Eat to perform.
“I’m trying to cut back on carbs.” “I don’t eat bread, pasta, or rice.” I’ve heard these (and many more statements like these) over and over in my practice. Carbohydrates (carbs, for short) have become the enemy, but are they really the villain we make them out to be? The answer is a resounding no; carbs play an important role not only in brain function, but also fitness, sport and athletic performance. Most people recognize the importance of getting enough protein to build muscle, but they fail to get enough carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are your muscles’ preferred source of energy during moderate- and high-intensity activities (activities like spin class or biking, running, lifting weights, or taking a high-intensity group exercise class). When your carbohydrate intake doesn’t support your activity level, you may experience fatigue, fogginess, or difficulty completing your activity (especially at the intensity you want). You may have heard some people call it “bonking” or “hitting the wall”. This happens because your muscles don’t have the fuel they need to continue to perform.
You may be asking yourself “well, why doesn’t my body just use fat for energy?”. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t work that way. Fat is oxidized (broken down and used for energy) in the presence of oxygen. However, during high-intensity activities, oxygen is limited and fat oxidation slows down. The point at which our bodies switch from fat-burning to carb-burning varies from person-to-person and is based on your conditioning and endurance level. Although we are able to build up an unlimited storage of fat (gee, thanks), we can only store enough carbohydrate (carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in our liver and muscles) to fuel about 60-120 minutes of activity. Once it runs out, we have to refuel or slow down and take in more oxygen. In addition to supporting high-intensity activity, carbohydrates are also important post-workout. They replenish glycogen stores, support recovery and muscle growth.
Here’s how to approach your nutrition game-plan around your activity:
Before: Top off your tank.
Eat a small amount of carbohydrate and protein before your activity.
Greek yogurt with fruit or granola
Smoothie made with whey protein powder, fruit, and water
½ turkey sandwich
Fruit and hard-boiled eggs (or scrambled eggs)
During: Maintain hydration (and fuel and electrolytes for activity lasting >60 minutes).
Drink 4-6 gulps of water (~2 oz.) every 15 minutes.
After: Recover: refuel, rebuild, rehydrate.
Refuel with carbohydrates, rebuild with protein, and rehydrate with water.
Chicken breast + sweet potatoes
Smoothie with whey protein powder and fruit
Protein bar with 15-30 grams of carbs
8-12 oz. chocolate milk