When we think of athletics or intense physical activities, proteins take all the credit, but what about other essential macronutrients like fats and carbohydrates? Fats and carbohydrates are equally essential for energy and other vital functions.
You must have heard that high-carbohydrate food is needed for athletes before every match, training, or performance. But do you know, why are carbohydrates important for athletes? Read more if you want to understand how carbohydrates enhance the performance of athletes in competitive events.
Carbohydrate is the primary fuel to the body, you can correlate carbohydrates for the body to the fuel needed to run a vehicle. Carbohydrate is the super fuel essential to improve stamina, energy, performance, focus, and balance body fluid.
Consuming carbohydrates will help delay fatigue during endurance exercise, resistance training, and intermittent sports like basketball ball or soccer. If you are an athlete wanting to improve your performance you should not ignore carbohydrates in your diet.
1. Why are Carbohydrates Important for Athletes?
Carbohydrate is always looked at through the wrong lens. It is seen as an unhealthy part of our diet.
In fact, not only from an athlete’s point of view, carbohydrate is vital for general health as well. It provides energy to the body including muscles, nerves, and brain. Whenever you require a lot of energy in a short span carbohydrate is the savior. But how? To know this, read further about why are carbohydrates important for athletes.
Carbohydrate takes the form of glycogen which further converts to glucose to provide us with energy. The most of glycogen is stored in the liver, some in the muscles and the rest in the blood.
Muscle glycogen is used during endurance exercise and prolonged periods of training.
A nutrient-rich carbohydrate gets easily digested, absorbed, and assimilated to accelerate glycogen synthesis, which is important for performing strenuous physical activity.
Carbohydrate is also brain fuel- Liver glycogen is converted into energy(glucose) which is then supplied to the blood to maintain optimum blood sugar levels. Perfect blood sugar levels improve focus and concentration during athletes’ performance.
1.1. Top 5 Reasons that Explain, Why are Carbohydrates Important for Athletes-
Here are the top 5 reasons that explain, why are carbohydrates important for athletes-
- Replenishes the glycogen stores, which are especially used during intense training or exercise.
- Easily absorbed in the body to provide a constant energy supply to the muscles during high-intensity exercise.
- Hastens the body’s recovery after strenuous training sessions.
- Provide energy to the body allowing the protein to do the job of muscle building and repairing.
- Carbohydrates maintain optimum blood glucose levels, which further improves concentration in the competition.
2. Low-Carbohydrate Diets Are a Trend or a Fad?
Proteins are potential satiety food, meaning satisfying hunger for a longer period resulting in low-calorie intake. A high-satiating diet may work best for those looking to reduce calorie intake or lose weight. But this doesn’t work for highly active individuals, such a diet may result in weight loss and diminish athletes’ performance.
The increasing popularity of the training-low concept among active individuals has worried health experts.
What is training- low concept? The low carbohydrate meal is designed for training adaptations, the concept existing for more than one decade now.
Training-low requires going carb free during periods of intense training. The heavy exercise finishes the glycogen stores and compels the body to burn fat as an energy source readily. Consequently, the exhaustion of limited glycogen stores encourages the metabolism signal response that leads to adaptation.
Overall, according to many sports health experts, training-low potentially compromises training performance.
3. Does a Low-Carbohydrate Diet Impair Athletic Performance?
According to numerous studies, a low carbohydrate diet can potentially decline athletic’s performance in long run.
The age-old adage “eat their carbs and drink their fluid”, does this yesteryear admonition still applicable to today’s athletes? unfortunately not, many athletics nutritionists grieve that the basic principle of feeding is forgotten in search of finding the next “super thing”- a winning diet regime that leads to enhanced performance.
- Impairs concentration and mood.
- Causes a sense of fatigue.
- Inability to focus and compete in games.
- Damage the skeletal muscles while training or competition.
According to a recent study on soccer players, the players with insufficient glycogen levels covered 24% less distance, and half the distance was covered by walking. Those with insufficient glycogen levels and high protein and fat intake underperformed by 50%.
4. Why Carbohydrates are Important for Athletes Performing High-Intensity Performances?
Although our understanding of athletes’ diets and the methodology to measure metabolism and assimilation has advanced over the years, the basic principle remains the same. However, the protein requirement is a bit higher than earlier believed. The one element that remains the same even today is the ‘athletes indispensable requirement for carbohydrates in the diet’.
In spite of the fact that protein and fats are needed for providing energy during physical activity, carbohydrate plays an important role in providing energy for high-intensity exercise.
Carbohydrate is the macronutrient that is readily metabolized to provide energy during high-intensity exercise.
