To Carb Or Not To Carb: Athletes’ Carb Consumption During Training And Racing

Athletes ask ‘To Carb Or Not To Carb’? Lots of folks swear by them, while others refuse to use them in any circumstance. Are endurance athletes aware of the reasons behind carbohydrates being both beneficial and detrimental to them?

It would be irrational and go against scientific evidence to approach the discussion of carbohydrates with a one-dimensional answer of either “yes” or “no”. There are so many factors to consider.

What is the most effective way to incorporate carbohydrates into a systematic nutrition plan? What information should we be aware of concerning various kinds of carbohydrates? Do our intestines need to be accustomed to handling the number of carbohydrates necessary for competition? Considering all of these queries, let’s focus on carbohydrates.


Carbohydrates are one of the three major macromolecules necessary for the body to function optimally, the other two being fats and proteins.

Carbohydrates encompass a range of foodstuffs such as sugars, fruits, vegetables, fibres, and legumes. Carbohydrates in today’s human diet tend to be sourced from vegetables, fruit, whole grains, dairy and dairy-based items.

At its most basic level, carbohydrates are comprised of glucose, a substance that the body can convert into energy. Protein and fat both supply the body with energy through their respective calorie count of four and nine calories per gram.

There is a range of different types of carbohydrates, such as single sugars, double sugars, short-chain sugars, and long-chain sugars. Reframe the statement: Consider monosaccharides and disaccharides to be basic carbohydrates, whereas oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are complex carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates Consideration for Training and Racing

The simple answer is: They provide you with energy! To achieve your absolute best, you must eat carbohydrates, particularly if you strive for top placement in the competition.

Dr Mitch Kanter stated in a 2018 report of renowned professionals that although meats and fats can offer sufficient energy to carry out physical activities, the most effective nutrient to metabolize is carbohydrates. It is the only macronutrient that can be broken down quickly enough to provide energy in circumstances where maximal exertion is needed and fast-twitch muscle fibres are called upon.

A more thorough explanation as to why carbs should be eaten is because they offer energy to you at the necessary times. This is dictated by the form of carbohydrates.

It is essential to keep in mind that not all carbs are the same and must be dealt with accordingly when they are included in your dietary plan.

Foods and Carbohydrate Content

It is a common mistake to think that the only sources of carbs are items like bread, pasta, and oats—but they are only types of straightforward sugars.

Many people are unaware that plants are a source of carbohydrates; typically these are complex carbs with a glycaemic index that is average to low. Carbohydrates derived from plants are great for regular consumption, providing energy for physical activity, and can be consumed liberally.

It is essential to think about the speed and amount of glucose you will get from carbohydrates when deciding on a nutrition plan for your performance.

Quickly supplying your body with energy can be achieved through the consumption of easy-to-digest carbs such as gels, chews, sugar, honey, jam, fruit juice, and white bread. These products are perfect for high-intensity workouts in races and training as well as refuelling quickly when one is participating in multiple activities during a single day.

The Problem With Carb Consumption During Racing

It is generally accepted that activities lasting less than 90 minutes do not necessitate loading up on carbohydrates. It depends on your goals as to whether this applies or not when it comes to your nutrition plan.

A clear example of this is the following situation:

Tim is an active triathlete who is training for a 70.3, though he is usually pressed for time due to his job. He only dedicates an hour and a half to both his biking and running drills.

Due to this, he does not consume any carbohydrates throughout his training and still carries on without an issue. On competition day, he relies on gels, snacks, and carbohydrate drinks for an immediate energy boost during the race.

It is an unfortunately common occurrence: Tim is retching, experiencing discomfort in his abdomen, and is quickly forced to step off the race path and urgently locate a bathroom.

Why does this occur? In layman’s terms, Tim’s digestive system wasn’t ready to handle that high of several carbs.

His stomach does not empty out its contents at a normal rate, causing the liquid to be absorbed by his small intestine. Signs of indigestion of carbohydrates, such as feeling sick, swollen, having spasms and flatulence, are all regular issues.

The Research Shows

Scientists have been able to recognize indicators of how muscle performance is heightened when exercise is done with lesser muscle glycogen stores.

In addition, studies have demonstrated that exercising without eating beforehand brings about various changes in the body versus when food is consumed before and during the session.

It is uncertain if the increased training modifications will lead to a real improvement in action.

It is evident from the results of the research that although training with inadequate glycogen increases muscle growth, those athletes participating had lower performance levels during their workout than those with an abundance of carbohydrates.

In essence, they weren’t as productive when carbohydrates weren’t available. Does the upgraded knowledge obtained make up for a reduction in the overall amount of work that was completed?

When athletes involved in the study underwent a performance evaluation after three weeks of using either a “low” or “high” protocol for their training, each group had the same amount of improvement in their performance.

Burke conducted an assessment to determine how past studies influenced the guidelines for consuming carbohydrates, as well as any new studies that suggest that athletes may be able to improve performance if they have a low-carbohydrate diet during training and a higher-carbohydrate diet during competitions.

The research all points in the same direction that having carbs available during prolonged, strenuous endurance activities is essential for optimal performance, yet there is no available evidence suggesting that following a “train low” strategy provides an advantage in performance.

Burke provides multiple explanations why experts have been unable to notice an advantage in performance despite the advances in training adaptations.

