Carbohydrate is a nutrient long ignored and made debatable by people across the globe. This potent nutrient helps achieve peak performance along with completing other physical activities. Many people have the misconception that they should shy away from carbs in order to maintain their fitness. They believe that excluding carbs from their diet will help stay at bay from gaining unwanted fats and therefore continue neglecting it. However, not many know that carbs are also a source that works wonders to get back in shape, along with providing every athlete enough energy to sustain rigorous physical activities.

Carbohydrates comprise of sugar, starch and fibre that contribute to enhance metabolism and spare protein from breaking down to synthesise glucose. It is vital to fuel the body with sufficient energy required to reach the finish line. Therefore, nutrition experts recommend athletes to include 45 - 65 percent of carbs in their daily diet. Those consuming less than 130 g of carbohydrates tend to allow protein in the body break down and make glucose to provide energy instead of recovering muscles. Also, there are many other advantages of adding good healthy carbs for enhanced performance of an athlete as well as the wellbeing of an individual:

  • It plays a major role in regulating blood sugar levels like Hyperglycemia and Hypoglycemia
  • It helps eliminate the chances of converting fats into ketones that are toxic to the body
  • It helps delay fatigue allowing an athlete to perform for longer duration and at higher levels
  • It helps improve memory contributing to an athlete’s focus progress during performance
  • It helps reduce the risk of injuries in athletes and supports them mentally and physically

Timing is key when it comes to eating carbohydrate foods for athletes. Experts recommend maintaining the frequency, balance and timing depending on his trainings, lifestyle, age and so on so forth

FOR HIGH-INTENSITY PERFORMANCE, CARBOHYDRATES ARE STILL KING

Despite reams of new data that have been generated over the years and an ever-evolving understanding about how athletes metabolize foodstuffs, the experts agree that the primary tenets of sport nutrition have not changed much over the past 25 years. Although they acknowledged that recent research suggests an athlete's need for protein and some fats may be a little higher than believed by previous generations one factor that remains as true today as it did decades ago is the athlete's indispensable need for carbohydrate as a key component of the diet. Although dietary protein and fat can provide necessary energy to perform physical activity, carbohydrate is the substrate most efficiently metabolized by the body and the only macronutrient that can be broken down rapidly enough to provide energy during periods of high-intensity exercise when fast-twitch muscle fibers are primarily relied upon. Many athletes fail to consume enough carbohydrate to fully replenish muscle glycogen stores, a factor that can lead to performance decrements, particularly when strenuous exercise is performed on a regular basis.

SLOWLY ABSORBED VERSUS RAPIDLY ABSORBED CARBOHYDRATES

Before and during exercise, the rapidity with which a carbohydrate source enters the bloodstream could impact exercise intensity and duration. High-carbohydrate foods and beverages that tend to be rapidly absorbed are best for providing the muscles with the energy that they need during exercise to maintain performance. Over the years, some sports nutritionists have theorized that lower glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates, those that appear in the bloodstream more slowly after ingestion and promote a blunted rise in the blood glucose response, may be preferable before exercise because they tend to “meter” the appearance of glucose in the blood. However, this construct is not supported by robust data; the experts pointed to recent research indicating no difference between pre-event consumption of a low GI meal (lentils, GI = 26) or a moderate GI meal (mashed potatoes, bread) on the ability to maintain or improve high-intensity running performance (as a side note, the utility of GI as a predictor of foods appropriate for exercise performance and recovery, or general health for that matter, has been questioned by many sports nutritionists in light of recent data citing poor intrasubject and intersubject variability of the measure).

In the hours immediately post-exercise, research indicates that nutritious, carbohydrate-rich foods that can be quickly digested, absorbed, and transported in the blood can most readily alter the hormonal milieu to speed glycogen resynthesise, a key factor when performing strenuous exercise on consecutive days or, sometimes, during the same day.

LOW-CARBOHYDRATE DIETS AMONG ATHLETES: TREND OR FAD?

With ample available data supporting the need for carbohydrate in the athlete's diet, the experts expressed concern about the increasing popularity of low-carbohydrate diets among active individuals. Diet and exercise regimens such as the “training-low” concept (a type of periodized nutrition, as well as a strategic meal/exercise approach designed to promote training adaptations), which has existed for more than a decade, represent examples of low-carbohydrate eating for performance that are potentially more faddish than practical. The training-low concept generally requires an athlete to conduct heavy exercise training bouts after skipping a meal or meals to reduce carbohydrate availability and train the muscles to more readily use fat as substrate, thereby conserving limited glycogen stores and promoting greater responses in the molecular signals that lead to adaptation. Proponents of the “train-low” concept emphasize that athletes must compete with high glycogen stores, and many recognize that “train-low” may impair the ability to use carbohydrate during competition, increase the risk of illness, reduce training intensity, and increase protein oxidation during exercise. The experts agreed that more quality research is needed to clarify the utility of “train-low” regimens for optimal health, performance, and recovery from heavy exercise. Furthermore, all the experts indicated that “train-low” regimens will inevitably reduce training intensity and potentially compromise performance improvements.

The value of low-carbohydrate, ketone-promoting diets as a means of improving performance is also a matter of concern. Although previous research has suggested that physically active people can adapt to the use of ketone bodies as fuel when subsisting on a low to moderate carbohydrate diet and may become more adept at burning fat and conserving carbohydrate at low exercise intensities, the experts viewed the long-term use of such eating regimens as potentially harmful to the performance of the athlete. It is cited that impaired cognitive performance and mood, perceptions of fatigue, and an inability to focus on the task at hand as rationale for avoiding low-carbohydrate diet regimens. There is also a greater susceptibility to skeletal muscle damage while training or competing with low-carbohydrate stores. Low-carbohydrate stores make it difficult to sustain the intensity levels at which most competitive and serious recreational athletes train and compete.


Author: Dt. Manali Vora

Founder - Solidarity Nutritions, India