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The Power of Carbs

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While enjoying one of my favorite flavor GF fig bars around mile 80 of a 110 mile ride earlier this week, I started to think about the importance of carbs. Carbohydrates are a powerful tool for endurance athletes of all varieties. Understanding the different kinds of carbs and how to utilize them in training and racing can provide tremendous performance improvements for even the most seasoned of athletes. Lets take a deeper look...

Simple vs Complex

Carbohydrates are separated into two categories: either simple or complex. The difference between the two categories essentially comes down to how quickly a carb can be broken down and digested.

Examples of complex carbs include whole grain oats, whole grain wheat, quinoa, etc. The key here is to remember whole. These kinds of carbohydrates take a long time to digest and therefore provide long-lasting energy.

Examples of simple carbs include white flour, honey, maple syrup, etc. Simple carbs are essentially sugars. These kinds of carbohydrates quickly elevate blood sugar and provide an immediate energy boost that quickly fades.

Glycemic Index

The Glycemic Index is a system used to categorize foods based upon how they effect blood sugar. Low glycemic foods have little or a very slow effect on blood sugar, whereas high glycemic foods have the opposite effect. Foods that are high in simple carbs like cookies will have a very high glycemic index, as they will cause an immediate spike in blood sugar that will quickly fall. Foods that are high in complex carbs like brown rice or quinoa will have a lower GI, as they will slowly elevate blood sugar over a matter of hours and then slowly drop off.

What This Means for Athletes

Carbs and energy management are crucial for endurance athletes. Knowing when and how to fuel your body during training and racing is key to improving performance. Finding the right balance between simple and complex carbohydrates for what you do is determined by two things:

  1. How long is it?
  2. How intense is it?

The longer the activity, the more complex carbs you'll need. Whereas the more intense the activity, the more simple carbs you'll need. The body can only burn sugar (or simple carbs) when doing threshold+ type efforts. So for 5k runs, sprint triathlons, or Olympic cross country mountain bike races where you are near threshold throughout the entire event, simple carbohydrates are the only worthwhile fuel source. The higher the GI, the better.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have your half and full iron-distance triathlons, marathon mountain bike races, and ultra runs. For these long, lower-intensity activities, complex carbs need to be the primary fuel source. Whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat, or oats are great for keeping a steady supply of carbs entering the blood stream and fueling muscles.

Before and After the Race

Despite there being very clear advantages of one type of carb over another for certain endurance athletes, both simple and complex carbs serve certain universal purposes for all athletes.

For all endurance athletes, a pre-race meal should be consumed 2-3 hours before the race starts so that it can be digested and utilized before the gun goes off. For sprint racers and ultra competitors alike, this pre-race meal should be dense with complex carbs, rather than simple. Too many simple carbs this early before the race starts will cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a severe dip or a "crash."

Further, after a race, simple carbs provide the best aid to recovery for any discipline of endurance racing. Pairing simple carbs like honey with a protein source will greatly increase the uptake of these vital nutrients into muscles during the window of greatest utilization immediately after exercise.

I hope this brief guide on the power of carbs will help you in your next endurance event. It's a tricky balancing act to perfect one's own nutrition, but it can be done. With the right information and a healthy hunger for improvement, you can fuel for any endeavor.


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