The easiest and one the most proven ways of improving performance is by manipulating carbohydrate intake, particularly for endurance type athletes or those involved in sports like soccer, water polo, and basketball.

Carbohydrates are simple sugars or long chains of sugars which are linked together [starches]. Paradoxically, carbohydrates are the preferred fuel during exercise of high intensity but are stored in extremely limited amounts in the body. This storage form of carbohydrate, called glycogen, is found primarily in muscles and liver. The glycogen in the muscle is used directly by the muscle which is being exercised. In other words, once its limited stores of glycogen are gone it cannot “borrow” from other resting muscles.

Depletion of glycogen by the working muscles leads to severely impaired exercise performance, which at its extreme is known as “hitting the wall”. There are two ways by which the athlete can manipulate the carbohydrate content of their diet to improve performance:

  1. increase glycogen stores prior to exercise, and
  2. supply carbohydrate during prolonged exercise.

How much carbohydrate is enough? We often express recommendations in terms of percentages of total calories. Even recreational athletes probably need to obtain 55-60% of their daily calories from carbohydrates. Most people can do this if they consume 3 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. However, seriously training athletes probably require 4 grams of carbohydrate per pound body weight, or 60% of their calories from carbohydrate. For example, a 150 pound person who is cycling, say, 300 miles per week would require approximately 600 grams of carbohydrate daily. This carbohydrate would provide 2400 calories. Good examples of high carbohydrate foods are breads, cereals, grains, pasta, vegetables and fruits.

Each time you exercise muscle glycogen becomes depleted to some extent. By providing high carbohydrate intake every day, it more likely that you will restore the carbohydrate which has been used, thereby allowing for another hard bout of training the following day.

Timing of Carbohydrate

Before Exercise

To avoid hypoglycemia or low blood sugar during exercise, carbohydrate should probably not be consumed within 1 hour of the start of exercise. The best pre-game strategy is to eat a light meal which contains 100 or so grams of carbohydrate 3-4 hours prior to exercise, which is low in fat and high in fluids. Such a meal might look something like this:

During Exercise

Carbohydrate is a proven ergogenic aid when consumed during exercise: carbohydrates allow the exerciser to maintain a given work intensity for a longer period of time. Recent studies have shown that fatigue occurs in both the exercising muscle [peripheral] and in the central nervous system [central fatigue.] Even rinsing the mouth with a carbohydrate-containing beverage can reduce central fatigue and improve performance. The effects of carbohydrate ingestion are seen rapidly during exercise.

Although we typically think of endurance athletes as having high carbohydrate needs during exercise, other sports such as soccer have been shown to significantly drain stored glycogen. Studies have shown that muscle glycogen was depleted by 75% from pre-exercise levels after one soccer game. Most of this loss occurred during the first half of the game [Karisson]. Furthermore, supplying carbohydrate during events such as soccer games may help to spare muscle glycogen and increase performance, particularly during the second half.

If the carbohydrate is to be taken during exercise it should probably be in beverage form. Beverages may be more quickly absorbed than solids and present less potential for stomach upset. A sports-type drink that has a concentration of 6-8% carbohydrate is likely to be easily absorbed during exercise. Most people can tolerate 1/2 cup to 1 cup of liquid every 20 minutes. This tolerance depends upon the individual and the type of exercise performed. If thirst is noted, more fluid should be consumed. Jostling sports like running are associated with more complaints of gastro-intestinal distress after drinking than gliding sports such as cycling. If solids are eaten during exercise [gels, bars] they should be followed by plain water to dilute the stomach contents.

Post Exercise

One of the best times to provide carbohydrate to the body is immediately after a workout. Immediately after exercise the muscle is most avid to restore the glycogen it has used during exercise. Keep a drink which contains carbohydrate in your gym bag, and drink it prior to leaving the locker room or before you hit the shower at home. Several studies have shown the usefulness of drinking milk or chocolate milk post workout. These beverages contain carbohydrate and protein in a liquid form. While athletes may not be hungry immediately post-exercise, they often are willing to drink. If preferable,though, you can eat a high carbohydrate food, such as bread, bagels, pretzels, or fruit with water. The goal is to consume at least 50 grams shortly after exercise.

Carbo Loading

Athletes will sometimes eat a pasta dinners the night before competition and believe that they have “carbo loaded”. Carbo loading is far more difficult to achieve than simply eating one meal high in carbohydrates.

Occasionally it may be prudent to supersaturate the muscle cells with glycogen. This is done by “carbohydrate loading” and may be of value if you plan to compete in an event which will last for at least 90 minutes and which will lead to exhaustion or near exhaustion. Carbo loading actually entails a weeks worth of preparation: beginning a week prior to the event exercise is cut by 50% every second day, thus sparing the depletion of glycogen. This will also allow for complete rest the day or two prior to competing. With four days to go the diet is increased to approximately 70% carbohydrate. For most people this would mean eating about 4 grams of carbohydrate per pound body weight.

According to this formula, a 150 pound person would therefore be required to eat 600 grams of carbohydrate per day during the loading period.