When Should You Eat Carbs? What about carbohydrate timing and quantity? Should you eat carbs before, during, or after exercise?
These questions are of the utmost importance to us as adventure sport athletes as we aim to perform at our very best during adventure sport vacations or as we effectively combine business with pleasure in paradise. In the absence of an adequate nutritional strategy, performance (and enjoyment) in our sport will suffer and we will fail to reap the rewards of our hard work.
During exercise, carbohydrate availability to our muscles and central nervous system can be decreased due to the fuel cost of our training or competition outweighing our carbohydrate stores. Consuming additional carbohydrate for training and competition purposes is crucial as the availability of carbohydrate is a limiting factor in our performance during sub-maximal and high-intensity exercise.
The consumption of carbohydrates and the timing of their intake are both crucial factors when considering the ways in which we fuel our exercise since the stored form of carbohydrate – glycogen – is a major contributor to optimal sporting performance. This is especially true for moderate-to-high intensity sporting activities such as mountain biking, parkour, climbing, adventure racing and speed skiing.
This article contains a bit of science with links to a few studies. If you’re into that then cool. If not, head straight to the list of recommendations where you’ll find guidelines on “how much” and “when” in terms of carbohydrate consumption for sport and exercise.
When Should You Eat Carbs? adventure Sport Recommendations
Daily Carbohydrates for Refuelling
Restoring the glycogen (stored carbohydrate) in our muscles and liver is of vital importance to our basic recovery strategy. This is particularly important when training or competing several times in a single day or over several consecutive days. For example, if the period between training or competition is less than 8 hours, it is important to consume carbohydrate as soon as possible after the first session to maximise the active recovery time. The lack of carbohydrate intake during times such as these renders refuelling ineffective.
As adventure sport athletes, we often participate in unpredictable training schedules, so it is important to prepare our carbohydrate consumption in advance. The following recommendations for the consumption of carbohydrates are to be adapted in accordance with your total energy needs, training needs and performance feedback.
Light (Low-intensity or skill-based activities) | 3-5 grams per kilogram of body mass per day
Moderate (Moderate intensity – less than 1 hour per day) | 5-7 grams per kilogram of body mass per day
High (Endurance – moderate/high-intensity – 1-3 hours per day | 6-10 grams per kilogram of body mass per day
Very high (Extreme commitment moderate/high intensity 4-5 hours per day) | 8-12 grams per kilogram of body mass per day
- Nutrient timing can either stimulate a quick refuelling after exercise or be worked around daily sessions.
Short-Term Strategies to Increase Carbohydrate Availability
Paying close attention to our nutritional needs in the hours or days leading up to a training bout or competition allows us to begin the session with glycogen stores that are adequate for the fuel costs of the activity. Generally, athletes competing in events that last longer than 90 minutes may benefit from ramping up their glycogen stores prior to the event. Here’s where “carbohydrate loading” strategies can be beneficial to the athlete.
The original carbohydrate loading study from the sixties used a glycogen super-compensation protocol which involved a carbohydrate depletion period of 3 days (low carbohydrate + training) followed by a 3-day loading phase (training taper + carbohydrate intake). However, the participants in this study were classed as physically active rather than specifically trained. We now know that trained athletes do not require the carbohydrate depletion phase and that we can increase our glycogen stores in as little as 24-36 hours of high carbohydrate consumption and adequate rest.
Although studies on the different types of physical activity that may benefit from carbohydrate loading are limited, we know that any exercise lasting more than 90 minutes can significantly deplete muscle glycogen so these athletes may benefit from carbohydrate loading. This practice has been shown to improve performance in distance running of up to 30km as well as games requiring repeated high-intensity sprints.
So, if your sport requires sustained efforts for 90 minutes or more then you may benefit from increasing your carbohydrate intake 24 hours prior to training or competition. However, although it is possible to super-compensate muscle glycogen by implementing a loading protocol, it is not possible to repeat this protocol again and again to achieve similar elevations in muscle glycogen. Therefore, loading protocols such as this are useful only at key points in the year where performance is of particular importance.