  • Study periods are too short
  • Lack of a true connection between performance and the muscle markers measured
  • Possible negative outcomes resulting from training low that was not measured
  • Inadequate measures of performance that translate to real-life scenarios

Burke’s review led to Stellingwerff applying the results from the lab to real-life circumstances.

He followed three superior Canadian marathon runners during a 16-week program in preparation for a notable marathon. Each athlete incorporated workout sessions with a low intake of carbohydrates into their training program for the marathon.

Stellignwerff proposes that highly trained athletes could potentially benefit more from endurance training if they include occasional low-carb workouts in their regimens.

How do these elite marathoners structure their “train low” strategy

  • The majority of these low-carbohydrate training sessions consisted of morning runs done in the fasted state (just water or coffee beforehand).
  • Only about 10% of the low-carbohydrate sessions we did with reduced glycogen stores (a second training session following a hard interval session with no glycogen replacement over 4+ hours).
  • Low carbohydrate training sessions were done an average of 2.5 times per week during the general and specific preparation phases and less than 1.5 times per week during the 3-week race taper.

The results? Two of the participants in this study achieved personal records of 2:11:23 and 2:12:39 and the third individual’s first marathon was completed in a time of 2:16:17.

Stellingwerff provided evidence that it is possible to incorporate low-carbohydrate training into an athlete’s everyday workout and competitive program, even if there is no definite proof that this type of training enhances performance.

Things To Keep In Mind

Through her appraisal, Burke determined that there is not enough proof to make suggestions to athletes on how to use ‘train low’ tactics in their training plans. But she also expressed that a lot of athletes may currently be doing this without recognizing it.

Many athletes go for training runs in the early morning before consuming any food. Some athletes engage in multiple exercise sessions in a single day without adequately restoring their glycogen stores. Ultimately, certain competitors do lengthy training runs for over an hour and a half without taking in any type of carbohydrate.

I would suggest that you pay close attention to your workout routine and determine if you are doing any exercises that use minimal carbohydrates. If you are in good spirits and all is going well, it is likely appropriate to maintain that.

If you do want to specifically include glycogen-depleted runs, here are my suggestions:

  • You should run your early training segment long runs in a glycogen-depleted state.
    This will teach your body to boost glycogen stores and increase fat as a fuel source early in the training cycle. However, because the long runs won’t be too long, you don’t run a high risk of bonking and sacrificing a critical 20 or 22-mile long run.
  • Run your last 3 quality long runs in a glycogen-loaded state.
    In doing so, you will increase the overall quality of these important long runs, enabling you to finish faster and recover more quickly. Likewise, you can practice your marathon nutrition strategy to acclimatize your stomach to process simple sugars and fluids efficiently.
  • And finally, it should be noted that low carbohydrate training does not mean the same thing as a low carbohydrate diet. All of the athletes in these studies still maintained a high carbohydrate diet according to their needs, they just consumed the carbohydrate at different times depending on the type of training session.

By including both long-distance runs with depleted glycogen stores and ones with full glycogen supplies, you can enhance the important aspect of refuelling during a marathon and still keep up with your normal training routine.

How to Adjust Your Gut to Tolerate Carbohydrates

It is possible to teach your digestive system how to function correctly. The gastrointestinal system can adjust and can be taught to increase stomach evacuation and abdominal discomfort.

Putting carb-filled snacks and fluids in certain workouts and training under race-like conditions is an easy tactic that is backed up by scientific evidence.

Including carbs in your meals and during physical activity can change the way your digestive system works and make it run more effectively.

The result will be better carbohydrate absorption and utilization. This could have a positive effect, reducing the likelihood of gastrointestinal problems, which could result in better performance when exercising or competing.

A recent study explored whether utilizing carbohydrates during training would be effective in lessening the symptoms of gastrointestinal distress.

A cohort of sprinters was divided into three different groups, each receiving 20g of carbohydrate gels, 20g of carbohydrate-containing food, or no carbohydrate at all (0g placebo).

Carbohydrate consumption was every 20 minutes, i.e. Two groups consumed 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, while the placebo group consumed none.

The scientists carried out a study to evaluate the influence on gastrointestinal (GI) conditions, the highest oxygen uptake (VO2 max), how much carbohydrate is not digested, how carbohydrates/fats are used, how much glucose is in the blood, and the distance run.

A study demonstrated that consuming carbohydrates at a certain rate while working out notably ameliorated distress in the stomach, upper and lower gastrointestinal problems, and lessened queasiness in contrast to the placebo.

Blood glucose levels increased and glucose was better absorbed for both the carbohydrate groups (with gels being more successful than food) resulting in an enhanced running performance for both groups compared to the control.

The results of the investigation indicated that the GI symptoms for both the gel and food groups were alike. Further research may be available that could convince you to opt for gels as an energy source for running competitions.

In the study, the 12 male cyclists consumed 80 grams of carbohydrates from a combination of fructose, maltodextrin and one of the following at intervals of 20 minutes: a commercial beverage, gel, bar, or a mix of the three.

They were examined while doing a cycling exercise extending a bit above 90 minutes. The researchers looked into the individuals’ digestive problems, intestinal discomfort, strength, and how strenuous the activity felt.

The investigation showed that taking gels had fewer digestive problems and caused less distress than ingesting fluids and bars.

There was a slight, though the possibly significant, decrease in energy when eating bars instead of gels and liquids. It is important to take the following considerations into account when selecting the right type of carbohydrates for use in exercise and racing.


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