Despite the popularity of grain-free fad diets like Paleo and high-fat/low-carb, whole grains are a powerhouse of nutrition for athletes. If anything, eliminating grains from your diets removes a nutrient-dense source of carbohydrates from your diet. Whole grains provide iron, B-vitamins (such as niacin and folate), magnesium, fiber, carbohydrates to fuel your workouts, and protein.
Why are nutrients such as iron, B-vitamins, and magnesium so important for runners? Iron supports your hemoglobin levels and hemoglobin is essential for the transport of oxygen to your working muscles. Without iron in your diet, you risk anemia, which manifests as fatigue and hindered athletic performance. For endurance athletes, iron needs are higher due to foot-strike hemolysis (a phenomenon in which iron is lost through the impact of running) and even higher for female runners due to menstruation. B-vitamins aid in the conversion of protein and carbohydrates to energy and in the repair of cells – both important processes for athletes. A B-vitamin deficiency can decrease both athletic performance and recovery, according to Oregon State University. Magnesium is used in energy production and plays a role in fluid balance. You lose magnesium through your sweat and your body cannot produce its own, making it essential in a runner’s diet.
A serving of whole grains won’t just prevent nutritional deficiencies – it will also keep you energized for your next training session, thanks to the complex carbohydrates in whole grains.
Beyond whole wheat and brown rice, you can find a plethora of whole grains to enjoy. Whole grains are budget-friendly, easy to prepare in large batches, and if you pick the right ones, quick to cook – meaning you spend little time in the kitchen in exchange for a whole lot of nutrition, flavor, and variety in your diet.
Shalane Flanagan’s Run Fast, Eat Slow cookbook introduced me to the wonder that is teff flour. Teff is a gluten-free, iron-rich grain that provides more copper, iron, and calcium than any other whole grain. Teff itself is a small, seed-sized grain that can be cooked as a porridge. Teff flour is versatile and a flavorful alternative to whole wheat flour. It can be used in breads, cookies (see Run Fast, Eat Slow), muffins, or pancakes such as these mouth-watering blueberry teff pancakes.
Oats are an endurance athlete’s dream food: packed with protein, fiber, magnesium, and vitamin B-6, easily digestible, and simple to prepare. Oatmeal can be used as a pre-run meal or a post-workout recovery breakfast – either way, it’s a powerhouse meal for athletes. Try this recipe for power oatmeal or use it to amp up the nutrition of baked goods (such as these oatmeal blueberry chocolate chip muffins).
Farro is the ideal grain for the time-crunched runner. Farro is ready in the fraction of the time as brown rice (as little as 10 minutes if you soak it in advance) and easier to prepare since you boil it as you would with pasta. The texture is heartier and chewier than rice (although it is important to note that farro is not gluten-free). Farro is rich in protein, fiber, calcium, and iron; it also contains cyanogenic glucosides, a compound that boosts immune function and reduces inflammation.
Farro can be used in a wide variety of meals, just as you would serve brown rice. Serve it in a stir-fry with vegetables and chicken or tempeh, add avocado and black beans for a burrito bowl, or enjoy it in a warm soup such as this chicken farro soup.
Sprouted grains are easier to digest and their nutrients are more available for absorption, making sprouted wheat flour an even more nutritious than regular whole wheat flour. In addition to sprouted grain bread, use sprouted grain as a substitute for regular flour in recipes. Try these sprouted grain blueberry muffins for mid-day snack or pre-run snack.
While quinoa is technically not a grain (it’s biologically a seed), it is cooked like a grain and is served as a grain. Like farro, quinoa is quick-cooking and can be prepared in large batches for easy meals throughout the week. I like to whip up a large batch of quinoa for nutritious and quick weekday lunches. Quinoa is a complete protein, high in fiber, and rich in magnesium and iron.
Which whole grain is your favorite to eat?