Carbs are the most bullied group on the food pyramid, no thanks to popular diets such as the Atkins and Paleo. Although these regiments have their respective merits, they've also helped construe a dark image of carbohydrates in which dieters have increasingly become fearful of carbohydrates and erroneously come to believe that carbs are what make them fat. Thankfully, there also seems to be a growing counter movement for the war on the war on carbs and as a result, more athletes and weekend warriors are learning to use carbs to their advantage
First off, let’s break down the role that carbohydrates play in the function of your body.
Calories (or energy) can be broken down into three categories, called macro-nutrients. These are: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Alcohol is often considered it’s own “fourth” macro-nutrient, however, anyone serious about their diet is unlikely to be inclusive of alcohol to their regular dietary intake. Simply put, proteins are the building blocks of body tissue, whether building, maintaining, or repairing. Fats are important to hormonal functions and insulating our joints. Finally, carbs are the most dominant and important source of energy, particularly for athletic performance and activities of high intensity. Although fats can be a perfectly good energy source for sitting around and being generally inactive, carbohydrates are of invaluable necessity for anyone seeking to physically excel in any demand.
With that being said, it is not carbohydrates themselves that are making you fat, it is the rate at which you are active (or inactive) in comparison to the amounts in which you are consuming your fuel sources (AKA, food.) If you are not expelling energy, it is unnecessary and excessive to be putting it in and thatwill make you fat. But let’s focus in on howand whycarbs are so important to the physically active…
Your body has three primary energy systems: the phosphagen system, the glycolytic system and the aerobic, or oxidative, system. Although the use of any one of these systems isn't exclusive, the intensity and duration of physical activity determine which of these systems dominate how your tissues function. High-intensity activities such as interval training, CrossFit, Strongman, and most conventional sports, rely heavily on the glycolytic system to provide the body with energy.
The glycolytic system itself is fueled by the substrates glucose and glycogen. When you ingest carbohydrates, your body breaks down these sugars into glucose and when there is excess, stores that glucose as glycogen which is stored in the muscles, liver and even the brain. During exercise, especially that of high-intensity, glucose is the primary source of energy while glycogen serves as back-up storage when those glucose levels become depleted. Resultantly, two conclusions to be reached here in that, A) the more readily available that glucose is in the body, the less your body will need to resort to backup storage, and B) the better your glycogen store, the less likely you are to entirely deplete the necessary energy source in such a way that would devastate physical performance.
So what can we determine about our intake of carbohydrates based on these two concepts?
Intra (During) Workout Carbohydrates
- A dietary source of carbohydrates during your workout provides more readily available energy that can reduce the breakdown of stored glycogen and thus reserve these stores.
- High-intensity performance also breaks down protein in the muscle and bloodstream as an additional resource of energy and by taking in carbohydrates during your workout you can reduce this muscle break down, resulting in less soreness of the tissues and better recovery.
- Carbohydrates raise insulin levels in the blood while reducing levels of cortisol. While insulin is an anabolic hormone that promotes tissue growth, cortisol is a catabolic hormone that will break tissue down. Therefore, your intra workout carbohydrates can help promote muscle growth and decrease break down during your workout and provide the levels of hormones that optimize physical performance and physique.
Post (After) Workout Carbohydrates
Immediately post workout and the few hours following, your body is most ready to replenish glycogen stores. Consuming carbohydrates during this time is especially important to ensuring that energy resources are back to peak levels for your next workout.
The quality of the carbohydrates you intake during these periods, both intra and post, are important. Carbohydrates can be scaled by the rate at which your body metabolizes the intake into energy from 0 to 100 on what is called the Glycemic Index (GI). A “low” rating is generally considered to be under 60 while a “high” rating would above 80. The lower the GI, the more slowly the body will digest it versus a higher number which indicates a quick rate of conversion.
During your workout, you want to consume high GI carbohydrates so that they can be quickly shuttled to the muscles. The same goes for immediately post workout carbohydrates in which speedy uptake will aid in both muscle growth and prevention of muscle loss. Certain sports drinks, supplements, or juices that are high in glucose or sucrose are excellent sources for intra and immediately post workout carbs. During the several hours following your workout, carbohydrates will still be important but the rate of digestion will not need to be as fast as intra and post workout. The further away from your workout, the lower on the GI scale those carbohydrates will be in foods such as quinoa, brown rice, or sweet potatoes.
Don’t let the rumors pull you in and don’t get drawn into fad diets that cut out or manipulate carbohydrates in a way that drains you of the energy stores necessary to perform well. Even if you aren’t a competitive athlete, peak performance levels in the gym translate to greater gains in fitness and physique. Fear not! If you can learn the vital role that carbohydrates play in your body and master your macros, food will be your greatest ally.
Sarah Loogman is a trainer and athlete of Northstate CrossFit in Redding, Ca. With a strong athletic background in collegiate sports, Sarah transitioned to CrossFit in 2013 and has since been familiar to the podium in fitness events such as Femme Fit and Northstate’s Fittest, among others. Sarah competed in the California ‘Super’ Regional in San Diego in 2015 with the Northstate team and is hopeful to qualify among California’s top women in 2016. You can find Sarah on Instagram at @sarahloogman.