The Carb Advantage

It’s unfortunate that the “C” word has become nearly as infamous as “trans fat” among athletes. Carb-phobia is one of the chief concerns that I tackle most often when I meet with new clients. My elite and competitive MMA athletes are particularly carb conscious since they must struggle with keeping close to their desired weight class. The truth is, smart carb planning is key to pushing athletic performance and warding off fatigue during a workout. Here are some of the most common carbohydrate-related questions my clients ask.

How many carbs should I eat each day to maintain my weight and improve performance?

While nutrient recommendations are often given in percentages, it’s far more accurate to determine nutrient needs based on body weight. Endurance athletes require a range from 3 to 5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight while a more casual fitness exerciser requires 2 to 3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.

Do my muscles use carbohydrates or fat for fuel?

You may be surprised to find out that muscles can use both of these nutrients under different circumstances. Exercise duration and intensity are the key factors that determine which source is preferable. Fat is the predominant fuel source at rest and low-intensity exercise. Carbohydrates are burned during BOTH high-intensity, short-duration anaerobic exercise and high-intensity aerobic exercise. So whether you’re planning on a long run or shorter bouts of explosive lifting, carbs will energize your performance.

Will a high carbohydrate diet make me gain weight?

When it comes to weight gain, it’s really a matter of looking at overall calorie intake over a weekly period. Excessive calories lead to weight gain. Carbs, in fact, offer the same number of calories per gram as protein (4 calories/ gram). While protein is a particularly filling nutrient, carb-rich high-fiber foods like oats, whole-grain breads, and beans are also very filling because they are digested slowly and offer a nice and steady release of blood sugar. Planning for carbs to play a significant role in the diet will give any serious athlete an advantage. Weight gain can be avoided so long as an athlete maintains a balance between calorie intake and energy expenditure.

Should I try “carbo-loading” strategies to increase muscle glycogen stores before a fight?

Muscle glycogen is the storage form of carbs in the muscle tissue and is the preferred fuel source during high-intensity exercise over blood sugar. Including quality carbohydrate sources throughout the course of the day will help keep glycogen stores full. “Carb loading” is a strategy that involves planning a highcarbohydrate diet in order to increase the amount of glycogen that can be stored within muscle tissue. While this strategy is indeed effective, it is only useful for events or competitions that last longer than 90 minutes in duration. So for a three- or five-round fight, carb loading isn’t likely to influence athletic performance.

How should I time my carb intake before a workout?

The pre-workout food should be predominantly carbohydrate based and lower in both fat and protein. A large meal takes about 3 to 4 hours to fully digest, and a smaller snack can take 1 to 2 hours to leave the stomach. So the best portion of food will depend on when you plan to work out after eating. Since most people prefer to eat within an hour or two prior to exercise, some good choices for that time frame include:

• ½ whole-grain bagel with a thin spread of natural peanut butter • 1 cup of plain fat free yogurt with one banana

• one serving of oatmeal with ½ cup blueberries • one Nature Valley Granola bar with two egg whites

• 1 cup whole-grain cereal with 1 cup skim or light soy milk

• one serving of whole-grain pretzels with one serving of reduced fat string cheese

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