Food, as you well know, is essential to get the energy we need and to be able to perform at our best during our workouts or when practicing our favorite sport. Adequate nutrition will allow you to reach higher work intensities and resist for a longer time practicing exercise. In the same way that rest is essential for recovery, food is essential to promote supercompensation and adaptation to sport. But what about carbohydrates, are they recommended? Here we explain which carbohydrates you should consume and at what time. In other words, we clarify whether you should consume carbohydrates before or after training, or even during exercise, and which ones. Read on!
Are carbohydrates recommended during exercise?
The answer is yes. Carbohydrates are essential to provide energy during exercise and are stored in the muscle and liver. Carbohydrates are present in a wide variety of foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products. When they are digested in the body, they are converted into glucose (or blood sugar), which is what provides us with the energy to improve our sports performance and, as we have already mentioned, part of it becomes part of the reserve for the muscles to be used in the event of any extra effort. Carbohydrates can be simple or complex, according to their chemical composition. The former include the sugar found naturally in foods and the sugars added during processing and refining, while complex carbohydrates include starches that are present in whole-grain breads and cereals, as well as starchy vegetables and legumes. The latter also include a large amount of fiber.
Carbohydrates in exercise: before, during and after training
As explained above, there are several types of carbohydrates. These can be healthier or less, depending on the processing they have undergone and how. In addition, the speed at which they are digested also varies, as in the case of fast-absorbing carbohydrates before training. As you can see, the choice of one type or another depends on this. Below, we clarify how you should consume carbohydrates before or after exercise and during, on the other hand we expose several recommendations of healthy carbohydrates at every moment offered by the professional cyclist of the Electro Hyper Europe Team, David Kovacks.
Carbohydrates before training
The most important meal is the one before your workout. Keep in mind that your body needs “fuel” to be able to burn during the session, no matter how easy or hard, short or long. Pre-workout carbohydrates should be consumed at least 2 to 3 hours before the activity – at least before you go out on the road cycling or with your virtual cycling simulator at home – so that your body can burn them during the workout, as you will have given it enough time to digest them beforehand and to prepare the body for the workout. Some of the most recommended options in these cases are the following:
- Sweet pre-workout carbohydrates: Oatmeal porridge, jam and bananas.
- Salty pre-workout carbs: Ham sandwich, pasta or gnocchi with tomato, rice with tuna or chicken (with more rice) and baked potatoes with beans.
It is important to dispense with unhealthy large meals such as pizza, since -although they contain carbohydrates- they have a low nutritional quality. The reason for this is that these are ultra-processed foods full of sugar, fats and ingredients that are not only fattening but also unhealthy.
Carbohydrates during exercise
Carbohydrates during exercise are also recommended, especially when high energy expenditure is required. In fact, this interspersed diet can prevent a drop in blood sugar and even fainting – of course, it all depends on the intensity of the exercise, for example, if you do a bike route with significant climbs to mountain passes. Several studies have also shown that in short workouts lasting about an hour, a drink or small amounts of carbohydrates can be very beneficial for performance. In the case of long workouts, between 2 and 3 hours, it is advisable to ingest between 60 g and 90 g of carbohydrates – for example, in long cycling races.
Some of the most recommended carbohydrate snacks during exercise are: granola bars (15-20 grams), energy drinks (30 g / 500 ml), energy gels (20-30 grams), bananas (15 grams), dates or nuts and oatmeal cookies (5 g / cookie).
Carbohydrates after training
And finally, we come to the carbohydrate intake after training. Think that after exercise you have caused a break in the muscles and depleted their energy, therefore, it is essential that they are rebuilt immediately after finishing. The important thing, in this case, is to eat fast-acting carbohydrates right when you stop, so your muscles will recover immediately. Next, focus on protein as it will help you maintain and build new muscle fibers. You can try some of the following combinations that work perfectly for pro cyclist David Kovacks:
- Recovery shake right after and chicken salad with whole wheat bread for a meal.
- Rice cakes with Nutella right after and a tuna steak with mashed potatoes.
- A grilled banana and tofu with turmeric couscous.
- Granola bar immediately after and bean salad with naan bread.
- Corn cakes right after and chicken and herb pasta (more chicken).
How many carbohydrates should I consume per day if I exercise?
The exact amount varies depending on the type of exercise practiced, as well as the intensity and composition of the athlete. In general, carbohydrate intake should be 45% to 65% of the total recommended daily calorie intake (2,000 calories). In the case of athletes the energy needed is greater and carbohydrates are the main way to obtain it, therefore the daily amounts should not fall below 55% of the total calories. According to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), the amount of carbohydrates in athletes should be between 3 and 12 grams per kg of body weight. The amounts vary depending on whether the activity is low intensity (3 to 5 g/kg), moderate intensity (5 to 7 g/kg), high intensity (6 to 10 g/kg) or very high intensity (8 to 12 g/kg).
What happens if I do not eat carbohydrates and exercise?
Not consuming the amount of carbohydrates you need, especially if you practice high-intensity sports, can have negative consequences for your health. Keep in mind that energy reserves will be depleted more quickly and this will favor the onset of fatigue -which translates into a loss of performance- as well as possible muscle cramps and fainting, among others. In the most extreme cases, you may even suffer a process of muscle catabolism, which basically takes place when the muscle degrades because it does not receive the necessary nutrients to obtain the energy needed by the cells.