Depending on your training regime or ultimate exercise goal, the correct carbohydrates to consume to fuel your levels of energy can change. Find out which carbs you should be eating
Carbohydrates are the body's best source of energy because they can be converted into glucose fuel for your engine faster than protein or fats can. However, although all carbs form glucose when digested, not all carbs are created equal. For example, white bread and pasta may be wise before a marathon, but they're not what your body needs if you're about to pump some iron.
Your focus should be on eating the right carbs for your body and preferred sport or form of exercise. Read on for our guide to getting the right energy source for you.
Cardiovascular activities like running and cross-training can drain your muscles' stores of glucose (glycogen) in as little as 60 minutes, leaving you feeling sluggish, so the emphasis is on a carb-heavy diet. Aim to get 60% of your calories from carbohydrates, 25% from fat and 15% from protein. The more you train, the more you will find yourself craving foods like pasta, rice and potatoes, as this is the fuel your body needs to keep moving.
These so-called 'complex' carbs are what you want just remember to stay away from 'simple' carbs like biscuits, fizzy drinks and other junk foods. Getting your carb-injection isn't just part of your pre-race routine, either. Glucose gels, drinks, energy bars and fruit are all quick and easy ways to replenish your glycogen stores during training or competition. Depending on your level of intensity, you'll need 20 to 60 grams carbohydrates per hour of exercise.
If you're training to build lean muscle mass, develop a killer-six pack and grow biceps like tennis balls, that means shunning carbs and consuming monstrous amounts of protein, right? Well, yes and no. Even though you need protein to repair and grow muscle tissue that breaks down during exercise, many men actually overestimate their protein requirements. Unless you want to collapse in a heap while pumping iron, you still need carbs, just not quite as many as your road runner or triathlon buddies.
To stop your engine cutting out mid-rep, experts suggest aiming for two grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day for those of you doing strength training exercises, though this can vary according to the intensity of your workout and the size of your body.
If you're a big fella, you can easily step this up to three or four grams. Again, choose complex carbs like brown rice, whole-grain cereals and porridge, while dried fruit is an effective energy booster when eaten an hour or so before a workout.
Best of both worlds
If your ultimate fitness goal is head-to-toe lean muscle combined with an engine that allows you to run forever, your best bet is to adopt a programme that mixes both cardio and resistance training. But if you're mixing both regimes, how do you decide which carb sources are best for you?
Simple just remember that it's good to vary your diet, and you should just eat to supplement the type of workout session you've done on a particular day. If it's a cardio day, stick to that 60/25/15 rule, while toning down the carbs and ramping up the protein for resistance training will encourage muscle growth and fat loss.
And don't forget how important it is to eat good (complex) carbs over bad (simple); otherwise you'll find it hard to lose weight or maintain a body shape that you're happy with.
Ultra-marathoners and iron men triathletes train and compete harder, faster and longer than any other athletes on the planet, so it's not surprising that they need more to take on more carbohydrate fuel than the rest of us. If you're training for an ultra, increase your carb intake to 65% of your daily calorie intake (the rest should be 25% protein, 10% fat).
Complex carbs like whole-grains are ideal as they are also full of fibre. Fruit, although a simple sugar, is also good for a quick jolt of energy. In the two to three days leading up to an event, increase your carb-loading even further, stepping up to 70%.
If your training involves long hours on the bike, then the last thing you want is a quick burst of energy, promptly followed by a (hopefully not literally) crash. You need slow-release carbs, which will deliver a steady supply of glucose to those long, thirsty leg muscles. To stop your quads, calves, hamstrings and glutes running on empty after an hour in the saddle, eat a hearty breakfast of porridge or bran-based cereal, which will also keep hunger pangs at bay.
Other good sources of slow-release carbs include brown rice, barley, bulgur, lentils, beans and dark green leafy vegetables.
Swim extra lengths
How do you get enough energy into your system to give you speed through the water without leaving you feeling like your stomach is full of concrete?
For swimmers, carbs are still key but you should look to something like couscous, which is much lighter on the stomach than pasta, bread or potatoes. Couscous is another complex carb which will keep your energy levels stable throughout the competition, while also giving you a healthy dose of protein.
Swimmers should aim to consume 50-60% of their calories from carbohydrates, while also avoiding carb-loading in the days leading up to an event, as this can cause stomach cramps.
Bursts of energy
Before you lace up your football boots or dust off your tennis racquet, consider the carbs you'll need to keep performing those bursts of speed and energy for 90 minutes or more. Again, don't weigh yourself down. Choose whole-grain pasta or rice over the refined, white varieties. The latter will put some extra revs in your engine, but in the form of a spike which will quickly bring you back down to earth with a lethargic bump.
During a game, however, carbs like jaffa cakes, sweets and electrolyte drinks are a rapid way to pump glucose into your muscles and stop you from slowing down.
It's a common myth that to lose weight you should cut out carbs from our diet. You still need them, but as we've already discussed, the most important thing to remember is to load your supermarket trolley up with 'good carbs', not 'no carbs.'
Follow this, and you'll find it a lot easier to achieve your lifestyle and fitness goals.
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