Carbohydrates: Your Primary Energy Source for Exercising

If you’re here, it means you’ve decided to lose weight, or at least stay in shape. You’ve made the right decision and I’m here to help you! We have covered a few nutrition subjects so far but in this post, I will be concentrating on the importance of carbohydrates for exercising.

Carbohydrates should make up a major part of your daily dietary intake in order for you to maintain optimum physical performance, whether at the gym, working out on your new elliptical machine - or simply living a healthy life. Ask any qualified nutritionist, fitness expert, dietitian or physician and they will tell you I’m right. All the energy you need to get up out of bed in the morning as well as work out comes from the fluids you drink and the food you eat every day.

carbohydrates for exercise

Carbohydrates, proteins and even fats – yes I said fats (healthy fats that is) – are equally important to help keep you energetic and healthy. If you are planning to keep fit, lose weight or build muscles, you will require all of these nutrients. Of course, the ratio in which you need to consume these nutrients varies - and is very important!

Why are Carbohydrates So Important to Exercising?

Let’s lay down the basics! Carbohydrate is without a doubt the most essential source of energy for everyone from athletes to the average couch potato. Whether your next task is to run a 100m or type a 500 word essay, you will need carbs to provide energy for muscle contractions; be it your arm or leg muscles. That is why is important to eat properly before exercising! Of course, what to eat after exercise matters too!

Once digested, carbohydrate is converted into simple sugars such as glucose, galactose and fructose so that it can be easily absorbed by the body and used to fuel energy when needed. Glucose that is not used immediately to perform different actions is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. If there is no more room for glycogen to be stored in the liver or muscles, the surplus will be stored as fat – this is where you should be cautious. Too many carbs means more storage as glycogen which means FAT!

Glycogen and Energy

Glycogen is what makes it possible for you to complete 100 push-ups all at once or ride your bike around the block without feeling fatigue. It is not only important for long and intense exercises but for every action, that involves muscle contraction. After long periods of exercising, the body may resort to using excess fat to fuel energy if glycogen stores run low; however, a small portion of glycogen is still required to convert fat into a substance that can be use by the muscles.

In addition, you should consume adequate carbohydrate to ensure that your body does not resort to using protein as an energy source. When there is an insufficient supply of carbohydrate, the body will begin to make glucose from protein for energy. In this case, the primary role of protein, which is to act as a structural component for body tissues and cells, is placed on the back burner. This means your ability to maintain and build tissues will be limited. This also puts pressure on your kidneys considering they will have to work overtime to remove the byproducts created during the protein breakdown.

It doesn’t end there! Carbohydrates also play an important role in other body functions such as fueling the brain and the central nervous system - indeed poor nutrition can lead to poor motivation levels which leads us to make excuses not to exercise!

Two Types of Carbohydrates

There are two types of carbohydrates, complex and simple. The difference between simple carbs and complex carbs is the size of the molecule. Complex carbs are made of a number of sugar units, while simple carbs only carry one or two units. Complex sugars (carbs) take a longer time to be absorbed and converted into glycogen to provide you with energy for muscle contraction.

Some excellent sources of complex carbs are brown rice, breads, muesli, wholegrain and oats. Fiber and starch are also classified as complex carbs, even though fiber cannot be used as energy since it cannot be digested. Starch is the primary source of energy for most professional athletes.

Simple carbs on the other hand are absorbed and converted to glycogen more quickly due to their small size and short length. Most sweet-tasting foods are good sources of simple carbs. Honey, 100% natural fruit juice, and fruits like sugar cane, mangoes, bananas, and raisins are great sources of carbohydrates. Lactose is also considered as a simple carb; hence, yogurt and milk are also good sources of simple carbohydrate. Most sugar rich desserts will provide you with some amount of simple carbohydrate but it is always better to seek healthier sources.

How Carbohydrate is Stored

Carbohydrates are broken down into tiny sugar molecules in your stomach after you eat. The molecules are then distributed through the digestive system to be made into glucose by the liver, to produce a form of energy that can be used by the muscles and brain.

Glucose that is not used right away to fuel energy is made into to glycogen, which is stored in different body tissues and organs for future use. Your body is equipped to store about 2,000 carbohydrate calories (depending on your size and build), to be used whenever you’re in need of a convenient source of energy.

Carb Loading?

Most professional athletes, especially long distance runners and strength training athletes, rely on glycogen stores in tissues for a source of energy. Carbohydrate loading is a process used by many athletes to increase the amount of glycogen stored by body tissues to improve their performance on the court, track or field. An athlete may choose to begin the process six days prior to a competition.

The first three days, the athlete consumes a small amount of carbs and begins to workout in order to drain the body’s glycogen stores. Meals for the final three days consist of mainly carbohydrate and the training load is reduced. By the end of the six days, the body will believe that there is a problem with the glycogen stores, pushing it to store more than usual.

If you plan to try carbohydrate loading, bear in mind that you will have to consume a large amount of water. In order to ensure that you are drinking sufficient fluids, check your urine, a dark color will indicate that you need more fluids.

Take things one-step at a time, starting with depletion and then transition for a low carb diet to high carb diet. Try keeping a diary on your progress so you can always make last minute changes. If you feel like there is no progress, you can always extend the low carbohydrate diet period.

What happens if you’re Lacking Carbohydrates?

So what do you think will happen if you are lacking carbohydrates? First, your body will find it difficult to exercise since you’ll be unable to produce intense contractions. Exercises such as a bench press or an all-out sprint run may be too much for you to handle.

Eventually, you’ll become de-motivated and begin to skip your workout session since there is no carbohydrate to increase tryptophan levels. Tryptophan plays an important role in serotonin synthesis, which improves your mood and keeps you motivated. In fact, a study done at Arizona University revealed that a low carbohydrate diet might result in fatigue and limit your ability to exercise.

Exercise Without Breaking A Sweat - sort of!

When carbohydrate is broken down and stored as glycogen in tissues, it becomes an easily accessible source of energy for workout. The duration and intensity of your workout sessions will determine how long your energy supply will last. If you start with a full glycogen store and replenish them during and after your working out sessions, chances are you’ll be able to exercise without breaking a sweat - well, not literally obviously!

Closing Note

Now that you’re aware of the significance of carbohydrates, most of your daily calories should come from carbs – especially if you are hoping to gain muscles, shed fat or stay fit. Your diet should consist of starch as well as naturally occurring sugars from vegetables, fruits and dairy. To be precise, 45-60 percent of your diet should comprise of carbohydrate according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

It always comes down to balance - you'll hear it everywhere
eat a healthy Balanced diet!

Brad Beckwith

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