by Simone Austin, Advanced Sports Dietitian
Active people want to fuel themselves to perform at their best. Whether it be a session at the gym, an endurance triathlon or simply swimming a few laps, foods rich in carbohydrate provide the most efficient fuel for our working muscles.
But which carbohydrate foods are best? And when should they be timed around events or training? Advanced Sports Dietitian Simone Austin explores the answers to these questions and more, sharing her expertise in fuelling for sports performance:
For athletes, carbohydrates fuel the working muscles and brain but the body still has many other important processes to carry out that require a range of other nutrients too. There is cell repair, muscle mass to maintain and build and an immune system that is often working in overdrive when the body is under high physical demand.
Foods rich in carbohydrate provide the most efficient fuel for our working muscles.
So which carbs should I choose?
Athletes, like the rest of the community, are best to choose nutrient rich carbohydrate containing foods most of the time, including:
- Whole grain breads, rolls, or wraps
- Whole grain cereals: such as rolled oats, barley, whole wheat varieties
- Wholemeal pasta, brown rice
- Fruit and vegetables
- Legumes like chickpeas, beans, lentils
- Dairy foods like milk and yoghurt
These carbohydrate foods are digested much more slowly than refined and lower fibre varieties, giving a slower release of the carbohydrate for energy.
Athletes are best to choose nutrient rich carbohydrate containing foods most of the time.
What about fuelling for a big event?
Sometimes though, we want energy quickly. During competition or training, it’s best to choose lower fibre carbohydrate foods. For example:
- Just prior to and during a game, a race or some other form of exercise, it’s a good idea to eat rapidly digested and absorbed refined carbohydrate foods such as pikelets, white bread or pretzels, along with some fresh fruit
- A cyclist during a long ride may choose a white bread sandwich over a whole grain one and a fruit bar over whole fruit for rapidly digested carbohydrates
- The night before a race a triathlete may choose white rice over brown so they can physically eat more to take in more carbohydrate without feeling overly full (brown rice is more filling due to the fibre) and have jelly lollies on the run
During competition or training, it’s best to choose lower fibre carbohydrate foods.
Carbohydrates and gut health:
In our general diet, dietary fibre is important for feeding good gut bacteria and keeping bowel motions regular, amongst many other benefits. Good gut bacteria help prevent pathogens from crossing the gut wall into the blood stream. People who exercise regularly at high intensity can be at greater risk of some illnesses like the common cold (they are frequently pushing their body and immune system) so feeding your good gut bacteria is important to reduce risk of infection. Minimising sickness will benefit sporting performance!
Dietary fibre is important for feeding good gut bacteria.
Carbohydrates and recovery:
Having carbohydrate and protein containing foods close to finishing intense exercise can be beneficial to reduce the exercise induced dip to your immune system. You might eat your next main meal or a whole grain sandwich with cheese or lean meat, a bowl of chicken and corn soup, or a snack such as yoghurt, a milk smoothie (dairy contains both carbohydrate and protein) or some fruit with nuts and seeds.
Carbohydrate and protein containing foods eaten just after finishing intense exercise can be beneficial to reduce an exercise induced dip.
The bottom line
Other carbohydrate-rich, refined foods such as soft drink, sports drinks, lollies and cakes can have their place in an athlete’s diet, but these should be minimally and strategically placed, as they offer little nutritional value when an athlete actually needs more nutrients. Cut up oranges for half time, make porridge or muesli for breakfast and make the swap to whole grains with meals. The key is to choose nutritious carbohydrate foods most of the time, in the amounts your body needs. The extra nutrients they provide may just be the competitive edge your body has been looking for!
The key is to choose nutritious carbohydrate foods most of the time.
For tailored nutrition advice to complement your training goals, see an Accredited Sports Dietitian.
Find out more by visiting Simone’s website, or following her on Instagram @simone_austin, Facebook @SimoneAustinDietitian or Twitter @simonejaustin