Do you make sure that you’re well-fueled for your workouts? To make the most out of every sweat session, you don’t just eat any pre-workout food — you need to choose the ones that boost your performance. This is especially true if you’re about to do HIIT or strength training exercises.

This brings up the topic of carbohydrates. What are carbohydrates? Are they necessary for an active lifestyle? Most importantly, how do you choose between good carbs and bad carbs? Find out more by reading until the end.

What Are Carbohydrates?

Before we get into the discussion of healthy carbs, let’s talk about carbohydrates in general. 

Carbohydrates are macronutrients. When digested in your body, they get converted into glucose and cause your blood sugar levels to rise. Glucose is considered a major source of fuel for your brain and muscles. Whether your blood sugar spikes or rises more slowly depends on the type of carbs you consume.

Carbohydrates are abundant in foods such as grains, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, juices, and even junk food items. They come in the form of simple sugars, starches, and fiber. 

How many carbs should a person consume daily? 

That depends on the type of diet you’re following. For example, on a Standard American Diet, carbohydrates make up the majority of your calorie intake — that’s about 45% to 65% of your total calories for the day. On the other hand, low-carbohydrate diets such as the ketogenic or keto diet limit carbs to 20-50 grams daily or 5% to 10% of your total daily calories. 

But the main focus of this article isn’t about how many carbs you’re getting, but rather what you’re using carbs for: Your workouts. 

Should you eat carbohydrates before working out? 

Unless you’re intentionally doing a fasted workout or depleting your glycogen stores to enter a state of ketosis, you’ll need to fuel up with carbohydrates. 

Carbs are beneficial for workouts that are short and high-intensity. Strength training workouts also benefit from carbohydrates. In this case, carbs will fill up the glycogen stores in your muscles, enabling you to push through tough workouts. 

Unless you’re doing light stretching, brisk walking, or steady stationary biking, you will most likely need carbs to maximize your workout performance. 

How about after working out?

That really depends on the diet that you’re following. Let me explain.

When you’re on a standard high-carbohydrate diet, your body would normally crave for carbohydrates, and that will manifest as a decrease in your blood glucose levels. Therefore, you’ll need to refuel by consuming carbohydrates and protein as well after your sweat session. Doing this will boost your recovery, grow your muscle (if that’s your goal), and feel better!

However, for those who intentionally restrict their carbs as part of a well-formulated ketogenic diet or another low-carb diet, they would refuel by consuming healthy fats and protein instead. For example, almond nuts, whole eggs, and avocados. 

Choosing your carbohydrates wisely 

Carbs often get a bad rap, and some people reduce carbs for weight loss and other specific health reasons. However, it’s important to understand that not all carbs are the same. What I mean is — there are good carbs and bad carbs

The good ones are beneficial for your body while the bad ones do the opposite. You probably already have an idea about what good and bad carbs are. Let’s define them here.

Whole carbohydrates are the good ones, and they’re basically unprocessed. Meaning, they contain natural fibers and sugars. Whole carbs can be simple and complex depending on their sugar molecule chain length. 

Examples of whole carbs are: 

  • Whole fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes

Refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, are unhealthy and contribute to disease. They undergo processing and therefore, their natural state has been altered. Refined carbs are almost devoid of micronutrients and fiber which are essential for your energy, digestive health, and immune system.

There are plenty of studies that demonstrate the dangers of overeating refined carbs. One study stated that a diet that’s high in processed foods and added sugars increase a person’s risk of Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease. 

Here’s why: Spikes in blood glucose trigger an inflammatory response in the body as well as endothelial dysfunction (blood vessels are not blocked but are constricted). 

Another study showed that there is a relationship between the intake of refined sugar and breast cancer. 

Refined carbs also promote unhealthy eating habits. They increase your risk for getting obese and Type 2 Diabetes as a consequence. 

The thing about refined carbs is that they’re found everywhere. They’re in most grocery items. Here are popular examples: 

  • White bread
  • Chips
  • Cookies
  • Soda, fruit drinks
  • White rice
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Donuts
  • Other baked desserts

The key to reducing or cutting back on refined options is to identify them. Make a healthy eating plan that supports your active lifestyle. Consider healthy swaps, such as whole fruit instead of a fruit drink. Or cucumbers instead of potato chips.

A note on simple versus complex carbs:

Simple and complex carbs are found in both whole and processed carbs. Here’s how simple and complex carbs differ from one another:

  • Simple carbs – They’re quickly digested by your body and are more likely to increase your blood sugar levels in less time. Simple carbs in dessert products are responsible for those sugar crashes that cause mood swings and midday fatigue. Examples of simple carbs in healthy and unhealthy foods include whole fruits and packaged sweet treats. 
  • Complex carbs – Since they’re composed of longer chains of sugar, it will take longer for your body to digest them. If you want more stable blood glucose, thus more stable energy throughout the day, you’ll want to eat complex carbs. Examples of complex carbs include brown rice, corn, barley, and oats. 

Simple vs. Complex Carbs for Workouts 

When it comes to whole versus processed carbohydrates, by now you already know that whole carbs are the best choice. Whole carbs lead to better health and fitness long-term. That’s simple, right?