After extensive research aiming at ‘Why are carbohydrates important for athletes‘, the experts endorse including high-quality carbohydrates in the diet to improve the athlete’s performance and recovery from exercise.
Overall, the requirement for carbohydrates rich and nutrient-dense foods is essential to improve physical performance and recovery after strenuous exercise.
5. Is too much Protein Harming Athletic Performance?
It is agreed that increased protein intake helps athletes, improve exercise performance and muscle growth. But it was observed that the athletes are consuming already enough protein i.e. around (1.2 to 2g/kg per day).
It is observed that many athletes go overboard and consume more than the required protein, and finally consume more than the required fat (of course depending upon the source of protein). Such practices lower the optimal skeletal muscle glycogen stores and as said earlier alter your performance while exercising or competing.
Health experts stress- having a balanced diet to enhance physical performance rather than focusing on one or two food elements
6. Here are the Top 5 Carbohydrate Foods for Athletes
Now we know why are carbohydrates important for athletes, let’s look at some top carbohydrate foods.
Sweet potato is the top carbohydrate source for athletes. This bright-colored root is a powerhouse of antioxidants and potassium. Potassium soothes sore muscles and maintains body fluid. Its 1 cup contains 27g of carbs and 4 gms of fiber.
Oats are known as the breakfast cereal of the world. It is super healthy for the heart due to its high soluble fiber and insoluble fat content. It also reduces overall bad cholesterol (LDL).
Apart from this, it has a good level of magnesium- extremely beneficial for better functioning of nerves and muscles. One cup of dry oats contains 27g carbs.
Wild rice is the healthiest among all types of rice. For those looking to cut down on calories wild rice is a good choice.1 cup serving provides 6g of protein, 35 g and double the fiber compared to brown rice.
Bananas are among the world’s highest consumed fruit. Rich in potassium, and vitamin C. Its prebiotic quality helps improve good gut bacteria and thereby improves digestion and absorption of other nutrients. 1 banana contains approx. 27g of protein.
It the is most underrated food in spite of having a generous amount of quality carbohydrates. Its half cup contains 22g of carbs,6g of fiber, and 7g of protein. It balances blood sugar levels and is also good for a healthy heart.
6.1. Why potato is the best carbohydrate source?
Potatoes are a good source of carbohydrates and protein. Potatoes are a favorite carbohydrate source among many elite athletes. Let’s learn the nutrient profile of potatoes-
- Rich in carbohydrates and potassium, contains vitamin B, and vitamin C.
- High fiber and protein, a top-quality non-animal protein source.
- Plenty of phytonutrients and antioxidants.
- Ensures glycogen recovery after strenuous exercise or continuous heavy exercise bouts.
The period of a few hours post-exercise is regarded as the critical time of glycogen synthesis. Carbohydrate feeding at post-strenuous exercise restores the body’s glycogen levels.
7. What is the Right Way to Eat Carbohydrates for Athletes?
From the above discussion, it is clear that the athlete or an active individual needs more carbohydrates than an ordinary individual.
Choosing the correct carbohydrate is important to gain the maximum results. Always look for carbohydrate that is minimally processed. Also, look for the nutritional content along with the carbohydrate content of the food.
Let’s look at what sports dietician has to say about consuming carbohydrates.
7.1. How much carbohydrate should athletes have daily?
The recommended daily intake of carbohydrates is between 3-12 g per kg of your body weight. This is the estimated guideline for daily intake. Also, it is evident that intense exercise requires more carbohydrates. The amount of carbohydrates needed depends upon the type and length of training sessions.
Do you know how to calculate your carbohydrate intake? Is there any formula? the answer is yes, scroll below to estimate your daily carbohydrate intake-
8. How to Calculate the Daily Carbohydrate Requirement for the Athlete?
Multiply the body weight (Kg) by 4 to get the daily carbohydrate intake in grams. The multiplier 4 depends upon the type and intensity of training. For instance, the hour of moderate training intensity is multiplied by 5. Remember to convert the pound into kg by dividing the pound by 2.2.
9. What are the Rules to Have a Carbohydrate Meal for Athletes?
9.1. Pre-Exercise Meal
Pre-exercise meal serves 2 purposes-
- Prevents hunger during training or exercising muscles.
- Maintains good energy levels for working muscles.
The athletes who prefer to train early morning should ensure having adequate carbohydrate dinner prior day.
Have 30 gms of carbohydrates 5 minutes prior to training to keep up the blood glucose levels and muscle glycogen stores. Glucose provides energy for working muscles, while glycogen stores help to complete the activity.
It is recommended to have carbohydrate intake pre and post-exercise to maintain optimal glycogen levels. The pre-exercise diet should be non-greasy and low in fats, as fats take longer to digest and further longer to empty your stomach.
9.1.1. Here are the Guidelines for the Pre-event Diet
- You should have your meal 3-4 hours before the event.
- The meal should contain 3-4 gms of carbohydrates per body weight.
- Reduce the carbohydrate feeding per body weight to 1-2 gms closer to the event.
Complement a small amount of protein along with carbohydrates- delays carbohydrate absorption to deliver the energy to working muscles for an extended period.
9.2. Diet for All-day Events or Competitions
It is crucial to have enough energy for the events whether on the same day or the following day. The above-discussed diet can also be applicable during all-day events.
You should avoid eating food high in fats and protein close to events. Because they take longer to digest and can lead to problems like the stomach or gastrointestinal distress.
The athletes should limit their food intake between the events. Heavy meals will take longer to digest, especially with the stress of pre-competition.
9.2.1. One Hour or Less than One Hour Between the Events
Avoid eating solid foods, and stick to liquid food such as sports drinks and fruit juice.
If you want to eat solid foods, eat fruits like bananas, oranges, applesauce, watermelon, pears, or peaches.
These fruits contain majorly carbohydrates and water, they have a lower glycemic index. Fruits are easy to digest and don’t cause problems like stomach cramps and GI distress.
9.2.2. Two to Three Hours Between the Events
Eat carbohydrates along with some proteins, as you have sufficient time to digest them.
You can grab a granola bar along with low-fat milk, muffins, and some fruits like apples, pears, and bananas.
Keep yourself hydrated by having sports drinks to refill electrolytes and glycogen levels.
9.2.3. Four Hours or More Between the Events
Now you will need a complete meal, primarily of carbohydrates. Here is an example of an appropriate meal for this situation.
Turkey sandwich-A slice of turkey with two slices of whole wheat bread. Greek yogurt with diced fruits, and sports drink (optional).
Spageeti and meal balls, bread, salad, sports drink (optional).
Athletics should stick to the meal which he thinks is the best combination for him.
9.3. Food During Exercise
Consume carbohydrate food for exercise that lasts for more than 1 hour to provide the muscles with the required energy. Have carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks, gel, or solid forms in the later part of the exercise carbohydrates.
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It is important to replenish exhausted glycogen levels immediately after exercise. Consuming carbohydrates within six hours after exercise ensures glycogen restoration. Include some amount of protein to promote the repair of muscle and rebuilding
Food list- Pasta, bagels, fruits, cereals, peanut butter, frozen yogurt, french toast, sandwiches, granola bars, yogurt, fruit juice, baked potatoes.
Ensure you consume 1- 1.2 g carbohydrates per kg of body weight for 4 hours after strenuous exercise. Also, keep sipping the fluids to rehydrate.
Carbohydrates play an important role in maintaining the energy level of athletes.
Carbohydrate optimizes glucose levels and boosts muscle glycogen stores. Also, the correct blood glucose level improves concentration in the game.
Carbohydrates provide energy to the muscles during prolonged and intense training.
Sources of healthy carbohydrates are-Sweet potatoes, oats, bananas, wild rice, and chickpeas.
You should have daily 3- 12 gms carbohydrates per kgs of body weight
If you have early morning training sessions, have good carbohydrate-rich food in the prior day’s dinner. Consume at least 30 gms of carbohydrates just before the event.
Eat a carbohydrate meal 3 to 4 hours prior to the event, and reduce carbohydrate intake closer to the event.
If you have all day event stick to liquid food like sports drinks and fruit juices. For solid fruits eat fruits like bananas, apples, oranges, pears, and peaches.
Post-event or training with a gap of 6 hours, eat a meal loaded with healthy carbohydrates and protein.
Carbohydrate- restores the exhausted glucogen stores, Protein-for muscle building and repair.
Overall, carbohydrates are the key factor in the athlete’s diet. Although proteins and dietary fats provide the required energy, carbohydrate is the only micronutrient that is easily broken down to provide energy during intense activities such as resistance training.
Altogether high quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrates are vital to enhancing the athlete’s performance. Hope this blogpost answers why are carbohydrates important for athletes
Que 1. What is the role of protein in an athlete’s diet?
Ans: Protein promotes muscle growth, it repairs muscle tissue damaged during exercise.
Que 2. Is too much carbohydrate bad for athletes?
Ans: Too much carbohydrate causes, diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal cramps.
Que3.What is the role of dietary fat in athletes?
Ans: Dietary fat intake offers essential fatty acids that play an important role in metabolism, it is the primary fuel for light to moderate exercise.