Athletes and Carbohydrates: The Master Fuel
Carbohydrates are extremely important for the normal functioning of our body. It is especially important for athletes. The right amount of carbohydrates helps athletes meet the energy requirements of their training program. It also optimizes the restoration of muscle glycogen stores between workouts. Let’s dig deeper to understand the importance of carbohydrates for athletes!
Importance of carbohydrates for athletes
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy and athletes need plenty of carbohydrates before, during and after exercise. Although our body can utilize fats as a source of energy, the main function of the carbohydrates you eat is to supply energy to the body. This is true for high-intensity exercise, the level at which most athletes train and compete.
The body produces energy from carbohydrates much more rapidly than it does from fat and our brain and central nervous system rely only on carbohydrates as its primary fuel source. To break down fats completely to result in the release of energy, carbohydrate breakdown has to happen simultaneously.
This is because one product of carbohydrate metabolism is a substance called pyruvate. Pyruvate plays a critical role in the release of energy from fat. Without enough carbohydrate in the diet, pyruvate production drops, impairing the release of energy from fat.
To prevent the body from using protein for energy production, it is important to consume a sufficient amount of carbohydrates. Even though our body can use protein to produce energy but its primary role is to support many other critical body functions. It helps build body proteins like muscle, bone, skin, hair, enzymes, and hormones. Thus, if we burn protein as an energy source, it would impact our body’s ability to perform certain critical functions.
High-quality carbohydrates and physical performance
With increased physical activity, our body uses muscle glycogen faster, which leads to a higher need for carbohydrates. For people involved in high-intensity athletic activities, eating the right amount of carbohydrates before, during, and after an event is very important!
Most people assume that a low-carbohydrate and high protein diet will help them gain significant muscle mass. This is not true. A diet low in carbohydrates will not only decrease muscle potential, but it will also worsen overall athletic performance.
Some foods high in carbohydrates are:
- Grains: Whole grains are best, like corn tortillas, whole wheat pasta, and whole wheat bread, spelt, quinoa, brown rice, beans, whole oats, or 100% whole grain cereal
- Fruits: Fresh, frozen or canned in its own juices
- Milk and Yogurt: Low fat
- Vegetables generally have a small number of carbohydrates.
Recommended Types of Carbohydrates
To determine which carbohydrate food you should eat, the glycemic index is the best marker. The glycemic index shows how quickly the carbohydrate will enter the bloodstream. Foods with a lower glycemic index can be considered a “sustained” source of energy whereas foods with a higher glycemic index can help provide a quick burst of energy.
High GI foods are digested faster which causes blood sugar spikes. On the other hand, low GI foods are digested and absorbed more slowly, therefore causing a slow rise in blood sugar levels.
Daily carbohydrate percentage recommendations for athletes
The amount of carbohydrates needed depends on many different factors such as the type of exercise, duration of the exercise, and the individual. Most athletes need 55 % to 65 % of their calories from carbohydrates.
In conclusion, carbohydrates are an essential nutrient, especially in endurance exercise. As carbohydrates are the skeletal muscles’ main source of fuel, glycogen stores in the muscles must always be at adequate levels to provide the athlete with the required energy. Carbohydrate loading is a very common practice among endurance athletes to super-compensate the muscle glycogen levels and to ensure that the muscles have access to adequate amounts of glycogen to perform.
The consumption of carbohydrate-rich energy drinks, gels, and gummies during the race replenish carbohydrate levels. It, in turn, provides the muscles with more glycogen. So, carbohydrates are the most important nutrient an endurance athlete can consume.