But how about simple versus complex carbs? Since both are present in whole foods, which one should you go for? The answer is: It depends on how long your workout will last. 

Since simple carbs are digested faster and are able to provide you with a quick burst of energy, they’re most useful for short and intense exercises. You can have a piece of fruit prior to your workout. 

But if you’re doing a longer workout, you’ll want complex carbs as they’re digested more slowly. This allows you to benefit from long-lasting energy. Your options include whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, corn, and potatoes. 

9 High-Carbohydrate Foods That Are Healthy

Unless you follow a low-carbohydrate diet, include these food ideas in your pre- or post-workout eating plan. Check out the options below:

1. Bananas

Bananas are one of those fruits that are loaded with nutrients. A medium-sized piece has 450mg of potassium. Potassium is known for its role in muscle contraction and healthy nerve function. If you’ve only got 10 minutes until your scheduled workout, snack on a banana. 

If you need a pre-workout meal, you can also use some banana slices as toppings for your simple bowl of oatmeal. Bananas also make a wonderful ingredient for a smoothie. Mix some slices with Greek yogurt and protein powder for a healthy carb and protein drink! 

2. Oats

Some people eat oats after a good workout. But oats aren’t limited as a post-workout meal. When eaten before your sweat session, they can help keep your energy up. Oats are rich in dietary fibers and are also believed to have anticancer properties, according to a study

Avoid training on an empty stomach by having a bowl of oatmeal. The best time to eat oatmeal is at least an hour before your exercise session to allow for digestion. 

Here’s a cool idea: You can make energy balls out of oatmeal. Just mix them with your favorite protein powder, coconut or MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) oil, vanilla, and shredded coconut. Roll into balls and store in the fridge for a week’s worth of pre- or post-workout snack! 

3. Whole grain bread

Eating whole grain bread is one of the ways to incorporate whole grains in your diet. A slice of whole grain bread has 14g of total carbohydrates plus other nutrients like sodium, potassium, iron, and protein.

To be able to burn that single slice, you will need to walk for at least 22 minutes or run for at least 8 minutes. 

4. Apples

Apple is a source of simple carbohydrates, and 1 cup of apple slices contains about 15g of total carbs. Apples are particularly rich in flavonoids — plant chemicals that fight free radicals and reduce inflammation. If you’re not having an apple pre-workout, then have it after to boost your recovery. 

A delicious way to enjoy apples would be to top some slice with peanut butter. You can also include them in your homemade trail mix with real nuts and seeds. 

5. Oranges

Oranges are a good source of vitamin C which helps in the synthesis of collagen. As you may already know, collagen supports your joints, enhances muscle mass, and improves your body’s recovery from those tough workouts. 

These fruits can be eaten by themselves, or if you’ve got time for some meal prepping, toss them into a salad bowl or use their zest as an ingredient for your healthy homemade muffins. 

6. Cashew nuts

For those whose goals include building muscle at the gym, cashew nuts make an excellent food. 

Cashews are high in carbohydrates compared to most nuts, which makes them a good choice for a pre-workout snack for high-carb dieters. Other nutrients found in cashew nuts include calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc. 

They can be enjoyed raw, roasted, mixed into chicken salad, or added into a broccoli and cream dish. Here’s a fact you’ll love about cashew nuts: They contain monounsaturated fats that benefit your heart health by lowering bad cholesterol levels. 

7. Pistachio nuts

Pistachio nuts are high in fiber, with one cup containing 13g of dietary fiber. They also contain more potassium than bananas. Like cashew nuts, pistachios are a source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. 

Aside from eating pistachios raw, try throwing them into a salad or make a smoothie out of them. There are tons of smoothie ideas to make using pistachio. For example, blend them with bananas, yogurt, and ice. Pistachios with bananas and spinach, too! 

8. Carrots

Yes — carrots deserve a place on our list of healthy carbs for workouts. They provide quick fuel, thanks to their simple carbs. The beta-carotene found in carrots serves as a precursor to vitamin A which is important for your eyesight, immune system, and bone health.

Hate eating carrots plain? Dip them into hummus, blend them into your smoothie, or use them as the main ingredient for a soothing post-workout soup. 

9. Beets

They say that beets boost your workouts. Whether you’re training for a marathon or are simply going for a regular gym session, beets can do wonders. How so? These root veggies contain dietary nitrates which can help reduce blood pressure. Study also shows that dietary nitrates can enhance your exercise performance in healthy individuals. 

Juicing beets is the most convenient way to consume them. The best time to drink beet juice is about 30 minutes to an hour before your scheduled workout. If you don’t prefer juicing, you can also microwave them or add them to your stir-fry veggie recipe. 

Final Thoughts

Carbohydrates are beneficial for an active lifestyle in that they provide an individual with the energy they need to push through. They also help with recovery post-workout.  

Carbs are most applicable to those who don’t follow a restrictive diet yet still want to maintain a healthy lifestyle. With that having said, it’s important to consider the type of carbs to consume. The best carbs are those coming from whole, unprocessed foods. They can be simple or complex, and your choice will depend on how long your workout will last.