Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for your brain, body, and overall athletic performance. They are one of the most crucial nutrients (maybe even more so than protein) needed in any athlete’s diet, and are vital to help reach peak performance during physical activity. Needless to say, If you are an athlete, the importance of carbohydrates cannot be stressed enough, and without carbohydrates, your performance will suffer!
While carbs are certainly not the enemy, they are definitely not all created equally. It is important to consume carbohydrates to fuel proper brain and organ function as well as to fuel your exercise/training/workouts, but it is equally important to be choosey about what types of carbs you consume and when. Today we are going to discuss how carbohydrates will benefit you whether you're an elite athlete, an everyday gym-goer, a weekend warrior, or just looking to improve overall health through your diet. Welcome to Carbohydrates 101!
So, what are carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are one of the 3 macronutrients (Carbohydrates, Protein, Fats) and are essential food nutrients that your body turns into glucose to give you the energy to function. They consist of fibers, starches, and sugars, and are broken down into 2 categories -- Simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs are a quick, sporadic source of energy, while complex carbs are a good source of steady, sustaining energy.
Examples of simple carbohydrates are:
- Sweeteners like honey, agave and sugar
- Processed or tropical fruits
- Refined grains, any white breads or rice
Simple carbs are rapidly digested and can be useful in small, properly timed doses by athletes for a quick and easy spike of energy. However, this energy kick cannot be maintained for long. Simple carbs are best consumed after a strenuous because workout insulin sensitivity is high, liver and muscle glucose uptake is rapid and the use of those carbohydrates is a priority to your body. Basically, you're replenishing the depleted glycogen stores in your muscles that were used up during your workout, and helping transport the amino acids from protein consumed from your post-workout shake or meal. This helps to repair and prepare the body for the next workout session.
Examples of complex carbohydrates are:
- Sweet potatoes and yams
- Quinoa and Brown rice
- Fibrous veggies such as broccoli or artichokes
Complex carbohydrates provide the long-lasting, sustained energy you need for prolonged workouts, such as running, cycling, high-intensity functional training, and bodybuilding workouts that can last for a couple of hours. Complex carbs digest much more slowly than simple carbs, due to their longer-chain molecular structure. Complex carbs are also made of sugars, but they do not spike blood insulin, they keep your blood glucose levels stable and provide a slow-burning or sustaining release of energy. These carbohydrates work best for prolonged training, improving endurance, building more muscle, and optimizing body composition. Complex carbs slow the absorption of sugar, slowing digestion, which keeps you feeling fuller for longer. There's no blood sugar roller coaster with complex carbs. The slower digestion and higher amounts of fiber also make these carbohydrates the best option for anyone looking to manage a healthy diet.
How many carbs do you need daily? Unfortunately, I can’t give you your ideal intake, but I can provide you with a range that has been tested and shown to work ideally for performance in athletes. The majority of hard training athletes will need a minimum of 200 grams of carbohydrates per day, and much more on intense training days. There are several factors that come into play when determining how many grams of carbs to consume per day (height, weight, exercise/training regimen, etc..) How many carbs you need depends on your total calorie goal as well as your sport. For most athletes, 4 to 7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight daily is right for general training. (Note that 1 kilogram equals 2.2 pounds.) Endurance athletes may need up to 12 grams per kilogram.
On intense training days, you should aim for the higher end of this scale, and consume your highest carbohydrate meals pre and post training/workout. On off days, athletes should aim for the lower end of the scale, but no lower than 120 grams of carbs. I’ve seen many who drop their carbohydrate intake way too low on non-training days and end up in the “metabolic wasteland” where they’re so low on carbs they feel like crap, and aren’t low enough to be in a ketogenic state and use ketones, so performance starts to suffer.
How should I use carbs to maximize performance, muscle repair and recovery, and/or muscle gain? Think of carbohydrates are a tool, just like chalk, knee wraps, lifting straps, etc.. Carbs are the best energy source for performance, and when timed correctly can be powerful for recovery also. The most important thing is having carbs in and around your workout. When you’re talking about performance and hypertrophy, this is crucial. Intra-workout is a no brainer and I’ll be the first to rave about the benefits of a high quality and fast acting carbohydrate source such as Glycofeed by Titan Nutrition.
Glycofeed is comprised of 27 grams of Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin (HBCD) per serving. HBCD is more soluble and is absorbed more easily by the body than any other carb source. Plus, it's considered a far superior source of carbs compared to other types of GI carbs like maltodextrin and dextrose as it provides a sustained increase in energy levels without causing spikes in the blood glucose and/or insulin levels. HBCD has a high molecular weight and low osmolarity, which helps to increase gastric emptying. This essentially means that the HCBD will remain for a much lesser time in your stomach as compared to regular carbohydrates and is absorbed by your intestines and sent to the muscles more quickly. Due to its unique branched structure HBCD is digested extremely fast and then absorbed rapidly and sent to the muscles equally fast. The faster the carbs and the essential amino acids reach your muscles, the better the workout and quicker the recovery.
This leads to extraordinary benefits that include an excellent energy source and help boosting athletic performance, help in faster recovery after a workout, help increasing strength and improving lean muscle gains while helping you to lose fat. It's also highly soluble and provides increased absorption and improved transportation of nutrients, increased stamina and endurance, and reduced DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness).
How about endurance athletes? Is carbohydrate intake different for them? The optimal timing and amount of carbohydrates to consume prior to, during and after exercise is an issue that all endurance athletes must contend with if they want to maximize benefits from training or perform at their best in races. For you as an endurance athlete, carbohydrate intake is going to be absolutely crucial. They increase energy storage for long runs, bike rides, swims, etc. For these types of athletes, when timed effectively, utilizing a high-quality carbohydrate and electrolyte supplement such as Carbion by Allmax Nutrition has been shown to increase muscle glycogen, which can, in turn, lead to improved performance.
Carbion is a blend of super fast absorbing carbohydrates such as Cyclic Dextrin, and slow absorbing carbohydrates such as Per4orm (4 form phased release dextrin polysaccharide), to keep your body fueled throughout even the most grueling of training sessions! This combination allows you to maintain blood glucose levels longer so you won't crash in the middle of your workout and you can push your body longer and harder at even the highest level of performance!
There you have it! To maximize your performance and recovery, it's crucial to fuel your body with the right nutrients before and after workout. Carbohydrates help maximize your body's ability to use glycogen to fuel high-intensity exercise, boost muscular recovery, and increase building lean muscle mass!