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  • Writer's pictureStefanie Rock

Why athletes need carbs

Walk into any grocery or convenience store and it’s quickly obvious which products are front and center…Protein bars! Protein shakes! High-Protein Snacks! Low-Carb! No doubt marketers are trying to send the message that protein is important- and it is- but it’s only ONE of three essential macronutrients that athletes need EVERYDAY.

Without getting too technical with the physiological nitty-gritty that I geek out over, carbohydrates are the body’s source for energy. Granted, the body has to work some of its enzymatic and digestive magic to turn that pasta/apple/salad/carrot into usable ATP and stored glycogen (future energy), but the ultimate result is energy.

Consider carbs the fastest piece of athletic gear: need to race from one side of the rink to other? want to crush a ball out the park? The skates and the bat are like your carbs... quickest, most effective source of speed.

But, of the three macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat), carbs often get a bad rap.

Mass marketers tend to lump carbohydrates into an “avoid” category because that’s where the bulk of junk food- cookies, pop (soda for you north easterners), and candy- fall. But carbohydrates also include our fruits and vegetables: foods that not only help provide energy, but offer vitamins and minerals necessary for growth, health, and immunity.

“Simple” carbohydrates refer to the body’s ability to quickly turn the food into usable glucose to create energy. And, there are definitely times we need quick energy (potatoes, pasta, fruit)- especially as athletes. Sometimes we absolutely need our energy to be quick & explosive: jumping over the boards right into a play, racing across the pool, or stealing bases.

Complex carbohydrates (ex.: starches, beans, whole grains), on the other hand, will eventually be broken into usable & storable glucose but the process is a little more… well, complex. Which, ultimately, results in a longer duration of energy for those times we need a little slower burn: like a longer distance swim, overtime games, or a few mile run.

Keep in mind, while the body can store a large amount of glycogen, it’s still only a few hours’ worth of energy… with some bursts equaling a few seconds.

Which is also why carbohydrates need to be replenished often… particularly for youth/teen athletes.

You’ve probably heard of carb-loading, right? Basically it entails oversupplying the body with carbohydrates to use later in an upcoming game or race. While carb-loading can work for adults, it doesn’t really work for kids. Growing bodies can store a lot of glycogen in reserve, but not to the extent of a mature adult.

Youth/teen athletes need to replenish their carbohydrates frequently.

Ever notice that your athlete is craving simple carbs (often chips or candy) right after practice or a game?

“Just wait until we get home to eat” seems logical- but there’s a physiological reason why they shouldn’t wait... the glycogen window.

Depending on the duration and intensity of the event, they’ve likely burned through their reserves. And, the 30-45 minutes after an intense and/or (at least) 60 minute workout, the body is grasping for carbs to replenish its the glycogen storage.

Which also makes it an excellent opportunity to refuel them with nutrient-dense options (fruit, farro, veggies/dip, pb & j) for the added immunity boost, recovery benefits, and muscle repair.

Wait! Thought protein was in charge of muscle repair?

Protein does play the bigger role, BUT, it can't do it's job effectively is the athlete is getting more protein and less carbs than they need.

How do you know if the carb/protein balance is off? Contact me HERE and let's chat about their typical fueling patterns.

(*this post is an edited excerpt from my e-book, Fuel Their Game. Click here to order your downloadable copy).


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