Carbs for Competitive Athletes

Podcastimage_164578_medium This is a guest post by P.R. Cole, MS, RD.

Many of my clients are curious about the role of carbohydrates in their diets. Both amateur and professional athletes often ask me whether or not they should follow a low carb diet to optimize their weight loss and/or athletic performance.  A casual or recreational athlete can follow a lower carb diet and see success with weight loss but when it comes to elite and highly competitive athletes much more attention needs to paid to the right amount of carbs each day to live up to their training potential. Even if you're trying to lose weight as a competitive athlete, you'll still need to keep up your carb intake to fuel those intense workouts. Rather cutting back on overall calories instead of a specific macronutrient will help with weight loss without sacrificing endurance.

Here are answers to some of the most common carb-centric questions I get.

Why are carbs so important?

The fuel that your body chooses is based on exercise intensity and the percentage of your VO2 max (maximum uptake of oxygen) The more intense your workout is, the more carbohydrates you burn for fuel. Carbs are stored in muscle as glycogen and they also circulate in the blood as "blood sugar."

Doesn't eating carbs lead to weight gain?

Weight gain isn't a result of eating a diet rich in wholesome carbohydrates. It's caused overtime by consuming more overall calories than you burn.  Of course not all carbohydrates are created equal. Carbs from whole grains, fruits and legumes are more nutritious choices than refined carbs from bakery goods and candies.

What percentage of my diet should be made up of carbs?

While its ok for serious athletes to estimate carb needs at around 45-55% of total calories, it's far more precise to determine your needs based on how much you weigh. Use this chart for reference and remember that 1 gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories.

Exercise Intensity                              Recommended Daily Carbohydrate intake

Low                                                     1.5-2.5 grams per lb of body weight

Moderate (~1 hr/day)                       2.3-3.2 g/lb

Endurance (1-3 hrs/day)                 2.5-4.5 g/lb

High Endurance (>4-5 hrs/day)     3.5-5.5 g/lb

Does eating a lot of carbohydrates make you store more fuel in muscles?

Yes! Nutrition regimens with the right amount of carbs help your body adapt to storing more muscle glycogen. It's like being able to increase the size of your car's gas tank.

If I'm trying to lose weight, should I avoid sports drinks?

This question is a little more complicated than it seems. The rule of thumb is to use a sports drink when you train intensely for more than an hour. If the workouts are less than an hour then usually plain water is fine for hydration.  It's when you pass that 60 min mark that the sports drink is useful to help replace electrolytes lost in sweat and give you a boost of blood sugar to ward off fatigue.

If you are a recreational athlete then you can probably get away with just hydrating with water if you're less than concerned about achieving peak training performance. However if you're seriously training for a competition then I suggest using a sports drink for those lengthy endurance sessions that are longer than an hour. You can still lose weight if you plan your daily calories wisely and factor in the sports drink as you would a snack.

What's the best sports drink?

Different people have different preferences in taste so the first thing is to find a brand that you like the taste of. If you hate the flavor odds are you wont want to drink it. The ideal sports beverage has the following per 8 oz. serving size

  • 50-80 calories
  • About 110-220 mg of sodium
  • About 30 mg potassium

The body is much better at conserving potassium than sodium, which is why the sodium content of a sports drink is a little higher than the potassium.

PR Cole is an accredited Registered Dietitian (RD) with the American Dietetic Association. She holds a masters degree from Columbia University in nutrition and applied physiology. Cole is the founder of Fuel the Fighter LLC and is the nutritionist at the TapouT Training Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Follow her on Twitter @FueltheFighter.

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