CARBOHYDRATES – WHY THEY ARE ESSENTIAL FOR ATHLETES By Brittany Saxton
Carbohydrates (also known as carbs) tend to get a bad rap, but the last thing we want our athletes thinking is that carbs are “bad!” They are frowned upon because they don’t always come in the most nutritious form, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t give us, especially athletes, a reason to cut them from our diets. Carbs are actually VERY essential to an athlete’s diet so we’re going to learn why.
Before we dive into the benefits, let’s hit on the basics. What is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients found in our food. The other two being protein and fats. Carbs are sugar molecules and when our bodies consume them, they are broken down into glucose. Glucose is the main source of energy for our bodies (our cells, organs, etc). This here should give you a little hint as to why they are so crucial for athletes!
So we have heard of simple carbs. We have heard of complex carbs. What are they and what’s the difference?
There are three types of carbohydrates:
Sugar is a simple carb meaning they are quickly broken down and digested by the body to be used as energy. Because they lack the starch and fiber they digest quicker. This also means they are usually going to be less nutritious but they will provide our athletes muscles and brains with the quick energy they require to perform!
Examples of simple carbohydrates:
- Fruit Snacks
- Fruit Juices
- Sports Drinks
Starch and fiber are our complex carbs which are harder and take longer to digest, so the energy we obtain from them will be delayed. These are going to be more nutrient-dense than a simple carb. Ideally, an athlete consumes an abundance of complex carbs but during times that are not near when they will be training. This is because they are harder to digest and the body will expend its energy on digestion, not performance. How many carbs an athlete needs on a daily basis is going to depend on the individual, their training intensity, frequency, and other factors.
Examples of complex carbohydrates:
- Whole Wheat / Sprouted Grain Breads
So can you guess which of these carbs you would want to consume right before a game?
If you guessed, SIMPLE…you are right!
About 15-30g of simple carbs prior to a practice or game will be beneficial as it will be an easy and quick way to get energy to the athlete’s muscles and brain.
Now that we know what a carbohydrate is and the different types of carbs, let us get into why they are important for athletes to consume.
Just like gas fuels a car, food fuels a body. Carbohydrates (one of the main macronutrients of our food) is an essential fuel for athletic performance. Circling back to what we already know, carbs turn into glucose which is our main energy source and we all know athletes require A LOT of energy!
It is important for an athlete to consume an adequate amount of carbohydrates to have ample amounts of muscle glycogen stores (carbs are stored as glycogen), with the ability to reload the stored glycogen when depleted. Glycogen storage is uber-important for optimal performance and recovery.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that carbs are not just important to fuel the body and our muscles, but they are crucial for helping our brains perform as well.
Let’s wrap this up! We’re going to let go of the idea that carbs are “bad” because we now understand how beneficial they are to athletes. The key takeaway is to understand what type of carbs to consume and when and to be mindful of your intake of the simple carbs (outside of training times) that do not pack a lot of fiber and nutrients.
What are your favorite go-to carbs prior to training?