Athletes train hard to perform their best, but many forget to focus on food when it comes to training. Eating a high-carbohydrate diet is important for athletes, not just before an event but all season long.
Carbohydrates, sometimes simply referred to as carbs, are an important fuel for your body, especially when being physically active. Carbs provide necessary calories for training and competition. They are also the primary energy source for the brain. This means not only do your muscles need carbs for energy, but your brain also needs to be fueled by carbs so you remain sharp and can continue to compete at your peak.
Without enough carbs, your body will use stored fat and protein for energy. Fat is a rich source of energy, but does not fuel your brain. Therefore, over time, your body will break down its protein sources--your muscles--for energy. Broken-down protein can be converted into carb energy for your brain.
Foods high in carbs include grains such as pasta, bread and rice. Other foods with carbs include dairy, like milk, and fruits such as bananas, apples and oranges. To increase your carb intake, try easy meals such as whole-wheat spaghetti with meat sauce and a salad, bagel with peanut butter and jelly with a glass of milk or veggie stir-fry, yogurt and a piece of fruit. These meals are high in carbs, but also contain protein and fat to help you recover quickly after practice or an event.
Whole grains are a healthier choice because they contain fiber and other nutrients. However, they do not necessarily have more energizing carbs. Just like everyone else, athletes need at least three servings of whole grains a day for healthy eating.
The exact amount of carbs an athlete needs is individual and sport specific. However, there are some general guidelines you can follow.
Athletes should aim for at least 60 percent of their calories to come from carbs. A simple way to track this is to think of your plate as a pie chart. Divide it into fourths. Aim to fill half your plate with vegetables, one quarter with carb foods and the other quarter with protein. To get enough calories, you will want to add a drink with carbs such as milk or 100 percent juice and include carb side dishes like yogurt or a roll to your plate.
Depending on your training intensity, duration and individual needs, you might need more than 60 percent of calories from carbs. This means you might need to eat more carb foods during meals and as snacks.When training or competing, if you routinely feel tired, sluggish or have a hard time concentrating, you may need more carbs. Someone like a sports dietitian can help you determine exactly how many carbs you need.
As your season ends and you begin tapering, you will want to increase the amount of carbs you eat. This will help you benefit more from your taper and is called carb-loading. Carb-loading works best when you increase the carbs you eat (up from your usual carb intake) and then reduce the intensity or duration of training. This allows your muscles to store the maximum amount of carbs. Easy ways to eat more carbs include adding carb snacks, such as yogurt, a piece of fruit or a small bagel with cream cheese.
For more specific guidelines about carb needs for athletes, seek the services of a registered, licensed dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition. Some personal trainers and coaches also have strong nutrition backgrounds and can also help you determine a sport-specific meal plan so you can train and compete at your best.
- "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook"; Nancy Clark; 2008