By: Lindsey Guard
Carbohydrate consumption is arguably one of the biggest factors in determining your body’s ability to adequately train, perform and recover in mixed-sport training and competition. Carbohydrates will vary widely based upon each individual’s energy activity.
That being said, I will reinstate what I have already mentioned in the previous blog that. As well as protein and fat consumption, carbohydrates are equally individualized in quality and quantity to each person. To better understand how your body processes, utilizes and stores carbohydrates (stored version of carbohydrates is also known as glycogen) it is best to spend concentrated time examining your physiological feedback upon consumption. The other option, to take much of the guesswork out, is to spend time with a nutrition coach to identify your carbohydrate demand.
Types of Carbohydrates:
To spare the super nerdy explanation of mono, di, tri and polysaccharides that likely might not stick, we will skip over the biology lecture and explain carbohydrates in a digestible (no pun intended) and understandable form.
There are multiple different ways to subdivide carbohydrates depending on who you talk to and how you’ve learned about them. We have everything from complex vs. simple, starchy vs. fibrous and even glycemic index classifications vs. glycemic load classifications. We will use none of these subcategories and simply talk about carbohydrates according to the following categories; starches, fruit, vegetables and everything else.
Starches include grains (rice, quinoa, barley etc), pasta, potatoes, breads and cereals (oatmeal, bran etc.). The fruit category is literally all types of fruit. Vegetables include all vegetables, even the starchy vegetables like peas, carrots, beets, squash etc. In regards to “everything else”, these are often the things you don’t find along the outside of the grocery store, like sweets and junk foods.
Fruits, Vegetable, Starches and Everything Else:
Most carbohydrates differ in their physiological effect on the body. How carb’s affect the body is largely determined by; how quickly/easily the carbohydrate is digested and absorbed, what we eat our carbs with (like protein and fats) and in what quantity, and the enzyme reaction from the mouth and gut.
Fruits and vegetables should compose a large portion of each meal, as these provide the greatest amount of phytonutrients and fiber of all the carb categories. “Large portion of each meal” is not to be mistaken with “greatest portion of carbohydrate intake.” As you will see, it is very difficult to supplement most of your carbs from fruits and vegetables and, if attempting to do so, many will find that their gut just can’t tolerate it. Though, these should be your second largest contribution to carb intake.
Because vegetables contain such a high amount of fiber, which is nearly impossible for your gut to digest until it nears the end of the digestive tract, this is a more stable form of carbohydrates. The best way to explain “stable” is in relation to how carbohydrates affect blood sugar. Usually, the more stable a carbohydrate is, the less of a spike will occur on your blood sugar.
My recommendation for the “fruit and vegetable” category is to aim for five servings a day. Each serving about the size of your fist and only two of the five should contain fruit. (This will of course depend on the training day, as athletes may have more fruit on a heavier training day.)
With starches being your greatest source of carbohydrates (let’s think grams here), it is important to understand that most starches contain trace amounts of fat and a bit a protein. Starches are usually slower digesting carbohydrates and are less likely to spike your blood sugar as foods in the “fruits” and “everything else” category will. Starches also contain fiber which we have discussed earlier in this article.
Everything else is junk food. This is the least satiating of all of the categories, meaning, you will feel hungry faster when eating these foods even at a very high caloric intake.
For the average person, it is critical to be strict on your consumption of junk food. For athletes with higher energy requirements, the “everything else” consumption does loosen up a bit. This is not to say that athletes have a free-for-all in the “everything else” category. More so, I believe it is important, for the sanity of busy and hard training athletes that, being relaxed every so often in these high calorie foods may be beneficial for the psyche of the athlete, in addition to help supplement some carb intake that you may be lacking in.
When it comes to the “everything else” category and choosing a quick carb, I would consider the following:
Do I trust this company?
Is it loaded with added sugar and/or can I read all of the ingredients and know what they are?
Does the food even resemble its original form?
What vitamins and minerals could it possibly contribute?
For example, there may be some legitimacy to consuming an organic fruit juice immediately post workout. As for Flaming Hot Cheetos, I do not see any method to that madness.
List of recommended carbohydrates:
Slower digesting carbohydrates (best used to stabilize blood sugar and eat during the day)
Fast digesting carbohydrates: (best used around workout)
Natural-occuring sugars in Dairy Product
Why are carbs so important?
