A Guide to Carbohydrates
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates (or carbs) are organic compounds that are made up of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen. All carbs can be classed into different groups. Monosaccharides and di-saccardides are the simplest form of carbs and are made up of one and two molecules and are commonly referred to as sugars. Polysaccharides are the long chain carbohydrates that are commonly referred to as complex carbs. These include things such as starches and fibre. Sometimes you may also come across another group of carbohydrates called oligosacchardies. This group slots in nicely between the simple and complex carbs.
Sources of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are very commonly found in the foods we eat. For example, simple carbs and sugar can be found in fruit, honey, confectionery, and other processed foods. More complex carbs are common in bread, pasta, and vegetables.
Why Eat Carbohydrates?
Over recent years, carbs have built up quite a negative image. Many people wanting to lose weight often think that “carbs are bad” and opt for a low carb diet. There is some merit to this thinking but there are some pretty solid benefits for eating carbs too. First of all, your body does actually need carbs. Your entire central nervous system, including your brain is only able to run off glucose, which surprise surprise, is a simple carb. If you are on a strictly carb-free diet or very low carb diet, there are ways for your body to find enough glucose to power your brain, but this is at the cost of some side effects.
Secondly, glycogen, an important muscle fuel source is also a carbohydrate. In fact, glycogen is the animal equivalent of starch. Therefore, for you to perform anywhere remotely close to your best, regardless of what sport you do, you need to ensure your levels of glycogen are topped up. This is why elite athletes are never on low carb diets during competition.
Carbohydrates for Sport
When loading up on carbs for sport, there are a couple of things to consider. If you are after a long, sustained release of energy it is important to consume some complex carbs around 45 minutes before to the start of the session. However, if you are after a quick spike of energy, complex carbs will not be able to be digested rapidly enough to do this. Waxy maize starch is probably one of the most popular complex carbs for athletes.
Simple carbohydrates are great for a quick spike of energy during a workout, and consuming it regularly during training can keep you fuelled. However, they will not be able to keep you sustained for long during an extended workout if you cease consumption. Simple carbs are also great immediately post workout. This is because their rapid digestion is able to quickly regenerate the body’s glycogen stores, which helps to speed up recovery. For this purpose, simple dextrose (or glucose) is very effective.
Carbs are indeed important. But no single carb can do everything by itself. For optimum performance you need to consider the type and timing of carbs. Remember to eat simple carbs if you are after immediate energy and eat complex carbs for longer lasting energy. Of course, to get the best of both worlds, a combination of the two would be great.