Carb up or get left behind
In the minds of many athletes, carbohydrates often plays second fiddle to protein. This is partly due to misinformation about how truly important carbohydrate is to the athletic endeavor, but also may be due to common misunderstandings about what carbohydrate is.
Although protein is critically important to health and certainly plays a role in sustaining and enlarging muscle mass, reducing muscle soreness, and improving muscle recovery, consuming excessively large amounts of protein does little to improve athletic performance when it replaces carbohydrate.
Carbohydrate is needed to fuel almost every type of activity, and the amount of glycogen (which is what carbs turn into in the body) stored in your muscles and liver has a direct effect on your exercise performance. Over the years carbs have had a bad rap what with all the low carb high protein diets making an appearance in the media. It is true that you do lose a lot of weight fast on a high protein diet sometimes within days, however what you lose is not fat. The body loses its glycogen stores and water, making you drop weight quickly. The result is you look leaner however you have depleted your body of its muscular energy source.
The truth is that the human body’s preferred choice of fuel is carbs and this is most critical at higher levels of exercise intensity, where there is a greater reliance on carbs as a source of muscular fuel. Like filling a car up before a long journey, you should be stocking your glycogen stores up before, during and after a workout (depending on duration and intensity of the workout).
There have been scientific experiments conducted in this area to determine the importance of carbohydrates in relation to exercise performance. In a pioneering study, three groups of athletes were given a low-carbohydrate diet, a high-carbohydrate diet and a moderate-carbohydrate diet (Bergstrom et al.,1967). The scientists then measured the concentration of glycogen in their leg muscles. The high carb athletes had twice as much as the moderate-carb athletes and seven times more glycogen than the low-carb diet athletes. They were then asked to cycle to exhaustion on a stationary bike. The high-carb athletes managed 170 minutes, the moderate carb diet 115 minutes but the low carb diet athletes only managed a mere 60 minutes.
This experiment shows how quickly you fatigue on a low carb diet. What’s more, athletes who train in a glycogen-depleted state tend to choose a lower workload or intensity because the exercise just feels harder.
Many are scared of loading up the carbs for fear of putting weight on however if you rely on protein as your main source of fuel you will fatigue much sooner or drop your exercise intensity and therefore end up burning fewer calories – and less body fat! It should be noted that when muscle glycogen and blood glucose levels are low, your muscles will burn more protein for fuel. So you end up losing your hard-earned muscle along with a reduction in your endurance levels. You will ultimately stay a certain level of fitness where your time in the gym is not particularly enjoyable and your training average to say the least.
If you are a sportsperson who is involved in a sport that requires endurance and explosive strength, this would include rugby, football and hockey, getting your training to the next level would be advantageous.
Serious exercisers who train at a high intensity at the gym 3 times a week or more would benefit from a carb rich diet, especially if you take part in the prowler sessions with Keri. Also people who enjoy endurance sports such as running, cycling and swimming need to fuel with carbs on a daily basis.
A good guide as to whether you are eating enough carbs or not is to notice how energetic you feel during your workouts. If you feel easily fatigued, this suggests low glycogen levels and an insufficient carb intake. Try upping your carb intake a little at a time, a fistful of pasta or rice in the evening meal to see how you feel during training sessions. Fruit and vegetables are also made of carbohydrate so include plenty of these in your daily diet. We recommend that some form of carbs be eaten during every mealtime.
However on the other hand, over-eating carbs won’t increase your energy levels. This is due to the fact that the human body only has relatively small amounts of storage in the muscles and liver for glycogen and excess carbs will indeed get stored as fat. You will feel heavy and lethargic with over-consumption and so portion control is hugely important. Little and often is key throughout the day.
The best advice we can give you is to listen to your own body. You will know when you have sufficiently carbed up as you will have increased energy levels and explosive power and strength during training sessions. Ultimately as far as I’m concerned, there is no better feeling than knowing you can finish the session and still have enough petrol left in the tank…
Eat to train