Why do athletes need carbohydrates?

Good nutrition is a key aspect of health for everyone and is particularly important in the training regime of any athlete. Not taking in adequate calories could be conducive to a lack of key micro and macro nutrients. This becomes more important when carbohydrates are involved. Pre-workout nutrition should focus on topping off an athlete’s glycogen stores by consuming carbohydrates before working out.

However, many athletes avoid carbohydrates in an attempt to teach their body to burn fat as the major fuel source. The thinking has become that consuming carbohydrates and the ability to burn fat, do not go together. The truth is that athletes can burn fat and consume carbohydrates. Always keep this statement in mind, “Fat burns in the carbohydrate flame.” This means that carbohydrates are required to initiate the fat burning process. Thus, carbohydrates need to be present in order for fat to be utilised for energy and for an immediate energy source.

Why Carbohydrates?

  1. Key source of energy:

Carbohydrates yield the quickest energy production in the body. Athletes need to consume more carbs than the average person to properly fuel and recover.  No matter what sport you practice, complex carbs provide the energy that fuels muscle contractions. Once eaten, carbohydrates break down into smaller sugars (glucose, fructose, and galactose) that get absorbed and used as energy. It is widely known that when exercising at a higher intensity and/or longer durations, your body will start using other stored fuel sources like fat, to sustain you through longer periods of exercise. Carbohydrates help fuel your muscles, like your brain, and enhance the delivery of fluids and nutrients.

  1. Easily digestible:

Carbohydrate are an easy option prior to exercise. They are generally well tolerated and preferred by athletes, with the ability to be more easily digested compared to food with fat or protein. Before heading out for your workout which will last longer that 90 minutes, make sure to top off your glycogen stores with simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates will give you immediate energy to get you through the first part of your workout, and the complex carbohydrates will propel you with sustained energy for the second part. Consuming a drink mix will be easier to digest, especially if you do not have enough time to have a snack at least 1.30 hr before your workout. If you do you have enough time for your body to digest solid food, you can opt for complex carbohydrates like whole wheat bread with some peanut butter and banana, or a fruit smoothie. If you are planning on having a solid meal, make sure to give your body enough time to digest it, otherwise you may end with stomach cramps.

  1. Improves athletic performance:

Performance of prolonged, sustained or intermittent high-intensity exercise is enhanced by strategies that maintain high carbohydrate availability. In contrast, depletion of glycogen stores is associated with fatigue (bonking) in the form of reduced work rates, impaired skill and concentration, and increased perception of effort. That is where carbohydrates via fluids and external food sources like gels, bars, electrolyte with carbohydrate mix, and food, are essentials for replenishing lost calories. It is empirical to make sure you are consuming enough calories throughout your workout in order to sustain the same intensity and for a strong finish.

Keep in mind that any exercise will require carbohydrates to provide with energy. Do not ignore them. Carbohydrates are not your enemy!

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