Carbohydrates and Endurance Performance
Carbs are king. When it comes to endurance performance, carbs really are king. Eating the right amount, at the right time, will go a long way towards performing at our best.
Sometimes the consensus on carbohydrates can be contradicting and often misinformed, making it difficult to get right. Depending on who you talk to or where you read about them, the guidelines may vary.
What it ultimately comes down to is our own individual needs. This is something that will depend on physiological factors such as our height & weight, the level & intensity of our activity, and our personal goals. All of these factors vary in a big way from one person to another, and emphasise how the message for one individual, could be polar opposite to that of another.
In this article we’re talking about endurance sport, and why carbohydrate intake before, during and after exercise is of the utmost importance.
What makes Carbs so great?
Our bodies rely on a supply of glucose to continuously produce the energy that fuels us for whatever we do. In the body, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and they are either used as energy, or stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. If we eat too much, they may be stored as fat tissue as they are surplus to demand (a simple way of explaining a pretty complex process).
In light of this, you may well have heard the term ‘glycogen stores’. This is our version of a fuel tank. You can’t drive a car without petrol – you shouldn’t undertake endurance performance without it either!
Our fuel tanks can hold up to around 2000 calories (if we load and replenish it sufficiently). Just like a car, you can run out of fuel. This tank just isn’t big enough to get us through an endurance event such as a marathon. So what do we do? We refuel along the way.
Refuelling your tank
Now we know we need additional carbs throughout the event to prevent us from depleting our fuel tank and ‘hitting the wall’, we need to think about how we are going to do this.
A continuous intake from the start of the event will slow the rate at which we tap in to those stores, preventing depletion and helping to maintain performance. Unfortunately trying to top-up after depleting our stores and ‘hitting the wall’ is simply too little too late, and won’t help claw back those last few miles.
Research has shown us that optimal intakes depend on the duration and type of exercise (half marathon over full marathon for example), and around 30-60grams of carbohydrate every hour should help to keep us ticking over nicely. It can get more complex than this when we start to look into other factors such as the types of carbohydrate transporters, but to keep it simple for now, energy gels, sports drinks and any other easy to digest carbs are essential during endurance sport. Just don’t forget to try them out before race day!
What about after training and racing?
Another important consideration with carbs is the replenishment of stores. Frequent training means frequent emptying of these fuel tanks, and we must consider the volume and timing of our carb replenishment.
After exercise our stores are more efficient at replenishing, which is why it is beneficial to get carbs in as soon as possible, and in sufficient volumes after training. The volumes tend to be advised as grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight, so it can be helpful to seek guidance on your own macro requirements and how much/when we need to be taking these on board.
As previously mentioned, nutritional needs do vary from person to person. In endurance sport there is always a high requirement for carbohydrates. At times, the volumes can seem overwhelming and unnecessary (as many of my client’s query). However, hitting our individual targets and optimising our fuel tanks will translate into higher outputs and greater endurance performance. Ultimately, this helps us make greater gains in training and achieve better results on race day – exactly what we are all looking for, right?
Top tips for refuelling right!
As a sports nutritionist and marathon runner myself, I’ve practised and developed various nutritional strategies over the years to help meet these carbohydrate targets.
Here’s some of my fundamental tips which I hope will help you!
• Include large carbohydrate portions with every meal.
• Consume a high carb & protein snack/shake straight after exercise.
• Snack on high-carb, energy dense foods such as no-bake energy bars etc.
• Switch to refined carbohydrates in the 3-5 days before your event (white rice, pasta, bread etc.) and build your meals around these.
• Find a race strategy that works & stick to it (gels, drinks, jelly babies etc.).
• Find out your macro targets & hit them without fail.
If you would like to know more about your own personal requirements, check out
our range of Nutritional Consultations online here.