Fuel for running
Carbohydrate plays a key role in the body of an athlete to stay on top form for peak performances. It provides energy for working muscles and the central nervous system, and enhances the metabolism of fat for energy production
By FM Bureau
How different is an athlete’s diet from any other person’s eating habits? Is there a special diet to enhance athletic performance? Perhaps these questions race through our minds while watching athletes energetically dashing across playing fields—be it track events, soccer, basketball, cricket, hockey or swimming. Let’s take a look at how much and how many carbohydrates an athlete needs to include in the diet each day to stay on top form for peak performance.
Based on research, an adult athlete requires 5 to 7g of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight. Every gram of carbohydrate produces 4 calories of energy. Such a large amount of carbohydrate is required by an athlete because it plays several key roles in the body like providing energy for working muscles, the central nervous system, enhancing the metabolism of fat for energy production and preventing protein from being utilised for energy. These functions are directly related to the performance of an athlete.
About 50 to 60% of calories in the diet must be from carbohydrate sources. The carbohydrate requirement for an individual is between 200 and 300 grams per day. For an adult looking to restrict carbohydrate intake, 120 grams per day is the accepted minimum. For children, the requirement is between 100 to 200 grams per day.
Carbohydrates are found in foods such as grains, fruits, milk and its products. Vegetables contain a small amount of carbohydrates. After digestion, carbohydrates enter the blood stream in the form of glucose and the glucose that is not utilised is stored as glycogen in the muscle tissues and liver. During exercise, the blood glucose is utilised first and then the glycogen stores are tapped into.
Role of glycogen
The glycogen deposits in the body will be depleted during exercise if glucose is not available. If carbohydrates are unavailable, the body breaks down the protein to produce energy. This is detrimental because the protein ceases to serve its primary function of muscle building and also excess breakdown of protein in the body can lead to nitrogen production which may cause stress on the kidneys.
How much carbohydrate is needed?
Carbohydrate requirements for an individual vary for different sports. An endurance event will require more energy than a short duration event. The type of carbohydrate to be given can be determined by its glycemic index (GI).
The choice of carbohydrates for exercise varies based on the GI of the chosen foods. Before beginning exercise it is important to consume carbohydrate to optimise glycogen stores. Two to four hours before exercise, an athlete can consume a meal rich in complex carbohydrates and low in protein and fat. Ideally 65 to 125g of carbohydrate can be consumed. Foods like a vegetable sandwich with whole grain bread or a cup of yoghurt with fruit or a cup of pasta can be eaten 2 to 4 hours before exercise.
One to two hours before exercise a fruit like banana or pomegranate or crackers with peanut butter or cheese will help elevate the glycogen levels without causing the athlete any discomfort.
Thirty minutes before exercise liquids are recommended and if thirsty, a few sips of sports drink can be taken right before the exercise.
During exercise, carbohydrate stores in the body have to be replenished especially for events lasting longer than 90 minutes. For endurance events, carbohydrate must be consumed 30 minutes into the event. Dry fruits, banana, sports gels and drinks are good options.
After exercise, most people neglect carbohydrate and focus more on protein. Consuming a moderate amount of carbohydrates within 30 minutes of completing the exercise optimises glycogen stores. Research has shown that protein utilisation in the body is more effective when taken along with carbohydrate.
When planning a diet for an athlete, carbohydrates should be moderated whether in the form of food or sports drinks. As every individual’s physical and metabolic make-up is different, carbohydrate should be given depending on the body’s response to the diet and also its impact on training.
It has been established that carbohydrates provide energy for day to day activities and also for exercise. There is a wide range of carbohydrate foods to choose from, depending on the athlete’s needs. While making food choices, fibre content, glycemic index, type of sugar and time of consumption must be taken into consideration for the best results on the field.
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