainer, nutritional counselor, Paleolithic eating coach & athlete, graduated from University of Southern California In Los Angeles, with a BS in Exercise Science, and received her Health/Fitness Instructor Certification from the American College of Sports Medicine. ‘Read more about Nell and view her nutrition plans on TrainingPeaks here.