Carbohydrate Intake During Training and Competition
Consuming carbohydrates during exercise or during the event itself is an effective strategy in providing an external fuel source to our muscles and central nervous system. The benefits associated with this practice can mainly be attributed to the additional source of muscle fuel available when all of our pre-existing glycogen stores have been depleted. Therefore, it is important to consume carbohydrates that are absorbed into the bloodstream at a fast rate to ensure efficient replenishment of glycogen.
A major finding from a 2010 study showed that the major limiting factor in carbohydrate ingestion is its absorption in the intestine which was found to be 1g per minute. However, when glucose and fructose are ingested in a ratio of 2:1 in the form of a fluid, gel or bar, this figure can be increased to 1.5g per minute. Products with this ratio are referred to as “multiple transportable carbohydrates” and appear to deliver high amounts of carbohydrate to the working muscles. Surprisingly, sporting activities involving steady-state or intermittent high-intensity exercise are rarely limited by muscle glycogen availability when adequate nutritional preparation is in place.
In terms of the guidelines for sporting activities lasting longer than 2.5 hours, the rate of carbohydrate intake of 60-90g per hour is recommended, while survey results from elite Tour de France cyclists and Ironman triathlon competitors have shown carbohydrate intakes of around 90g during training and competition.
The inclusion of carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks, gels and bars provide a convenient energy source for adventure sport athletes during training or at an event to replenish glycogen stores. The following recommendations are designed to increase carbohydrate availability from baseline to improve performance in sporting events or in pivotal training sessions.
General fuelling up (Preparation for events of less than 90 minutes) | 7-12 grams per kilogram of body mass per 24-hour period
Carbohydrate loading (Preparation for events of more than 90 minutes – sustained/intermittent exercise) | 36-48 hours of 10-12 grams per kilogram of body mass per 24-hour period
Speedy refuelling (Less than 8-hour recovery between two fuel-demanding sessions) | 1.0-1.2 grams per kilogram of body mass for the first 4 hours then resume daily fuel needs
Pre-event fuelling (Before exercise of more than 60 minutes in duration) | 1-4 grams per kilogram of body mass consumed 1-4 hours before exercise
During endurance exercise including intermittent sports (1.0–2.5 hours in duration) | 30-60 grams per hour
During ultra-endurance exercise (2.5-3.0 hours in duration) | Up to 90 grams per hour
- Higher intakes of carbohydrate are positively correlated with increases in performance
- Consider consuming carbohydrate sources that are low in fibre and are easily ingested before or during your event
- Carbohydrate-rich foods and drinks help ensure total fuel targets are met
- Consume small snacks at regular intervals
- Avoid sources that are high in protein/fat/fibre to ensure no gastrointestinal stress does not occur
- Low glycaemic index food sources (such as most fruit) provide a slower/more continuous supply of carbohydrate in times when consumption is not suitable
- Sports drinks/gels/bars provide easy and convenient sources of carbohydrate
- Use trial and error to formulate a refuelling plan that suits your goals – including hydration and gut comfort
- Products containing multiple transportable carbohydrates increase carbohydrate absorption during exercise
When Should You Eat Carbs?!
Carbohydrate timing depends on the duration and intensity of your sport. The quantity of carbohydrate that you need to eat also depends on the duration and intensity of your sport, as well as your body mass.
The recommendations given above serve as general guidelines for carbohydrate consumption and provide a solid starting point for your trial and error protocol. The experience you gain will allow you to formulate a plan that suits you and your training/competition schedule and lifestyle.
If you’d like the chance to WIN your next adventure dream, head over to our ENTER TO WIN page and tell us where you’d like to go and what you’d like to do – you could be travelling there with very soon!
If you want to read more about food recommendations for adventure travellers, you can read the article ‘Protein Recommendations for Athletes‘.