Nutrition & Exercise: Carbohydrates

My sports nutrition class finished yesterday. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I want sports nutrition to be my main focus. The idea of being an athlete’s nutritionist is pretty daunting, to be perfectly honest! I think part of the hesitation for me is that I have such a hard time with nutrition when I’m training for something, and I know that food and exercise combinations are extremely specific to each individual. When I have trained for the marathons I’ve done in the past, it’s been a challenge to figure out what and when to eat such that I have enough energy for a 3-hour run but I’m not still digesting my food when I leave on that run.

Luckily, there are others who love the idea of being a sports nutritionist! They can have all the athletes for clients. But I still did take away some great knowledge from the class as far as what the different macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, protein) do inside our bodies when we are exercising a lot and burning them for fuel. Today I’m just going to touch on carbohydrates, and I’ll cover fats and proteins sometime next week.

Carbs are the backbone of an athlete’s nutrition program. They are the most energy-yielding nutrient one can consume, because they can be burned both anaerobically and aerobically. Anaerobic exercise includes things like sprinting, climbing hills, or isometrics. Aerobic exercise includes endurance training such as running, walking and swimming. Carbs also are the main source of fuel for our brain and central nervous system. They depend on carbohydrates for proper function. When we eat a carbohydrate, it is broken down into glucose molecules and that glucose is either burned for energy or stored, depending on our activity levels. Glucose that is stored turns into glycogen, and is stored in our muscles and liver. We can dip into these stores during our next workout.

Athletes (and, everyone!) should focus on nutrient-dense carbs such as leafy greens, sweet potatoes, bananas, watermelon, grapefruit, oranges, berries, other fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Try to avoid empty carbs such as sodas, juices, cakes and cookies, sugary or processed cereals and candy.

Many people have experimented with low-carb diets. They were certainly popular and many had success on them. I won’t go into the pros and cons of low-carb diets right now, but I will tell you that they are not ideal for someone who is exercising a lot. Any initial weight loss on a low-carb diet will be due to lost glycogen stores (from our muscles and liver) and also a reduction in water retention. Once all of our carbohydrate stores are used up, the body has no choice but to begin breaking down proteins for energy. If we’re not consuming carbs but we are exerting energy, we need to find something other than glucose to burn as fuel. Protein from our muscles will be broken down into amino acids, which are then used for energy. This results in decreased muscle mass, which hinders the performance of an athlete.

But remember, try to consume healthy, beneficial carbohydrates that will not only provide you with fuel, but also with other vitamins and minerals that can be used to support your health. I avoid sugary sports drinks (especially those made with fake sugars) and use water or coconut water for hydration. A Gatorade may quench your thirst and give you the electrolytes you need to finish a workout, but I hate the idea of also putting sugar or fake sugar into my body at the same time. Go for the more pure drinks, and supplement them with a piece of fresh fruit.

I’ll talk about protein and fat for athletes next week…

Note: Fruit photos above were taken by my sister, Alice Dickherber. Look for them (and many others!) on my new website (link is at top of blog home page) soon!

1 comment:

  1. Ann, Fantastic new website, I am so proud of you! Great post, as well, regarding nutrition and athletes: I wish I knew all of this when I was training for my past marathons. Looking forward to the proteins and fats posts next week. Happy weekend! Patricia