Is oatmeal beneficial for triathletes and runners? Are steel-cut oats better than quick-cooking oats? Does oatmeal really “stick to your ribs”? And for some, “Why would any athlete even want to eat oatmeal? It’s so gluey … yuck! Let’s take a look at what you might want to know about this popular sports food.
Oatmeal (aka porridge in parts of the world) refers to de-husked oats (groats) that have cut into small bits (steel-cut) or softened with steam, then flattened with rollers (rolled oats). Regardless of the way the groat is processed, all types of oatmeal are 100% whole grain and offer similar amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. What differs is the cooking time, shape (rolled or steel-cut), texture (chewy or smooth), and whether or not they are all natural or fortified with B-vitamins and iron.
Which type is best? The answer depends on your taste preference and available cooking time.
Steel-cut oats take 20 to 30 minutes to cook. They have a chewier texture than rolled oats. Some runners use a crockpot to cook them overnight. Despite popular belief, steel-cut oats are nutritionally similar (not superior) to rolled oats.
Old-fashioned oats (rolled oats) cook in 5 to 10 minutes and have a firm texture. They can be eaten uncooked with milk, like any dry cereal, or enjoyed in the form of muesli or overnight oats.
Quick-cooking oats are ready in a minute on the stovetop. Because they are rolled thinner than old-fashioned oats, they cook quicker and have a smoother texture.
Instant oats cook quickly in the microwave. They are pre-cooked, rolled thin, dried, and then rehydrated to be eaten. They can be fortified (or not) with B-vitamins and iron. Some flavors are sugar-laden and perhaps best saved for dessert?
Benefits from eating oatmeal
- Oatmeal is one of the most affordable whole grains, perfect for hungry runners on a budget. At least half your daily grains should be whole grains. Oats for breakfast give you a good start to reaching your whole grain goal for the day.
- Oats are a “safe” choice for a pre-event meal. They are low in certain fibers (referred to as FODMAPS) that send some runners to the porta-toilets.
- Oats contain a type of soluble fiber (beta glucan) that makes cooked oats gluey—but can be beneficial for endurance runners. Beta glucan slows the absorption of carbs over 2 to 3 hours, helping you feel satiated for a long time. Hence, oatmeal sticks to your ribs; it’s a good pre-run choice for sustained energy.
- Beta-glucan helps reduce the risk of heart disease if you eat oats in the context of a heart-healthy diet. To achieve this benefit, the daily target is 1 cup dry rolled oats or ½ cup dry steel-cut oats most days of the week.
- Oats have about 5 grams protein per ½ cup dry serving. A good protein target for breakfast is at least 20 grams, so cook the oats in 1 cup milk (dairy milk, 8 g protein; soy milk, 7g) and stir in 2 tablespoons of peanut butter or ¼ cup of nuts (8 g pro), and you’ll have a super sports breakfast!
- Fortified oats offer extra iron, a mineral important for runners who do not red meat. A packet of plain Quaker Instant Oatmeal offers 40% of the Daily Value for iron; regular oats offer only 6%. Read the Nutrition Facts panel for iron information.
- Oats have some fiber, but only about 4 grams per serving (1/2 cup dry rolled oats, 1/4 c dry steel-cut oats). Given the daily fiber target is 25 to 38 grams (achieved by only 10% of women and 3% of men), oats make a small contribution—but more fiber than if you were to have eggs for breakfast.
- Oats contain an antioxidant called avenanthramide (AVA). AVA can reduce the oxidative stress created by vigorous exercise. New research hints pre-exercise oatmeal might have a protective effect that could potentially reduce inflammation and muscle damage. Stay tuned.
- While naturally gluten-free, oats are often processed in a factory that also processes (gluten-containing) wheat. If you have celiac disease, you want to make sure you buy gluten-free oats (Bob’s Red Mill, Quaker Gluten-Free oats).
How to boost your oat intake
- Oats are versatile. You can cook them in water—or preferably cook them in milk to add protein, calcium, and creaminess. The suggested ratio is 1 cup (8 oz) of liquid for each half-cup rolled oats or ¼ cup steel-cut oats.
- For a savory option, cook oats in broth, season with soy sauce, or top with sriracha. Or add some cheese and spinach when cooking, then top the oatmeal with a poached egg.
- As an athlete, you lose sodium in your sweat, so don’t be afraid to make oatmeal tasty by sprinkling on some salt. A quarter teaspoon salt per ½ cup dry oats really helps change the bowl of glue into a yummier breakfast.
- Add sweeter, if desired, to make the oatmeal taste even better—honey, maple syrup, raisins, chopped dates. These extra carbs offer fuel for your muscles. According to the US Dietary Guidelines, 10% of daily calories can come from added sugar. That’s at least 200 calories for a runner—guilt‑free!
- Don’t have time to cook oats in the morning? Make overnight oats the night before! There’s no wrong way to make overnight oats. In a 16-ounce glass jar (such as a peanut butter jar), combine ½ cup old fashioned oats, ½ cup milk, ¼ cup Greek yogurt, fruit-of-your choice (banana, berries), and optional add-ins, such as chia seeds and maple syrup. Refrigerate at least 2 hours for the oats to soften, if not overnight.
- Add rolled oats to a recovery shake or fruit smooothie for a thicker texture, as well as for more carbs to refuel your muscles.
- Bake with oat flour (blenderized oats). The Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Muffin recipe (see below) from my Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a good pre-exercise energy booster and tasty way to boost your oat intake. Enjoy!
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook can help you eat for health and high energy. For more information about her books and online workshop, visit NancyClarkRD.com.