An Athletes Guide to Carbohydrates

Do Not Fear C6H12O6...(Carbohydrates)

Carbohydrates and athletes should have a life-long bond like peanut butter and jelly. Life as an athlete should be simple. Go to school. Practice. Eat. Watch sports. Do homework. Sleep. And compete. I wish it were that simple. My goal is to at least make one thing a little simpler by the end of this article – nutrition. To make this as easy as possible, I'll even break this article into sections.


Carbohydrates. Dr. Atkins, the inventor of the low-carbohydrate diet, has done a disservice to all of us by starting the low-carb, high protein diet trend. Carbohydrates are, by far, the most important nutrient for athletes. Somehow, athletes have gotten a whiff of the low-carb, high-protein diet and morphed it into something called the Paleo diet, or Paleolithic diet. In a nutshell, the Paleo diet consists of eating lots of lean meats, fish, certain nuts, vegetables and fruits. Basically, eat as similar to a caveman as you can and avoid all types of grains, beans, processed food, dairy or salt.

Where did athletes get this idea? If you progress a couple thousand years and look at the diets of Greeks and Romans, you will see that they ate mainly fruit, cereals, vegetables and legumes and drank wine diluted with water. Unlike the hypothetical diet of caveman, meat was only eaten on special occasions. We don’t know for sure when meat was introduced into the diet of athletes, but there is one account of an athlete named Milo of Croton, a wrestler from Greece. Supposedly, he ate 20 lbs of meat, 20 lbs of bread, and 8.5 liters of wine every day. But if you do the math, this goliath of a man ate 57,000 calories per day. Impossible? No. But very, very unlikely. There are also reports of athletes consuming alcohol before competitions as a form of ergogenic aid. In fact, there are even reports of marathon runners drinking a type of brandy before their competitions to improve their performance.


What does this have to do with carbohydrates? Obviously eating habits have changed over the years and fad diets come and go, but one thing remains the same – carbohydrates are always present. And why is that? It’s because carbs are the fastest source of energy during exercise. Proteins and fats can be used as a source of energy, but they are much slower. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to ride the bench in the middle of a basketball game because my body is too slow at converting fat into energy, and I sure don’t want to watch as it takes protein from my muscles.

The good news is that you don’t have to eat 20 lbs of meat and carbs a day, or drink some booze before you compete (that’s probably not legal in most states anyways). Lucky for us, our body is fairly efficient at storing glucose (in the form of glycogen) to use during exercise. However, only 2,000 calories can be stored at one time. You may think that is a lot, but if you are an endurance athlete, that will only last for about 2 hours. Now consider the fact that a typical week for most athletes involves team practices, private lessons, competitions, and possibly conditioning workouts. Add that in with school, homework and extracurricular activities, and you don’t leave a lot of time for your body to recover. What’s the solution? Eat lots of carbohydrates IMMEDIATELY after you workout.


Let me give you an example. One study had a group of runners run 10 miles at 80% of their max speed. Then they monitored their diets for the next 24 hours and had some runners eat a 25% carb diet (the low-carb, high protein diet), a 50% carb diet, and then a 70% carb diet. The runners who ate the 70% CHO diet recovered the best. As an athlete, the better you recover, the better you will perform the next day. If you are one of these endurance athletes, it is recommended that you eat 10g/kg of body weight every day. To find how much you weigh in kg, just divide your weight in lbs by 2.2. For example, if you weigh 150 lbs (150/2.2 = 68.1kg), you should be eating 680 grams of carbs or 2,700 calories from carbs.

So you may be thinking those are crazy long distance runners, that doesn’t relate to me. The same is true for all athletes. Even when doing a lifting workout, your muscle glycogen (stored energy) is depleted between 13-40%. The only way to restore this is to eat carbohydrates immediately after working out, and then frequently for the next 24 hours. Considering the example above, you could easily eat 2,700 calories from one stop to In-N-Out Burger. But not all carbohydrates are created equal and that juicy burger is definitely not nutrient dense. A lot of diets give carbohydrates a bad rap because they tend to be high in sugar, are overly processed and “make us fat”. In reality, there are tons of healthy carbs out there including fruit, oatmeal, quinoa, some cereals, whole wheat bread, vegetables, beans, rice and so on.

The science:

The role that carbohydrates play in recovery is actually two fold. As mentioned before, carbohydrates first role is to replace glycogen used during a workout. The second role of these powerful macromolecules is to enhance protein synthesis. The amount of carbohydrates you consume is related to how quickly you will see muscle hypertrophy, how sore you will be, and how quickly you will recover. Post workout, you should ideally consume between 3 and 4 grams per gram of protein, so for your sake let’s say 3.5g per gram of protein. This amount had been shown by various studies to be optimal in recovery and increasing protein synthesis. How does this work? Eating  glucose, the simplest form of carbohydrate, easily found in fruits and foods with a high glycemic index, will cause an increase in insulin secretion, which increases the amount of amino acids flowing into the cell. Like you learn in physiology, amino acids are the building blocks of muscle, so this means hypertrophy.


So where does actually eating protein come into this picture? If you are an endurance athlete you should be eating around 1.2g/kg whereas power or speed athletes should eat around 1.6 g/kg. This equals between 81 grams of protein (324 calories) and 105 grams of protein (423 calories) per day. That’s not a lot considering a 10 oz. New York strip steak from Outback has 58 grams of protein in it. Meat is definitely one of the easiest way to get in protein, but there are many people that are leaning away from meat and towards vegetarian sources of protein. One of the most talked about books write now is The China Study, written by T. Colin Campbell. The author discusses a 26 year long study on nutrition and its link to certain diseases. Moral of the story – don’t eat any sort of animal product including meat, eggs, and dairy. Although Campbell brings up some great points, it is impractical for all athletes to give up all these things. It is possible to get adequate protein from plant sources, it just makes things a little more complicated.

What we eat:

This whole concept of nutrition may still be a little foggy to you. Let me make it even simpler. This is our typical diet plus a few things here and there:

Fruit – all kinds, and LOTS of it

Veggies – we tend to boil/steam them in bulk because it’s a pain to cut them up

Peanut butter and jelly – Bobby’s are calorie bombs, Melissa’s not so much

Cereal – Raisin bran and cheerios

Milk – Used to be LOTS, cutting back some now

Chocolate whey protein powder – Costco style

Quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice – same thing, make lots of it at a time

Nature valley granola bars – when your on the go and out of peanut butter

Beans - well we try to at least, but doesn't happen all the time

Almonds – and candy corn

Oatmeal – mixed with the good stuff (blueberries, bananas, flax seed, brown sugar…)

Smoothies – Bobby’s famous for these

Turkey burgers/frozen chicken – seasoned and grilled on the Foreman

Sweet potatoes – for dessert

Frozen yogurt – when sweet potatoes don’t do the trick

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