Carbohydrate – Essential Sports Nutrition

carbohydrate-essential-sports-nutritionNo discussion about how sports nutrition can impact athlete performance would be complete without at least a brief mention of carbohydrates, or carbs as they are often known.

Carbohydrates and sports nutrition go together like bacon and eggs and strawberries and cream and have a long and important association with one another.

For many years leading sports scientists, dieticians and researchers have carefully examined and documented the importance of carbohydrates in our diet, and more recently there has been much wider interest as many public health issues have arisen surrounding the subject.

For instance, it is widely believed that a low carbohydrate diet promotes weight loss and also has numerous other health benefits.

Carbohydrate – a key nutrient

Carbohydrates are a key nutrient for everybody – including athletes, fitness enthusiasts and the average person in the street.

Carbohydrates are an essential source of fuel for any sports and fitness activity and are especially important during long training sessions and periods of high intensity exercise that continue over an extended time.

If carbohydrate stores are insufficient to meet the fuel needs of an athlete’s training or competitive programme, this could result in the athlete becoming prematurely fatigued and loosing form with a resulting drop in performance levels

Many athletes struggle to understand the optimum quantities of carbohydrate that they need to consume in order to maintain their desired levels of effort and performance.

This is hardly surprising especially when you consider that they are usually under significant pressure to follow strict and often punishing training programmes, maintain or improve competitive performance levels; whilst at the same time ensuring that their weight and body composition is optimised.

Balancing these pressures can be extremely difficult, even for the most dedicated of athletes!

How do carbohydrates work?

Carbohydrate rich foods are one of the most important things an athlete can eat, as they help to fuel the kind of explosive power that is required in sports like sprinting, powerlifting and other games such as football and rugby.

When consumed, the carbohydrate component of the food is converted by digestive enzymes in the body into glycogen, which is a form of energy the body can readily access.

In this form, glycogen is then transported by the blood to where ever it is required.

Glycogen reserves are mainly stored in the muscles and liver but are limited.

When required, this glycogen is then converted into glucose and transported to the muscles and brain where it acts to keep them functioning correctly.

If there is an insufficient supply of glucose to the brain, the athlete may experience a number of unwanted symptoms including heavy legs, general mental confusion, dizziness, lethargy, and an inability to concentrate effectively.

The supply of glucose to the muscles enables them to contract rapidly when told to do so by the brain.

If there is insufficient glucose in the blood stream, the athlete will feel sluggish and overall performance will be compromised.

How do carbohydrates help?

So how do carbohydrates help athletes and their bodies perform?

In simple terms, the body stores carbohydrate as glycogen in the muscles and liver… although it should be noted that its storage capability is somewhat limited.

If carbohydrate stores are insufficient to meet the fuel needs of an athlete’s training or competitive programme, this could result in the athlete becoming prematurely fatigued and loosing form with a resulting drop in performance levels.

Reduced carbohydrate reserves also limit an athlete’s ability to train hard and recover effectively in the run-up to competition and so should be avoided.

Therefore, it is imperative that carbohydrates are consistently featured in any nutritional programme to ensure optimum levels are maintained; additionally they also help to boost the immune system.

Because of the clear nutritional importance of carbohydrates with regards to diet, athletes are strongly advised to plan carbohydrate intake around core training sessions and over the whole day of competition.

Generally, an athlete’s carbohydrate needs before, during and after exercise or competition depend on several factors including; body composition goals; type, intensity and duration of exercise and performance goals.

Environmental conditions also play an important part as does the frequency of exercise and time available for recovery between activity sessions.

How much carbohydrate does an athlete need?

As an athlete, if you want an approximate guide as to how much carbohydrate you should be consuming, the following can be used as a guideline.

Low intensity or skill based activity

For low intensity or skill based activities you should aim for a carbohydrate target of around 3 to 5g per kg of body mass (BM).

Moderate intensity activity

For moderate intensity programmes of training activity which would require around an hour’s worth of exercise you should look at between 5 and 7g of carbohydrate per kg of BM.

High intensity activity

For high intensity programmes that comprise around 1 to 3 hours of exercise you should aim for between 6 and 10g of carbohydrate per kg of BM.

Which foods should I eat?

If you wish to identify the best carbohydrate laden foods to eat then you should ideally seek out foods that are nutrient dense and try to incorporate these into your daily nutritional programme.

Lots of everyday foods and fluids contain carbohydrates but many of these have different nutritional features so make sure you understand what these are first of all.

Examples of foods that are high in carbohydrate are breads and cereals, pastas and low-fat dairy produce.

Such carbohydrate rich foods should form the foundation of every athlete’s diet plan.

On the opposite side of the coin, there are also many nutrient poor, carbohydrate rich foods and these can be classified as foods or fluids that whilst they do contain carbohydrate they are generally low in other beneficial nutrients.

Such foods include chips, pies, chocolate and cakes and these should be consumed only very occasionally, if at all.

Soft fizzy drinks, fruit cordial sweetened with sugar and alcoholic drinks also fit nicely into this category.

Carbohydrate loading

In many instances, specific carbohydrate consumption recommendations need to consider the bigger picture, i.e. the overall carbohydrate needs of an athlete over the course of a day, especially during competition.

Such considerations are even more important in the run-up to competition especially if they are to start in the morning or similarly if the competition is to involve high intensity exertions and last more than ninety minutes.

Pre-event carbohydrate loading is a technique that can be employed to help top up blood glucose levels as well as glycogen stores in the muscles and liver.

Additionally, athletes also need to carefully consider how their energy reserves are to be maintained throughout any energy intense or extended events.

Post exercise carbohydrate demand

During extended periods of exercise the stockpiling of carbohydrate reserves can also benefit athlete performance, both in terms of muscle endurance and mental strength.

It is after exercise or competition that the consumption of carbohydrates becomes essential as they form an important part of the recovery process helping to refule by replenishing muscle glycogen stores.

If the restoration of these depleted glycogen stores between training sessions doesn’t take place or is inadequate, athletes can often struggle to recover sufficiently and become prematurely fatigued during subsequent training sessions.

After competition or training has been completed, it is always advisable to follow the correct recovery procedure as, in many instances; this stage is just as important as the initial preparation stages, especially during periods of intensive training or competition.

There are three golden rules to successful athlete rehabilitation; and we refer to them as the three R’s:

  • Refuel

    Refuel muscle glycogen (carbohydrate stores).

  • Repair

    Repair muscle tissue (for maintenance and development).

  • Rehydrate

    Rehydrate to replace fluids and salts lost through sweat.

Therefore your ideal recovery meals and snacks must contain carbohydrate for the restoration of muscle glycogen, some protein (for muscle repair and/or gains) and plenty of fluids to replace sweat losses.

Competition and tournaments

Carbohydrates and the restoration of muscle glycogen stores is also important during competitive tournaments where multiple events make take place on a single day, or over the course of a few days.

Under such competitive circumstances athletes need to recover rapidly to allow them to achieve optimum performance levels each and every time.

Carbohydrates are essential in allowing this to happen.

Sports dieticians

Generally, if you are a competitive athlete, sports enthusiast or simply someone who is interested in fitness training and getting their body to an optimum level, it is always advisable that you seek the advice of a specialist sports dietician; or at least research the subject of sports nutrition and how carbohydrates can be used to optimise your sporting performance.

A sports dietician is an expert in the field of sports science and nutrition and can help to assess your individual dietary needs and develop a nutritional programme to ensure your specific needs are met.

Want help with nutrition?

Get in touch now for more information about sports nutrition and the use of sports supplements to improve your performances. Our team of sports scientists and nutritionists are always happy to help.