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You buy a new Ferrari, fill it with 2 gallons of gas and take off for San Francisco.  20 minutes later, your high performance car is sitting on the side of the road out of gas. This situation is a lot like what happens when an athlete ignores carbohydrates. Some strength athletes believe that fueling the muscles with lots of protein is the best way to build muscle.  Although it is true that protein needs to be present in the right amount to build muscle, the fact is that carbs fuel both strength and endurance training.  Neither fat nor protein can be oxidized rapidly enough to meet the demands of high intensity exercise. Performance in the game or in practice is fueled by carbohydrates, and it is carbohydrates that give the athlete a sense of well being during exercise.

The Body's Fuel

Glycogen :The body’s fuel stored fuel, 80% in the muscle, 19% in the liver, Glucose: The body's fuel in the blood, 1% as glucose in the blood.Endurance athletes follow carb loading programs for races of 90 minutes or more. Competitions with less than 90 minute sessions of constant intensity should not use carb loading (Mayo Clinic guidelines).

Martial artists perform in energy bursts of 2 minutes or less (the lactic acid system). We use bursts of energy, build an oxygen debt and lactic acid, breathe to change the lactic acid to energy, and burst again.  We don’t need carb loading, but we do need a full store of carbs to support lactic acid training during workouts and in competition. This is done with a good balanced nutrition plan. If the training session or competitive bouts will last more than one hour, a sports drink with carbs will help supplement the fuel in our gas tank (liver and muscles) during training.

Fast carbs (Sugars):

Simple sugars (simple carbs) are fast acting. Sugars work well in sports drinks where we need to replenish our energy fast. Most of the simple sugars are high GI (absorbed quickly) but act slightly differently; Sports drinks use combinations of simple sugars attempting to optimize taste, gut tolerance, and absorption into the body. Sports drinks and other simple sugars should be avoided except when training hard for over 90 minutes. If you haven't eaten all day, you will be better off eating a candy bar before a workout than eating nothing. But this is short sighted eating, and you will not be able to keep up with more serious athletes by surviving on short term sugar without the accompanying nutrients of whole food. The average American gobbles about 30 teaspoons (.6 cup) of added sugars and other sweeteners every day. This is a major factor in the growing obesity epidemic. Eating too much simple sugar causes the system to release insulin through the pancreas; Insulin tells the cells to open their doors and let glucose in, pulling from the blood. Fat cells also open their doors to glucose, building more body fat. This insulin reaction drops your normal blood sugar, making you loose energy and mental awareness; the feeling of well being during exertion also drops.

Medium and Slow Carbs (Complex Carbohydrates)

A good balanced diet with whole foods will allow the body to gain carbs slowly, reducing insulin release and allowing the body to store energy more efficiently. Generally, starches, beans, grains, vegetables and nuts release their carbohydrates to the body at a slower rate than sugars. More processed foods usually mean a faster carb release.  For example, white bread releases it's carbs to the body almost twice as fast as whole grain bread; oranges and apples release their carbs more slowly than their juices.  A weigh loss note: It is often easier to take in more calories with processed foods than with unsweetened whole foods (don't try eating too many beans or vegetables). The way foods are combined when eaten effects the rate of carbohydrate release. When carbohydrates are eaten with protein and fats, the absorption rate slows down. The carbs in a sandwich are released more slowly than the same bread eaten alone. Complex carbohydrates also promote better digestion with fiber, and complex carbohydrates support better hydration. How much and how often? Carbohydrates need to be in direct balance with the energy you are using in a day.  The more you are exercising, the more carbs you will need. The less you exercise, the more likely that you will have extra carbs that turn into body fat. Pay attention to your body: How you feel during workouts and how lean your body is, and balance your carb intake as you learn your body’s requirements. Eating carbs 4 times a day is better than eating the same daily amount in fewer meals: The body stores glycogen better when supplied in smaller amounts more often. The USDA recommends eating 60% of your diet in carbs, so balance each of your meals with carbs is breads, grains, potatoes, rice, vegetables and fruits.

Eating carbs is vital before a workout

How you tolerate food may be different than your training partners so learn when, how much and what to eat. Carbs high in fiber (beans, high fiber cereals) are usually not as tolerated pre game or pre workout. Processed grains like noodles are often tolerated better.  Pay attention to your body 3, 2, and one hour before exertion. Which combination works best for you?

After training

Eat a balanced meal after a hard workout. Two hours is the longest you should wait to eat after training or competition. Bottom Line on Carbs: Athletes need to pay attention to their daily carb intake like gas in a car. Include unprocessed foods as much as possible. Avoid processed food that contains sugars such as high fructose corn syrup.  Use faster release sugars in sports drinks during training or events lasting over one hour, and not at other times.  Learn how many carbohydrates you need to eat in a day by balancing energy with body fat, about 60% of your calories in each meal should be carbs. Learn which carbohydrate meals you can eat before exercise, and how long before. Mayo Clinic Recommendations: To get the most from your workout: Eat a healthy breakfast. Wake up early enough to eat breakfast. Most of the energy you got from dinner last night is used up by morning. Your blood sugar may be low. If you don't eat, you may feel sluggish or lightheaded while exercising. If you plan to exercise within an hour after breakfast, eat a smaller breakfast or drink something to raise your blood sugar, such as a sports drink. Time your meals based on their size. Eat large meals at least three to four hours before exercising. You can eat small meals two to three hours before exercising. Most people can eat snacks right before and during exercise.

The key is how you feel

Do what works best for you. Don't skip meals. Skipping meals may cause low blood sugar, which can make you feel weak and lightheaded. If you're short on time before your workout, and your choice is candy or nothing, eat the candy because it can improve your performance, compared with eating nothing. But keep in mind, all candy is high in sugar and low on nutrients, so a snack of yogurt and a banana would be a better choice. Know that for some people, eating something less than an hour before exercise can cause low blood sugar. Find out what works for you. Eat after your workout. To help your muscles recover and to replace their glycogen stores, eat a meal that contains both protein and carbohydrates within two hours of your exercise session if possible. Women, in particular, may need protein after resistance training.


National Strength and Conditioning website Advanced Sports Nutrition, Dan Benardot, PhD.

US Olympic Committee website

Center for Disease Control (CDC) website

American College of Sports Medicine website

Mayo Clinic website

Wikipedia; Body Water