Why Athletes Shouldn’t be Afraid of Carbs

2018-03-19T16:04:15+00:00February 17th, 2015|Athlete Nutrition, Performance|

Many athletes get nervous when the scale goes up a pound the morning after a carbohydrate-rich meal. Those carbohydrates are being stored in muscle along with water. They may seem fattening because with each one gram of carbohydrate stored in your muscle, you also store about three grams of water. When you eat lots of carbs you might gain weight but it is water weight, not body fat.

If you are a competitive athlete who works out hard every day, you might have muscles that are carbohydrate depleted. When eating carbohydrates your muscles have a chance to refuel their depleted glycogen (carbohydrate) stores. Unless you have an illness or medical issue, eliminating sugar is not ideal for health or body composition. In fact, it may do far more harm than good. This does not mean eat more candy and drink more soda, rather the natural sugars found in wholesome food and well-formulated nutrient-dense shakes and supplements.

Some athletes are afraid of carbs, and end up negatively affecting their performance by unknowingly or deliberately reducing carbohydrates from their diet. In a recent study done on competitive cyclists about 30 percent had sub-optimal glycogen levels and none of them knew about it (1). For intense training athletes, carbohydrate ingestion has been shown time and time again to improve performance (2-7). The reason for better performance is during exercise, muscles can use both fat and carbohydrate for energy. At higher exercise intensities fat cannot fully meet the energy demand so carbohydrate use increases. Carbohydrates are even more important when exercising at high intensities during training and competition. Fat simply cannot provide the energy needed fast enough.

Glycogen is the storage form of glucose (a sugar) in our bodies. Carbohydrates are a limited source of energy accounting for only about one to two percent of total bodily energy stores (8). About 80 percent of total carbohydrate is stored in muscle, about 14 percent is stored in the liver, and about six percent in the blood (9). This equals about 300 to 400 grams of sugar stored in muscle and about 70 to 100 grams stored in the liver. Obviously we have a limited and low capacity to store sugar, so, for muscle tissue, sugar is crucial for energy during intense exercise.

A limited capacity to store carbohydrate coupled with a diet low in carbohydrate is a bad match for athletes. Multiple studies have found that fatigue and decrease in performance is associated with low carbohydrate diets that cause glycogen depletion (9-11). Studies also show that low glycogen levels may even cause overtraining (12;13). If glycogen levels get depleted muscles increase the breakdown muscle protein to make glucose (14). Essentially, the muscle “eats itself to feed itself” by increasing the amount of protein and amino acids used for energy purposes. If this happens, the athlete could lose muscle and decrease performance.

Athletes need to know the proper amounts of carbohydrates to take in every day. Lower intensity exercise involves less carbohydrate needs generally (think jogging). But if it’s done for long periods of time the intake of carbs will be greater. High-intensity workouts rely on glucose almost exclusively—there is always a high degree of glycogen depletion and therefore these kinds of workouts require a higher carbohydrate intake (think high-intensity weight training).

The guidelines for carbohydrate consumption during competition has traditionally called for 30 to 60  grams per hour (12). However, more recently the overall conclusion seems to be that performance benefits can be observed with relative small amounts of carbohydrate (16 grams per hour), but no further improvement has been observed with the ingestion of larger amounts (15). For such a high amount of carbohydrate it is essential to mix carbohydrates of different rates of absorption. A mixture of simple and complex carbohydrates can help increase uptake, spare the bodily carbohydrate stores, and improve exercise performance (15).


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