The Importance of Carbohydrate Eating for a Sporting Event

Foods, especially carbohydrates, play an important role in helping your body work at its optimal level when training or competing in a sport or event. The type and amount of carbohydrates, as well as the timing of your meals, can improve your performance and postpone fatigue and also improve recovery. To achieve the best carbohydrate fuelling in sport, there are 3 important phases: pre-event, during the event and post event. The timing of carbohydrate intake is important to glycogen stores, especially after exercise when the body is replacing lost glycogen.

Before the event

Before competing in a sport or an event you must ensure that your muscles are fully loaded with glycogen by ensuring you have had a sufficient carbohydrate intake the day before. Eating balanced meals the day prior to the sport or event is a great place to start; however, the final full meal before the event should be eaten 3-4 hours prior to the start. This is to allow for complete digestion and to allow for the carbohydrate to be broken down and absorbed into your body. The next important step before an event or sporting game is to consume 100g of a carbohydrate beverage 3 hours prior to the start; this is also to ensure that your muscles are completely loaded with glycogen. Finally, a snack can be eaten (if needed) 60 minutes prior to the start of the game or event (any closer and it can reduce your performance levels during the game/event). Remember to stay well hydrated leading up to the start of the event/game and finish your fluid 20 minutes before starting (as this is the time needed to allow your stomach to empty its contents). Each individual will have a different food intake to replenish their muscle glycogen stores. However, as a rough example, a 50kg person training 2 hours a day would require approx. 300g of carbohydrate per day. Simple carbohydrates are not recommended before an event to load glycogen levels; complex carbohydrates are important and if necessary professional sports fuelling products are acceptable.

During the event

Carbohydrate intake during an event is even more important, especially where the participant has had inadequate intake before the event. It has been shown that sipping a carbohydrate fluid while competing (where possible) can improve performance, rather than fruit juices, due to their high levels of fructose which can be hard for the body to absorb and like solid foods may cause gastric distress (an upset tummy) for some people.  It’s important to remember that fuelling during an event should be well practised: you should know which foods/fluids provide the best fuel source, which foods your body can tolerate while still competing, and how much is ideal for you.

After the event

Refuelling and replacing lost glycogen stores occurs in 2 phases: firstly a rapid phase and following that a second slow phase. The first phase occurs in the first 4-6 hours and is important due to the low, depleted muscle glycogen levels. After this initial phase a slow phase of 24-72 hours occurs to replenish the muscle stores. Where gastric distress is apparent after exercise it is recommended that you commence with water, then on to a carbohydrate fluid, followed by some fruit and then working up to a recovery snack. It has also been found that low GI foods are best for glycogen replenishment.

There are many great carbohydrate food options when training for an event. Some low GI foods include: fructose (from fruits), vegetables, soy beans, kidney beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, whole grain rice and pasta, oats and brown bread.  Some great ideas for recovery snacks include: professional hydration fluids, healthy snack bars, sandwiches, smoothies, fruit, crumpets, fruit bread, toasted sandwiches, vegetable soup and a roll, a bowl of cereal, fruit salad and yoghurt, or baked beans on toast.

Overall, it is important to understand these concepts when training, especially if you want to get the most out of your body during a game/event. Hydration also plays an important part in your performance and recovery and should be looked at also. Remember to eat carbohydrate-rich foods which will best meet your refuelling goals and train hard.

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