Here's how to use carbohydrates to increase strength and decrease your recovery time.
By now you may be totally confused about carbohydrates. The anti-carb camp will tell you that you don’t need carbs and they make you fat. Yet you’ve seen skinny top-notch endurance athletes chowing down on bread and fruit after races. What gives and who’s right? Actually, both are right and wrong at the same time.
The problem with blanket nutrition recommendations you see in the headlines or hear from trainers at your gym is that everyone is different. Taking one recommendation, like cutting carbs, and applying it universally will likely end in disaster for at least half of the people you talk to. Each person should have a nutrition and supplement program customized for their needs that’s dependent upon their training program and whether they need to gain or lose weight. With that being said, now it’s time to expose the truth about when and why you need carbohydrates.
As I mentioned before, some people cut carbohydrates to lose weight. And, for the insulin-resistant type 2 diabetic, that may be a wise idea. But for a high school or college athlete who wants to perform well, it’s a very bad idea. A mix of carbohydrates and fat fuels your activity. If you’re strolling through your neighborhood, you’re barely burning calories, fat or carbohydrate. However, if you pick up the pace and run or play any sport (I’m not talking about a game of table tennis) for an hour or more, you’re burning calories and using up some of your stored carbohydrates (from your muscle and liver). In fact, you only have enough carbohydrates stored in your body to last for just 2-3 hours of activity. If you’re walking for hours on end and therefore burning calories at a slow rate, your stored carbohydrates will last longer. If, however, you’re running fast or doing intense resistance training, your carbohydrate stores will run out quicker. This is important to note because carbohydrates fuel your working muscles and prevent your body from breaking down muscle tissue (this can happen when your muscle isn’t getting enough total calories).
That said, carbohydrates don’t just fuel your muscles, but also fuel your brain, nerve cells and red blood cells. If you’ve ever gone without food for hours and started to feel mentally sluggish and tired, that’s your brain running on empty. Eat some carbohydrates and you’ll almost instantly feel better and more alert. Now think about trying to play your sport while on a low carbohydrate diet. Your muscle tissue isn’t getting the fuel it needs and your brain’s starting to feel fuzzy. What does that mean to you? Well, your ability to make plays and read the defense may not be so great!
Now that you understand how important carbohydrates are for athletes, let’s take a look at what type of carbohydrates you need and when you need them. During the day, when you’re at a desk or watching TV and hardly moving your body, the best types of carbohydrates are those that give you the most nutritional bang for your buck: fruits, vegetables and whole grains. All of these carbohydrates contain fiber and a wide array of nutrients you need for good health. During all other times, you need quick, low fiber (fiber slows down the rate of digestion) carbohydrates. Sports drinks, gels, gummies and white bread, jam, bananas and grapes are all great examples (the last few are better post-exercise unless you can handle eating jelly sandwich while working out or between games.
Now for the timing:
Before exercise: If you are exercising first thing in the morning, you don’t necessarily need to eat unless you just feel better with food in your stomach (growling hunger pangs can certainly interfere with activity). If you are exercising for a long period of time, say a 2-hour swim practice, you can make up for a lack of breakfast by consuming carbohydrates steadily every 15 minutes while swimming (sports drinks work well since they hydrate you at the same time).
If you prefer to eat before exercise, try to do so 2-4 hours beforehand. The amount of carbohydrates you consume prior to working out depends on several factors including how long and hard you’re training, your fitness level and goals. In general, experts recommend 1 – 4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram body weight.
During exercise: If you’re exercising for less than one hour or moving at a slow intensity, you don’t need to consume anything but plain water or water + electrolytes (PowerAde Zero if you want flavor + no calories). If, however, you’re exercising intensely for over 1 hour, you should take in approximately 30 – 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour divided evenly through that hour time period. Consuming 10-15 oz of a sports drink every 15-20 minutes will deliver this amount of carbohydrate.
Post exercise: It’s important to eat your post-exercise meal ASAP and definitely within 30 minutes of training. If you wait, you won’t restore the carbohydrates in your body to the same extent. Think of it like a sponge soaking up water. Initially the sponge soaks up a lot of water. If you wait, some of the water may run off or evaporate and the sponge will have less to soak up.
After a long bout of endurance exercise, you need at least 1.5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram body weight.
While carbohydrates may seem more important after endurance exercise, they can help you gain and preserve muscle tissue too. Here’s a quick breakdown of when you should be consuming them and why.
Pre exercise: If you aren’t hungry, you do not necessarily need to eat carbohydrates before lifting weights. However, if you’re trying to gain weight, you might want to go with a sports drink or protein/carb blend beforehand.
During exercise: If you’re training for size, it’s wise to sip on a sports drink while training.
Post exercise: If you want to gain strength but still maintain a lean frame, consume a mix of protein and carbohydrates after lifting weights (at least 20 grams of protein and 5-10 grams of simple carbohydrates). If you need to put on weight, consume at least 20 grams of protein and even more carbohydrates post exercise (how much you should consume depends on how hard you worked out, your body weight and your total calorie intake that day but a 2:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio should be about right).
Hopefully you now understand how carbohydrates can fuel performance. For a middle-aged person who just wants to lose weight, carbohydrates aren’t as important. However, for athletes those trying to get into better shape, carbohydrates are critical for fueling mental and physical energy and helping to build lean muscle mass.
Should you now be convinced that carbohydrates are necessary to your athletic performance (and we'd hope you are!), 1R would recommend the following supplements: