Have you wondered why do athletes need carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates play a key role in the performance and well-being of athletes, regardless of your age or skill level. Understanding the importance of carbohydrates is key to optimizing your athletic potential.
In this article, we’ll explore what carbohydrates are, their impact on the body and why they are essential for your athletic performance.
We’ll also provide guidance on determining how much carbohydrates you need based on your sport and goals.
Read on to learn more.
What are carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are an important nutrient made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. They can be classified into two main types: simple and complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates, also known as sugars, contain one or two sugar units and have a sweet taste. Examples of simple carbohydrates include glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose and maltose.
You can find these sugars in fruits, honey, milk, table sugar, candy, sugar sweetened soda and sports drinks.
Complex carbohydrates, also referred to as starches or polysaccharides, consist of many sugar units linked together and have a less sweet taste. Examples include starch, glycogen, cellulose and fiber.
You can find complex carbohydrates in grains, breads, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, lentils, vegetables and fruits.
How do carbohydrates work in your body
When you eat carbohydrates, your digestive or GI system breaks them down into glucose (blood sugar). Glucose is the main energy source for your cells. It can either be used immediately or stored as muscle glycogen and in your liver for future activity.
Glycogen acts as the storage form of glucose within your body. It can be quickly changed back into glucose to provide energy whenever it is needed.
Liver glycogen helps maintain blood glucose levels between meals and during fasting, while muscle glycogen fuels your muscles during exercise and aids in recovery. (1)
When you exercise, your body uses different sources of energy depending on the intensity and duration of the activity.
For low-intensity and long-duration exercises like walking or jogging, fat is primarily used as fuel especially if in a fasting state and to spare carbohydrates. (2)
However, for high-intensity and short-duration activities such as sprinting or weightlifting, carbohydrates become the main source of energy.
Why do athletes need carbohydrates
Athletes need carbohydrates for the following reasons:
- Enhance athletic performance: Carbohydrates provide energy for high-intensity and long-duration exercises, enabling you to perform at your best.
- Prevent fatigue: By maintaining adequate blood glucose levels and muscle glycogen stores, carbohydrates help fight off fatigue during intense physical activity. (3)
- Support brain function: Carbohydrates supply glucose to the central nervous system, optimizing cognitive function and mental focus during training and competition.
- Promote recovery: Consuming carbohydrates after exercise helps replenish muscle glycogen stores, aiding in recovery and preparing your body for subsequent sessions. (4)
How many carbohydrates do athletes need
The amount of carbohydrates you need as a youth athlete depends on various factors, such as:
- Type of sport (endurance, power, team or skill-based)
- Intensity and duration of training and competition
- Frequency of training and competition
- Individual goals (weight loss, weight maintenance or weight gain)
- Individual preferences and tolerance
- Endurance athletes training for more than 90 minutes per day may require up to 10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight daily to optimize performance and recovery.
- Power athletes engaging in workouts lasting less than 60 minutes per day may benefit from consuming around 6 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight to support muscle mass and strength.
- Team or skill-based athletes training intermittently with varying intensity may aim for approximately 7 to 8 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day to maintain energy levels and cognitive function.
Maximize carbohydrate intake to meet your energy needs
- Consume a high carb meal or snack 3 to 4 hours before exercise to replenish liver and muscle glycogen stores.
- Have a small carbohydrate snack 30 to 60 minutes before exercise to boost blood glucose levels and prevent hypoglycemia.
- During exercises lasting longer than 60 minutes, consume a carbohydrate drink or gel to sustain blood glucose levels and delay fatigue.
- Within 30 minutes after exercise, consume a high-carbohydrate meal or snack to replenish muscle glycogen stores and facilitate recovery.
Choose the right carbohydrates
To optimize your athletic performance and overall health, prioritize the following carbohydrate choices:
- Mostly complex carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. These sources provide essential fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.
- Include some simple carbohydrates from fruits, honey, milk, low fat Greek yogurt, sports drinks and gels to provide quick energy before, during and after exercise.
Carbohydrates are so important for youth athletes striving for optimal health and performance. They serve as a the foundation energy source for your muscles, brain, and organs during exercise and recovery.
Opt for mostly complex carbohydrates from whole foods and incorporate some simple carbohydrates to meet your energy needs and support overall well-being.
What are your favorite carbs?
Steph Magill, MS, RD, CD, FAND has over 20 years in public health and nutrition experience. As a performance nutritionist, Stephanie specializes in sports nutrition and provides simple and actionable information so that athletes can be well fueled for high performance on and off the field. Stephanie has a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.