Fuel your muscles for the long haul
For athletes engaged in endurance sports—like running, cycling or swimming for more than two to three hours at a time—carbohydrates are a necessity to provide fuel to the muscles and are critical to go the distance.
Registered dietician and nutritionist Erica Goldstein offers a variety of tips to help athletes understand the best foods and options for carb loading during training.
“The top question I’m usually asked is what I should be eating during training,” said Goldstein, who sees patients on Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus.
First, it’s important to understand what a carbohydrate is, she said.
“Carbohydrate is stored in the body in the form of glycogen, which is basically links of glucose—or sugar—stored in large amounts. Glycogen can be broken down during continual exercise to provide energy for muscle contraction,” she explained.
Examples of carbs: Fructose, glucose and sucrose are three forms of carbohydrates. These can be found in a variety of foods, including fruits, like bananas, raisins and dates; and starch, like potatoes, pasta and rice.
Of course, there are a variety of sports-specific gels, chews and performance bars developed for athletes.
How much do you need?
The body can only store so much glycogen, so it is essential to consume carbohydrates during prolonged exercise, usually greater than an hour, to continue to provide energy to working muscle. “Otherwise, you may compromise your ability to finish your training,” Goldstein said.
According to research, she recommends consuming carbohydrates based on the intensity and duration of training.
30 grams after the first 60 minutes is enough for training lasting 60 to 90 minutes
60 grams per hour after the first two to two-and-a-half hours
90 grams per hour after three hours, dependent on high-intensity exercise
Goldstein advised that athletes vary the types of carbohydrate consumed. “Mix it up; see what works for your body and what you can tolerate,” she said.
She also recommended reviewing food labels to determine total grams of carbohydrates in a product, as well as the specific ingredients (e.g., glucose, fructose, sucrose).