Written by: Kathleen Rafaat – kathleenrafaatnutrition.com
As a female, we have been taught to be careful, almost fearful, of carbohydrates. When you become an athlete, the fear becomes a stumbling block if you do not approach it as a way to maintain physical strength and stamina in your daily workouts and races. Understanding carbohydrates and how to use them is one of the most important tools in your workout routine. If you are a ATHLETE, your workouts are based on cycles and each cycle requires a different amount and timing, of those carbohydrates. It can get complicated, but let’s look at the simple side of what carbohydrates do for your body and how you can use them to your benefit.
Carbohydrates are found in all food and are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. There are simple carbs, or sugars, which include glucose (blood sugar), fructose (fruit sugar) and galactose. There are also two-molecule carbs that include sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugar) and maltose (malt sugar). Simple carbohydrates are beneficial because they provide usable energy quickly. Complex carbohydrates, or starches, contain large 300 to 1,000 molecule compound and contain nothing but glucose molecules. It takes these compounds longer than simple sugars to come apart in the digestive system. Complex carbohydrates provide a longer-lasting source of clean-burning energy that can keep you going for hours.
When you are at rest, your body burns carbohydrates and fats, the rates of which depend on your level of fitness. As you increase your training intensity, carbs become the more important source of fuel for your muscles. Your glycogen supply is also much more limited than your body fat stores. Once they run low, fatty acids are used as the sole source of energy and performance is decreased. So now you understand how important carbohydrates are to your body during training and racing. Next, let’s learn how and when to eat and drink them!
If you look at training as a cycle, triathletes usually break the year down into four distinctive cycles, beginning with the Base Cycle. This is time you are laying down your foundation to develop aerobic endurance and muscular strength. It is filled with moderate intensity and high volume. If you look at the year as a whole, your carbohydrate volume should follow your training volume. So it makes sense to match up what you consume in the hours before, during and after training with the loss of fuel that happens during your training session. Once you become fatigued, you have no choice but to slow down or stop. Let’s work on how to stop that from happening!
In a perfect world, it is best to fuel your body 3-4 hours before you train but most of us have busy lives and it is difficult to eat that early. Let’s start with 1-2 hours before a training session that lasts for 75 minutes. An example is a 140 pound female triathlete. She will need between 2.5-3g/lb. of carbs for a low intensity training = 1,400 calories of carbohydrates.
Keeping in mind that you are eating 1-2 hours before your training session, it is better to limit your intake of carbohydrates to 1 gram per pound of body weight. So the 140-pound athlete could take in a max of 140 grams of carbs. Two hours before a whole grain bagel, 1 T peanut butter, banana and endurance sports drink would give you around that amount. If closer to an hour, using a liquid carb meal or energy bar is great since it is quickly and easily digested. Choose wisely and look for organic versions with the least amount of ingredients.
During your workout, you will need to ingest around 30-40 grams per hour if training longer than 2 hours. Start drinking as soon as you begin your exercise and continue to drink at frequent intervals throughout your workout. Gels, sports drink, banana, bars, are all good and should be used during your training to see which one works best for you. Remember to check your race website to see what they use, and practice what is on the course, in case your “special” combo is lost or dropped during the race!
After your training, make sure you are replenishing energy stores at a rate of about .75 grams per pound of body weight, during the first 15-30 minutes and for the next four to six hours. That is equal to 100 grams of carbohydrates for 140-pound athlete. This way you can maximize your glycogen stores and feel great for your next day of training!