Annie asked me if I was interested in writing a guest post about how nutritional needs for athletes are different than for others. I thought this was a good idea, especially in this age of Atkins and similar “carbs are the devil” diets, to explain how carbohydrates can really be your friend if you’re active and to give some guidance to those reading who exercise for longer periods of time. Honestly, this post is a little hypocritical of me to write considering I had gastro-intestinal (GI) issues during my first marathon from unwise fuelling the days before my race but all I can say is - do as I say, not as I do! And as a firm believer in “you learn a lot more from your mistakes than you do from your successes”, I will certainly not be making that mistake again.
Talk to anyone who does any type of sport at any competitive level and they will tell you that they rely on carbs to keep their energy up. This is not an excuse to pig out on pasta the days before a big race or big game. This is simple science.
The simple fact is, your body can only store enough energy (glycogen) to sustain about 90 minutes of exercise. After this point, without extra fuelling, you’re in danger of running out of energy and doing as they say in running circles “hitting the wall”. Poorly fuelled muscles are associated with needless fatigue so the more glycogen stores you have, the more endurance you will have. This fatigue is not only represented by tired body parts, it also seriously affects your mind and how mentally strong (or weak) you are. It’s amazing, really.
How carbs can help
You can extend your endurance either by storing up glycogen before your event, replenishing glycogen during your event, or both, using carbs.
Replenishing glycogen involves consuming carbs during the event. Thanks to sports drinks and gels, this is becoming easier and easier to do while “on the run”. For athletes in sports that are given breaks and a convenient place to store their gear, like tennis players on changeovers for example, they have the luxury of being able to use much more cumbersome forms of carbs, like bananas. Runners unfortunately have limited space to store their carbs and therefore usually rely on sports drinks and gels. I don’t think you’ll ever see a runner go by with a bunch of bananas strapped to their fuel belt!
Increasing your glycogen stores involves “carb loading” the days leading up to your event. This is generally only required when your event is longer than 90 minutes but even if your event is shorter, you will reach the starting line with maximum energy already in your system to perform at your best. Most people associate carb-loading with plates upon plates of pasta, but there are many other forms of great carbs if you’re not a pasta person (but really, who isn’t a pasta person?!).
The trick to both storing and replenishment is knowing how much to do and when to do it. Not enough or not often enough and you’ll run out of gas. Too much or too often and you’ll likely wind up with GI problems. Just like training for your sport, this too has to be practiced so you can figure out what routine is good for you on your big day.
Carbs’ best friend: protein
To make the effect of your carbs last even longer, pair them with protein. Protein slows the digestion of carbs, which encourages the body to release energy slowly and steadily, rather than a quick hit – something that is crucial for endurance events. Have pasta with chicken or a poached egg on toast.
Carb-loading doesn’t mean fat-loading
Be careful as fat often comes together with carbs. Instead of eating a roll slathered with butter, eat 2 rolls. Instead of cream sauce on your pasta, have tomato sauce or primavera. Some fat is needed of course but don’t stray from your normal fat intake. In fact, you shouldn’t even increase your daily caloric intake, just increase the proportion of your calories that comes from carbs.
Yes you will gain weight - temporarily
Your body will automatically store an additional few grams of water for every gram of glycogen so during the days leading up to your event it is common to gain a bit of weight. This extra weight is primarily made up of the carbs you’ll need to get through your event so don’t worry, you will use it all up!
Not all carbs are created equal
There are good carbs and bad carbs. This is pretty simple but it should be mentioned. While beer is a source of carbs, not a good pre-event choice. Post-event, for sure!
There are so many factors in play on your big day, whatever competition it may be. Things like the weather and your opponent are totally out of your control but if you have worked really hard, the last thing you want is for something like an upset stomach or heavy legs to keep you from performing at your best. Ask me on June 1st how my marathon went and I can assure you, I will not be telling you I had 3 porta-potty stops!