Recommended Carbohydrate Intake for Athletes
“Carbohydrates make you fat.” “Every athlete should consume carbohydrates.” “ Carbs are fine, just don’t consume them after 7 pm!.” “The recommended carbohydrate intake for athletes should be ____”. With so much information and misinformation available regarding carbohydrate intake these days, how is an athlete to decipher fact from fiction?!
I’ve been in your shoes before and I understand the confusion. So in this article, we will explore the benefits of carbohydrate intake for athletes and how to calculate the appropriate amount of carbohydrate for your sport and performance goals.
Why are Carbohydrates So Important?
Carbohydrates are the most important macronutrient to consume when it comes to achieving optimal athletic performance. They serve as the primary fuel source for our bodies during physical activity. When we eat carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes, and fruit, our body breaks these foods down into even smaller molecules known as glucose. Glucose is then stored in our liver and muscles for later use. The stored form of glucose is known as glycogen.
If we do not consume enough carbohydrate each day, our body is not able to store adequate amounts of glucose.
If our body does not have adequate amounts of glucose to use during activity, our body then starts to break down protein and fat. This can be extremely counterproductive when it comes to gaining or maintaining muscle mass and perfecting performance.
Think about this on a very basic level. If our bodies are utilizing protein for fuel in the presence of insufficient carbohydrate intake, our body is not able to use protein to repair and rebuild muscle tissues. The end result? A decrease in muscle mass, strength, and power.
Wait, Will Eating Carbs Make Me Fat?
No, no, and no again! Our brains and muscles thrive on glucose, the energy form of carbohydrate. However, the timing of your carbohydrate intake, as well as the type of carbohydrate, is extremely important.
A donut may have the exact same amount of carbohydrates as a serving of a sweet potato. However, the donut is full of added sugar, inflammatory fat, and sometimes even added chemicals. The sweet potato, on the other hand, is full of vitamins, minerals and nature’s form of carbohydrate. As a result, your body sees that sweet potato and says “Yes! I can use this for premium fuel!”
Your body sees a donut on the other hand and says, “Hmmm I am not sure what all of this is, I think I will just store it for later, especially the added sugar portion on this donut.”
The timing of carbohydrate will differ slightly for each athlete. However, on the whole, most of you should not be consuming your biggest servings of carbohydrate right before bed. Instead, consider eating more of your carbohydrate-rich foods right before a workout so that it can be used as fuel as well as immediately after to aid in recovery.
How Do I Calculate My Carbohydrate Needs?
Properly calculating your individual carbohydrate needs is critical if you are hoping to achieve optimal performance. While this article cannot substitute for an in-person consultation with a sports dietitian, it can provide you with enough general guidance to start the process on your own. Simply put, endurance athletes or those training for 2+ hours each day at moderate to high intensity will require a greater amount of carbohydrates (glycogen storage). In comparison, an athlete who is training less than 60 minutes each day or participating in a sport that does not require rigorous training will require significantly less.
For example, a cross-country skier would require significantly greater carbohydrate intake to meet estimated energy demands vs. a golfer. Sure, both sports may be practicing 3 hours/day. However, the intensity is much greater for that of the skier, thus requiring more glycogen storage to pull from during training session.
It’s also important to keep in mind that carbohydrate needs will differ based on body composition goals.
Let’s take a hockey and football player for example. The energy demands will be quite similar for each sport, however, if my hockey player is hoping to lose 3% body fat and my football player would like to gain 15 lbs, their carbohydrate needs may be vastly different despite similar training demands.
Let’s break this down into more concrete examples. Here is a quick cheat sheet to guide you:
Low Carbohydrate Intake: 3-5 g/kg
150 lbs / 2.2 = 68 kg
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68kg x 3-5 g = 205-340g/day
A low carbohydrate intake is best for athletes participating in low-intensity sports including but not limited to golf, curling, and archery. Additionally, a low carbohydrate intake is also suitable for athletes who may participate in a higher intensity sport yet are attempting to lose weight OR those who are currently cross training and the intensity of their training will be at a lower intensity than normal. 5g/kg is typically the lowest we would want to calculate for an athlete who is in the midst of their season. However, under certain circumstances, 3g/kg may be appropriate is the athlete is working with a licensed professional.
Moderate Carbohydrate Intake: 6-8g/kg
68kg x 6-8 g = 405-545g/day
A moderate carbohydrate intake is typically best for athletes participating in a moderate intensity sport and also for athletes hoping to maintain their current weight. Moderate intensity sports often include sports that require short, quick bursts of energy vs. long bouts of endurance activity. Athletes that typically fall under this category include but are not limited to rowers, sprinters, jumpers, hurdlers, throwers, football players, and those competing in martial arts.
High Carbohydrate Intake: 9-12g/day
68kg x 9-12 g = 615-815g/day
A high carbohydrate intake is recommended for endurance and high-intensity athletes training more than one session per day. Athletes hoping to gain weight may also choose to consume a high carbohydrate intake each day. Sports that typically fall under this category include but are not limited to swimming, triathlon, ultra-endurance marathon, tennis, as well as football, basketball, and soccer during train camps.
Pro Tip #1: Carbohydrates are not such bread, crackers, and pasta! Fruit, low-fat dairy, legumes and starchy veggies are all excellent forms of carbohydrate. In fact, the closer to the Earth for your carbohydrate, the better you will probably feel after consumption.
Pro Tip #2: Pay attention to how your body feels after you eat a meal, especially your pre-game meal. You should never feed, tired, bloated, foggy or experience a sudden change in bowel habits. If this is the case, that might be a sign that your typical go-to carbohydrate is not the best option for you as an individual.
Pro Tip #3: Are you a diabetic athlete who struggles to control blood sugar levels by means of carbohydrate counting? If so, consider placing more of your focus on good quality fat. You may find that increasing the intake of plant-based fat at each meal may provide you with better blood glucose control. For example, instead of eating a plain piece of toast, spread 1/2 an avocado on top. Instead of plowing through a pile of crackers, cut the serving size of crackers in half and dip your portion in hummus or an olive oil based dip.
What are Some Examples of the Best Carbohydrate Sources?
Best Carbohydrate Sources
Low-Fat Organic Dairy Such as Milk and Yogurt
What Would the Carbohydrate Intake for Athletes Look Like in a Perfect World?
Post Workout Shake:
2 cups salad + nuts, seeds, chopped veggies, 1 TBSP dressing (15g)
Pro Tip #4: Please do not waste hours and hours trying to calculate your grams of carbohydrate to a tee. Nutrition does not have to be a perfectly precise science in order for you to achieve your goals. If you calculated 450g of carbohydrate for yourself, falling between a range of 430-470g will be close enough without jeopardizing your goals. Falling short 100g or exceeding 100g of carbohydrate will likely cause a problem. However, give or take 15-30g of carbohydrate is no big deal!
Here is a cheat sheet for carbohydrate intake
1/2 cup lentils/legumes: 15-20g
If you do not have access to food labels or you are interested in a more extensive guide for carbohydrate references based on brand name products, check out myfitnesspal.com to help you accurately calculate the carbohydrate content of these foods.
Well, that’s all folks! Now that you have a foundation for understanding and calculating the recommended carbohydrate intake for athletes, I hope that you feel more confident preparing your plate at mealtime. In the short term, you should feel more energized and satiated. In the long term, I hope that you will find this new found energy leads to your ability to push yourself harder for longer during workouts, ultimately resulting in a personal best in performance.
Is your estimated carbohydrate intake higher, lower or exactly what you had estimated for yourself? If you’re a coach, what is the recommended carbohydrate intake you most often recommend for y0ur athletes? Share your comments below!