by Laura Henry
A week or so ago, we invited questions for the coaches on Facebook. Christine Sternjacob of Pensacola, Florida asked:
"Nutrition. How many carbs & what carbs are best when training?"
Coach Laura Henry responds:
There’s no easy way to start to address the question of “which carbs and how many” since it’s a big, broad topic, yet one that is also so personal and individual since it takes some fine-tuning to get right for each athlete.
All humans obviously need to eat, but in order for endurance athletes to effectively meet their goals, they need to consume the right types of food to fuel their bodies to perform as they are asked. Glycolysis is the process by which the body converts the macronutrients found in food (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) to usable energy (in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP)). The body has enough fuel storage on board itself to fuel glycolysis well for 90-120 minutes, but beyond that, it becomes necessary to replenish those stores. What does this mean?? It means that you need to consume a balance of these macronutrients regularly (both before, during, and after workouts) in order to make sure that you’re properly stoking your “fire” of glycolysis. Since the body has a virtually unlimited means to store fat, but only about 3,500 calories worth of carbohydrate storage (in the form of glycogen), it means that during workouts it’s important to consume carbohydrates to enable the body to continue working efficiently beyond that 90-120 minute window.
Consuming fuel during workouts that contains both glucose and fructose (both forms of carbohydrates) enables the body to absorb considerably more carbs than if just one form is consumed since they utilize different molecular transporters. This means that your body gets what it needs faster. How many you need to consume depends on the distance that you’re training and racing, but a solid target for all endurance athletes is 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. If athletes aim for that target in training, they can fine tune what works best for them. That 60 grams can come from a combination of solid fuels and sports drinks. Examples of sports performance foods include: gels, chews, sport beans, and sport waffles; there are many brands out there, and it’s best to try each of them to see what works best.
Examples of sports drinks that contain carbohydrates as well as electrolytes are Gatorade Endurance Formula, Tailwind, and HEED, but there are many other options out there as well that can be tested.
An athlete’s daily nutritional needs should be periodized along with the rest of their training schedule. SImply put, this means that as an athlete’s training volume increases, the ratios of macronutrients that are being consumed should change. Generally, this means that the ratio of carbohydrates consumed becomes larger. Consuming proper amounts of bagels, pasta, potatoes, legumes, nut butters, etc. will help keep your body in balance and ready to go for your next workout or race, and that consuming sports drinks and performance foods during your workouts will keep you going stronger for longer. How many grams of carbohydrates will depend on the athlete’s Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), and the volume of training being completed.
All of this does mean that operating at a severe caloric deficit (consuming less calories than you burn through your daily activities) will not help you with your endurance goals and that cutting out entire food groups or macronutrients will not benefit you. Less is not better; better is better. As is often said: life is about balance. In the endurance sports world, it’s important that one’s diet (meaning a way of thinking about fuel and food, not a fad/crash diet to lose weight) needs to be balanced as well. Think about a fire: you wouldn’t expect it to burn unless it had some sort of fuel (wood, kindling, etc.). The same can be said of your body; you can not expect it to function well without proper fuel.
You ask your body to do a lot when you ask it to perform for you in a workout; honor that request and treat your body well by thinking of food as fuel, and by fueling your workouts (and lifestyle) properly with the right foods. :)