Why Do Athletes Need Carbohydrates?


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 post, 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.

carbohydrates description with background of fruits and veggies, why do athletes need carbohydrates

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. 

list of energy sources to fuel athletes, carbohydrates, protein and fats, meal planning for teenage athletes

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:

  1. Enhance athletic performance: Carbohydrates provide energy for high-intensity and long-duration exercises, enabling you to perform at your best.
  1. Prevent fatigue: By maintaining adequate blood glucose levels and muscle glycogen stores, carbohydrates help fight off fatigue during intense physical activity. (3)
  1. Support brain function: Carbohydrates supply glucose to the central nervous system, optimizing cognitive function and mental focus during training and competition.
  1. Promote recovery: Consuming carbohydrates after exercise helps replenish muscle glycogen stores, aiding in recovery and preparing your body for subsequent sessions. (4)
  1. Support immune function: Carbohydrates play a role in supporting a robust immune system. Athletes who underfuel may have low carbohydrate stores and this can lead to injury and illness. (5)

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

Generally the recommendation is to consume 6 to 10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day. However, this range can be adjusted based on your specific needs and goals.

For instance:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Choose the right carbohydrates

To optimize your athletic performance and overall health, prioritize the following carbohydrate choices:


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

Carbohydrates also prevent fatigue, support brain function, promote recovery, and boost immune function.

Remember to tailor your carbohydrate intake based on your sport, intensity, duration, frequency, goals, preferences and what works best for your body. 

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?

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