Carbohydrates are our fastest form of energy for all the cell’s in our body. We recruit glycogen (stored sugar) from the muscle in order to provide adequate energy for training (especially in glycolytic workouts).
The carbohydrates we eat (whether that be from fruit/veggies, starches or the everything else category) are digested and broken down into monosaccharides (a simple sugar) before they are absorbed by the body. Once further digested, the monosaccharides are absorbed into the liver to fill energy stores. After they are absorbed into the liver, they are released into the bloodstream to enter cells. Insulin is then released to help store these sugars.
Sometimes, this insulin response, when it is dramatic (e.g. an intense blood sugar spike) can be very beneficial for post-workout nutrition. Other times, like before bed, it is far less helpful.
It is important to understand that many individual health factors determine our response to carbohydrates. Certain body-types are more carb-tolerant, while others can barely look at a carb without gaining wait or experiencing some gut disturbances.
Carbohydrates and Training:
As an athlete, it is important to first consider the difference between technique, training and recovery days. Understanding each of these will better help you determine your carbohydrate demands as an athlete depending on each day. Yes, that means that carbohydrates have such an impact on training, that as a steadfast athlete, you will be making these adjustments accordingly and often on a weekly basis.
Recovery: Recovery days are anything from literally doing nothing all day (passive recovery), to participating in some sort of low-impact, low heart rate active recovery. The idea behind “active recovery” is to maintain above adequate blood-flow to your muscles in order to relieve soreness, maintain range of motion and rid the body of metabolic waste. These days are your lowest intake of carbohydrates.
Technique: On a technique day, you may find yourself doing the most unsavory practices. This includes things like; jerk footwork, olympics lifting positional work, gymnastic accessory and more. If your training day incorporates most of this work, your carb intake will be more mediated than a full training day depending on the load programmed for the workout.
Full training day: This is a multi-faceted day, consisting of anywhere between 60 minutes to 3 hours of solid training (and in some cases, two-a-days at the gym, depending on the programming). A full-training day usually consists of accessory work, strength, metabolic conditioning and/or aerobic capacity work and more. This will inevitably be your highest carb intake day. I will explain more on why, but for a brief and segmented understanding of low, medium and high carb intake, just understand this is a high day.
The recommendations I give are approximately 1.5-3g per lb of bodyweight. I understand this recommendation is very broad in quantity, but, like I’ve said, your carbohydrate demands should be budgeted in with what your energy expenditure truly looks like.
For example: 165 lb male will eat anywhere from 247 g-495 g of carbohydrates daily.
Performing at a moderate intensity, 3-6 hours daily, may require ranges greater than this recommendation. Endurance athletes often need higher carbohydrate consumption for adequate recovery and glycogen replenishment.
Finally, it is also important to understand the timing of your carbs will like centralize around your training. Without going too far into nutrient timing (as this will be incorporated into another blog post in much greater detail) it is best to consume most of your carbs immediately after your workout. From there, I would tier the carbohydrates to smaller and then increase the carb intake back up as you get closer to your training time.
**Note: this is just an example to use to better understand what I mean by “teired” carbs. This is not meant a nutritional prescription for 165 lb athletes**
165 Athlete consuming 405 g of carbs on hard training days. Athlete works out from 5pm-7:30pm and it is a hard training day.
Immediately post workout consume 100 grams of carbohydrates at dinner.
The next day is another hard training day.
The athlete will consume 75 grams of carbs for breakfast
About 40 grams of carbs for a snack
Another 75 grams for lunch.
About 45 grams for a snack.
And 75 grams of fast-digesting (usually liquid form) carbs during their workout.
Total consumption is 405 grams
Carbohydrate intake can be as complex as the schedule I gave above, or as simple as using hand measurements in order to mediate and optimize your nutrient intake. What is necessary for each individual depends greatly on their goals, their phase of training, and their carb-tolerance. The experimentation required to achieve the knowledge behind ideal carb intake can be cumbersome. If you need a coach or guidance in identifying and practicing adequate energy needs, please contact one of us at Peak Functional Nutrition to help you gain the knowledge necessary to optimize your performance.