The Importance of Carbohydrates for Endurance Athletes

by Jim Gazzale

This is the third article in a series where we discuss proper nutrition for endurance athletes. This month focuses on the importance of carbohydrates in the endurance athlete’s diet.

Each macronutrient (fat, carbohydrate, protein) plays an important role in health and performance. For example, different carbohydrates will affect energy and performance depending on nutrient timing and type of carbohydrate an endurance athlete eats. Fats are the most calorically dense macronutrient and if overconsumed can negatively affect body composition. Protein during and after workouts will be used for energy and repair, respectively.

Body composition, current health, and athletic goals will play a key role in determining the best macronutrient manipulation for a specific athlete. For example, a bodybuilder will require more protein and fewer carbohydrates than a long-distance triathlete. Additionally, different body types (endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph) utilize the macronutrients in different ways. Ectomorphs have a higher carbohydrate tolerance than endomorphs, who generally store excess calories as fat more easily. Mesomorphs have a tendency to build muscle more easily than the other two body types. Of course, different health attributes of the individual athlete will play a role in macronutrient protocols as well. If an athlete is deficient in one area, a particular focus on a specific macronutrient may be required until the deficiency is remedied. 

The importance of carbohydrates

For carbohydrates, generally athletes should consume 6 to 12 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Athletes logging lower training hours should be closer to the lower end of that range, and those training over longer durations will be more towards the higher end. 

Given the need for adequate carbohydrate intake, it should make up 60% of the total daily calories. Carbohydrate (and protein) contains 4 calories per gram. To arrive at the daily caloric needs for carbohydrate and then reverse further out into grams needed per day, multiply daily calories by .6 to arrive at calories from carbohydrate and then divide that by four. 

How much carbohydrate do I need?

This is the recommended target for an athlete at roughly 160 pounds using the calorie totals outlined above. 

Training days: 2,055 calories worth of carbohydrate, which is 514g

Competition days: 2,840 calories, 709g

Recovery days: 1852 calories, 463g 

What should I eat?

Focus on consuming the outlined amount of carbohydrates through potatoes, rice (brown and white), beans, fruits, vegetables, and dietary supplements pre-, intra-, and post-workout. Those supplements will include energy gels, which contain a mix of glucose and fructose, and a dextrose carbohydrate powder for post-workout recovery. 

Because of the increased carbohydrate intake in relation to fats and protein, each meal should contain a fair amount of carbohydrate. The timing of carbohydrate intake as well as the type of carbohydrate matters too. For example, it’s my recommendation that complex carbohydrates be consumed at mealtime, leaving the simple carbohydrates for in and around a workout. An example of this would be to have a high protein and carbohydrate shake 2-3 hours ahead of a session, with roughly 30g protein and 80g of fast digesting carbohydrates. During the workout, taking in around 100-125g of carbohydrate to fuel a quality session is ideal. Then post workout, another shake with 20g of protein and 70-80g of fast absorbing carbohydrate. This is important to help start the recovery process as quickly as possible, which is why simple carbohydrates are more advantageous in and around workouts.

Outside of workouts, carbohydrates will come from fruits, vegetables, potatoes, and rice as mentioned earlier.

       Guide to carb sources: Precision Nutrition

Get a customized guide specific to your goals

If you’d like a custom, done-for-you guide that will help you:
●    eat the right amount of food at every meal;
●    easily judge the portion sizes that are right for your body and your goals;
●    choose foods based on your eating preferences;
●    track your food intake and stay consistent;
●    build your daily menu using sample meal ideas; and
●    make adjustments for continual results

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Jim Gazzale
Sports Nutrition Specialist, USAT, USAC, PN1, Certified Online Trainer, Proprietor SENS Fitness

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