A Sports Nutritionists Guide to Carbohydrates

–  and how to use them to optimise your workouts.

As a sports nutritionist, I work with athletes to optimise their performance through manipulation and implementation of nutritional strategies. I also work with everyday clients to improve their fitness, health and wellbeing. Basically, I love my job – and I want to help as many people as possible find a healthy, sustainable approach to nutrition. That’s why I’m super excited to team up with Tilda, and collaborate with them on the launch of their new super grain pouches. If you want to see what I cooked up with them as a perfect post workout meal, click here to view the recipe. In todays post, I’m going to be talking all about the importance and benefits of carbohydrates and how they can help to improve your performance and progress.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CARBOHYDRATES

One of the biggest things I want to start with is that Carbohydrates are not the enemy. We’ve all seen the fad diets which claim to ‘torch fat’ and give you the abs of your dreams all by completely cutting out carbs. They’re bullsh*t, and demonise carbs unnecessarily. Carbohydrates are actually a key macronutrient, and one that plays many important roles within the body. Carbohydrates not only aid with digestion but help with absorption of nutrients and water, cognitive functioning and also provide us with energy and muscular fuel. Ultimately, they’re a necessity within your diet and by including carbs, it’s a great way to optimise your training.

My Recommendations: Don’t be tempted to fall into clever marketing claims of fad diets. There are no healthy quick fixes when it comes to losing weight and getting fit in a sustainable way. If you do lose weight from a fad diet or know someone who has, remember it’s simply down to an energy deficit (eating less or moving more) rather than specifically cutting out carbs or drinking only juices. So instead of depriving and restricting your body, I encourage you all to turn your back on fad diets this January. Look after your body instead – nourish it and fuel it with healthy an nutritious foods.

 

DAILY CARBOHYDRATE REQUIREMENTS

When it comes to the ‘how much should I eat’ question – it’s a very individual thing. I would always recommend working with a nutritionist if you really want to optimise your training, and get down to the nitty gritty numbers stuff. However, as a rough rule of thumb, guidelines suggest that for the general population approximately 50 – 55 percent of total calories should be derived from carbohydrates. However, when it comes to active individuals or athletes I work on a much more specific basis. Here I look instead at carbohydrate requirements based of the demand of the exercise they are doing, in relation to grams per kg of body weight. This is a much more accurate way of ensuring an individual has optimal amounts of carbohydrates to perform their very best and optimise training adaptations at the same time. However, personally I believe as a society many of us aren’t actually eating enough carbohydrates. Mainly because of the influx in demonisation of them, and common misconception that they are ‘bad’ for us. So a great way to start with carbohydrate requirements is to just look at including a high quality carbohydrate source with every meal. This could be rice, quinoa, potatoes (both white and sweet are great), oats, pasta, noodles, fruit or legumes to name a few. Get creative, and experiment with foods that you wouldn’t normally use.

 My Recommendations: Although it is very important to ensure you are eating enough carbohydrates, please don’t stress about the numbers or ‘grams’ your consuming unless you are an elite athlete or have every other aspect of nutrition perfected. Also remember that 95% of athletes work with a sports nutritionist who works out and plans in everything for them, so try not to get caught up on numbers. Instead, focus on improving the quality of your carbohydrate intake, eating more carbohydrates around workouts and look to get a variety of carbohydrate sources within your meals.

 

CARBOHYDRATES: PRE WORKOUT

As mentioned earlier, carbohydrates are the primary energy source for contracting muscles, particularly through muscle glycogen and blood glucose. When you consume carbohydrates, the molecules are broken down into glucose for absorption into the blood. The glucose is then transferred to and stored within the liver (approximately 87 – 100g) and muscle (approximately 350g) as glycogen ready to be utilised during exercise. However, as these stores are limited it is important to replenish them through implementation of pre and post workout nutritional strategies. So, when it comes to pre workout carbohydrates, the main aim is to ‘top up’ glycogen stores and maintain blood glucose levels before you engage in any exercise. This allows for optimal energy delivery to the muscles during the workout, which is particularly important during prolonged exercise periods of 90 minutes or more. Think of it this way – if you can deliver more energy, you can work harder, for longer and as a result see greater progress in your workouts.

TYPE AND TIME

The main thing to consider when planning your pre workout meal is timings and type. I recommend trying to time your pre workout meal 2 to 3 hours prior to your workouts to allow for sufficient digestion, and breakdown / delivery of the carbohydrates. However, in certain sports or lifestyle scenarios this isn’t possible – in which case, aim for a smaller meal 1 to 2 hours pre workout. In relation to type of carbohydrates. I recommend including a high quality, moderate to low glycemic index carbohydrate source within your pre workout meal. Carbohydrate sources like brown or white rice (the Tilda pouches are perfect), oatmeal, cereals, banana and pasta are ideal.  It’s also important consider the fibre content of the carbohydrate source you pick. Generally, carbohydrate sources higher in fibre have a lower glycemic index which is ideal for athletes. However, higher fibre foods (particularly non-soluble fibre) can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, including gas and distention. Sources of soluble fibre such as sweet potatoes, strawberries, bananas and oatmeal may cause less issues so give these a try. Nevertheless, everyone is different, so make sure you try out different carbohydrate sources and combinations pre workout to see what you respond best to and in what amounts.

 My Recommendations: Always test out your pre workout meal prior to an important race, game or competition to test for any gastrointestinal discomfort and determine what works best for you. Also, pair your pre workout carbohydrate with a fast digesting protein source, and minimal fat.

 

CARBOHYDRATES: POST WORKOUT

Typically, we hear a lot about protein post workout on social media. Protein shakes, protein bars, protein packed meals – but little focus is given on carbohydrates. Don’t get me wrong, protein is extremely important post workout for adequate recovery and optimising adaptations from exercise. However, during exercise, the muscles use the stored carbohydrates as fuel to optimally contract and create movement. Therefore, I also recommend a higher glycemic carbohydrate rich snack / meal post workout to contribute to optimal recovery, whilst also ensuring that your glycogen stores are replenished ready for your next workout.

 My Recommendations: I always recommend pre-preparing a little post workout snack rich in carbs and protein for 20 – 30 minutes after you’ve done. Once you’re home, or back to the office aim to eat a proper meal, also rich in carbohydrates and protein up to 2 hours afterwards. This is where I found the Tilda super grain pouches particularly useful – especially as I’m on the go a lot. They are a great combination of healthy grains full of fibre to keep you fuller for longer. I paired that with a protein source for added satiety, and lots of veggies to make sure I’m getting lots of micronutrients. If you too want to try my post workout recipe using the Tilda super grain pouches head over to the recipe here, and give it a try yourself.

In conclusion, I really hope you enjoyed reading my top tips for improving your performance with carbohydrates. I really enjoyed talking to you all about a topic that I’m so passionate about, and I hope it can help some of you push past those plateaus in your workouts. Sometimes, it’s not just about training programming to improve, but how your nutrition can improve your workouts too. Be sure to let me know if you give the Tilda super grain pouches a try, and remember to tag me in any photos if you give my recipe a try.

Love, Beth x