Everybody’s always picking on carbs these days and – frankly – it’s time to stop. They just don’t deserve it. Despite their bad reputation, carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (along with fat and protein) that your body needs large doses of in order to survive. Once you ingest any carbohydrate, it’s immediately broken down into glucose and used as fuel. Any glucose that isn’t needed at the moment is then turned into glycogen and stuffed away in your liver or muscles for later. Either way, carbohydrates act as the main fuel source for your body.
This makes them especially important to athletes – who are constantly demanding more out of themselves. Although fat is also a fuel source, it is much slower and isn’t as efficient when it comes to short, intense activities.
The real problem – and the reason that people have vilified carbs – is that the average person doesn’t know how to use them properly. Let’s take a look at the different types of carbohydrates and try to identify the best sources of carbs for athletes.
Good, Bad, Simple, Complex
First off, let’s do away with the whole “good carb, bad carb” thing. That’s a gross over-simplification and doesn’t accurately describe what’s really going on.
That being said, it’s generally accepted that simple carbs should be avoided, while complex carbs are the way to go. To an extent this is true but, again, doesn’t explain the entire issue. The terms – simple and complex – actually refer to the structure of the carbohydrate, not necessarily how quickly they are broken down, as commonly believed.
The rate at which a carbohydrate is metabolized in your system, it’s Glycemic Index, is actually a function of many different things. These influences include the fiber content of the food, what else the meal contained and – yes – the simple or complex structure of the carbohydrate. A carb that is rapidly absorbed, and, therefore, has a large impact on your insulin levels is referred to as having a high glycemic index. As you might expect, then, low glycemic index carbs are those that take longer to get to work.
So which is better for the athlete? Sorry, it’s not that simple.
The Right Tool for the Job
Instead of thinking about carbs as some sort of necessary evil, it’s better to think of them as a tool that can be extremely useful – when used correctly. Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine explains it this way: “Foods with lower glycemic index can be considered “endurance” carbohydrates and those with a higher glycemic index can refuel the muscles quickly.”
So then, what are good examples of these “endurance carbohydrates?”
These are all slow carbohydrates that will have a minimal impact on your insulin levels while still giving you the fuel you need to perform for extended periods.
During a long event – like a marathon – however, it might be necessary to indulge in some fast carbs in order to avoid hitting a wall. Most people can store enough carbs to last about 90 minutes, depending on the intensity of your workout. You may also choose to have something sweet after an intense workout to quickly replenish your glycogen stores and speed recovery. Examples of high glycemic index foods include:
Deciding the on the best source of carbs for athletes, then, is a pretty complicated topic. In order to find an answer that works for you, think about what your goals are, the needs of your sport, and how long you’ll be active for.