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Carbs & Sports Performance

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Carbohydrates and sports performance are a hotly debated topic, there have recently been TV shows looking at “low / zero carb vs high carb” dietary effects on long distance training, most recently the BBC’s Truth about foods series looked at this (I know, I consulted with a producer over the chosen protocols for the diet and the actual event in this “test”), sadly for the purpose of television, although the producers have the best intentions, perfect environments can’t be created.

Which is amusing, because it just goes to demonstrate that if a big, wealthy tv studio can’t get a “participant” to eat low carb for three days, then what hopes do the underpaid lab techs have of getting adherence to most dietary protocols!

There are a few ground rules people fail to appreciate when talking about carbohydrate and sports performance, let’s lay these out.

Carbohydrates maintain blood glucose levels during exercise and are required to replace muscle glycogen during intensive training / exercise, the amount of which required depends entirely on the athlete’s/client’s total energy requirements, the sport and activity being undertaken, the gender and a host of environmental conditions in which they are training / competing.

I am well aware that there are some individuals doing very well on lower carbohydrate diets, it’s not my role today to dismiss these or even state the superiority of one over the other, but today to shed some light on the use of carbohydrate in sports performance, fuelling and contrast it against the lower carbohydrate methods, which have their place in my opinion in a training cycle.

Again, general carbohydrate recommendations require fine tuning to individual needs, considering total energy intakes, specifics of training and monitoring training performance as feedback and I am yet to see someone not benefit from fine-tuning their diet when looking to push themselves forward.

On occasions during a training year/cycle, when exercise quality or intensity may be less important, then carbohydrate targets may also be less important to achieve and diets may be more closely tailored to suit energy goals, food preference or food’s situational availability.

Some modern protocols actually look at the ability for the body to adapt to lower carbohydrate training, although this is a hotly debated topic area as these periods of low carbohydrate training result in a less effective training session, but potentially an increased performance in the long term, we have no way of measuring for sure, if the result of these sessions have led to an improvement had we stayed with a performance oriented dietary intake.

How much carbohydrate do I need for optimal performance?

I’ve rarely ever met anyone who initially doesn’t find these numbers to be “crazy high” but that said in my years of coaching, I’ve rarely met anyone doing more than Light to Moderate exercise, very few people are heavily active outside of their exercise periods (i.e 1-1.5 hours in the gym every other day) and take long hikes at higher intensity, cycle or actively run / swim / cycle as you would if you were say, training for a triathlon.

At the light end of the spectrum a trainee might be training skill based activities or training moderate exercise totalling around 1 hour per day on average and looking at consuming 3-6grams of carbohydrate per KG of bodyweight per day to compensate for this.

So your 80kg individual training in the gym 3 times per week and undertaking little else (the average gym goer) may not even meet these requirements, which is why they seem so high and would likely suit as low as 240grams of carbohydrate per day (960kcal or close to 40% of an overall intake of calories) adjusted for personal preference, however going much lower is likely to impact recovery and performance , providing this individual is truly training hard, smart and pushing themselves in their sessions.

What if I do train, really hard?

Really hard? – We’re talking weekly training for triathlon, ironman and mud-runner type intakes, where you may find yourself performing a 5k+ combo-run/bike/swim more than once per week, which might see you performing and average of 1-3hours a day of moderate to high intensity training – In these situations you may be looking at consuming 6-10grams of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight per day and in these situations we almost always look to supplement the diet because of how high energy requirements are. Our main goals here are providing overall energy requirements and looking at duration of exercise and carbohydrate loading (which we will look at in a future academy blog – stay tuned!) but in general at intakes this high, convenience becomes a huge factor and the coach starts to look at fuel for during the event (especially when events last over 80minutes of continuous activity).

But, I don’t need carbohydrate – Why is that?

Okay so there are a number of reasons you may be fairing fine on far lower carbohydrate intakes than suggested here by myself in line with the ACSM guidelines, often the reasons are the most simple ones, but sadly a large portion of the low-carb-high-fat (LCHF) crowd are aggressively vocal in their promotion of said diets, so if you are on the fence, a little more open minded or just curious allow me to explain why some fair just fine, with the lower carbohydrate approach.

  1. Food choices:

The normal diet of fairly poor food choices, contrasted to the easy to follow guidelines presented in most LCHF diets, such as paleo is a strikingly large change up in quality of food, this alone can contribute to improved wellbeing and performance enough to feel as if the shift to low carb has made the difference – in reality the diet as a whole was improved so significantly that it wasn’t one element alone at all – it was multifactorial. Now if we look to improve our carbohydrate choices and training as-well…

  1. The mind is a powerful tool:

Ever heard of monks withstanding excruciating pain, extreme fasts or people getting drunk off of alcohol free beer that their friends have swapped? The mind is a powerful thing and belief can very often lead to manifestation! If we as coaches have an athlete who consumes the most useless diet religiously pre-training but smashes their session, even if we know that could well be counterproductive the psychology of their ritual can be more valuable than the small boost that might be gained from optimising carbohydrate intakes with them around training.

  1. Your sessions aren’t as intense as you think they are.

This is a big one and also one reason we see so many “permabulks” , session intensity and duration are two factors that contribute to energy requirements, but it is incredibly hard to train for a long time and at a high intensity, so often weight lifters have longer rest periods to maintain intensity or the intensity has to drop to allow for longer duration sessions, very rarely do you find athletes who maintain both for a good amount of time, people quite often overestimate their energy requirements from training which is why we harp on so much about overall daily energy expenditure being such a huge factor in weight management plans for the general population

  1. You’ve been doing it for so long!

We touched on “adaption” during lower intensity restricted training, this is a very real thing, but don’t be listening to people saying “oh im 100% fat adapted” that’s a silly thing to say… but through energy restricted (in particular, carbohydrate restricted) training we can increase our bodies performance and ability to function through a process called mitochondrial biogenesis, in which, we essentially increase our muscles “battery power”, we become more efficient at lower-mid intensities.
This becomes a sketchy area however when applied to for example, real world competitive situations where races consist of more than just one constant steady pace, with sprints, climbs, dashes and skill elements all combined. The thing here is to experiment between protocols and find where you are most comfortable and in your training, ensure you are always working at increased and a variety of intensities, if you can’t break into a good sprint during your cycle – you might need to look at your training and diet, the “low carb” could be effecting this.
Think of a mud-runner assault course, with elements of steady followed by acceleration, explosive power, hill sections, powering over a wall – these all require a good leap from energy system to energy system.

Why do so many people fail on the portion where they have to suddenly accelerate to run up the slippery slopes or call on arm strength and endurance to swing across the monkey bars?

Why? Training and diet... that's why!

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