Why take carbohydrates during training and competition is one of the questions I am asked most frequently. The perception, in fact, is that in some cases it can even be done without it during sport and that water alone is enough to satisfy thirst when it arises. But is it really so? So let’s find out why to take carbohydrates, which ones to prefer and what benefits they can offer to performance.
Carbohydrates and sports? Yes, that’s why
I want to say it right away: carbohydrates are essential both in training and in competitions lasting more than an hour. The reasons? They are mainly three:
1. First of all they are the first source of muscle energy. The longer and more intensely we train, the more carbohydrates our muscles need to work well. And what we eat before training is not always sufficient to meet energy requirements.
2. Then, unless there is an explicit request to train in a situation of energy shortage, an optimal availability of carbohydrates during effort is essential so that the body can metabolize the training stimulus, in other words “click ON” thus improving the initial form.
3. Finally, the more we avoid scraping the bottom of energy reserves during long and/or intense workouts, the faster and more effective recovery will be. And therefore as soon as possible we will have the opportunity to undergo a new training energetically regenerated.
Carbohydrates in the body
Carbohydrates travel a long way before being absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestine. Energy (glucose) can be stored in the liver and muscles (as glycogen) for use as energy during exercise. Carbohydrate intake during exercise provides quick energy to working muscles and prolongs glycogen stores. But be careful: one sugar is not like the other (could it be something simple?): the effects of energy can differ drastically depending on the type of carbohydrate you choose.
In fact, carbohydrates come in various forms. You may have already heard of glucose, sucrose and fructose: they are all carbohydrates in which the individual glucose beads are attached to each other in different ways and for this very reason they are metabolized in different ways and at different times, influencing performance.
What is the difference between carbohydrate sources?
Let’s now analyze the differences between the main sugars that we can find in sports supplements:
Glucose: it is a fast and readily available source of energy. It has a higher concentration than maltodextrins and may require water to aid digestion. When taken in large doses it could also increase the risk of gastrointestinal disorders.
Maltodextrins: they are chains of glucose and provide energy quickly. Compared to glucose and sucrose it has a lower sweetness and for this reason it is often more appreciated as a source of energy.
Sucrose: also said white sugar. It is a combination of glucose and fructose. It has the ability to be digested quickly, on the other hand it has a very high sweetness.
Fructose: it must be converted into glucose in the liver before it can be metabolized and also for this “round” it provides energy in longer times than glucose. However, at a high dosage, in more sensitive subjects, it could create intestinal problems. At the intestinal level it has its own transporter which carries the glucose molecules to the blood. Combined with glucose or maltodextrin, two sugars which are absorbed by the same intestinal transporter, it proves to be a real opportunity both in terms of energy availability and in reducing the risk of abdominal stress. And we will talk about this in a future article in February.
And why not fats?
Therefore, by assuming the right amount of carbohydrates even during training (and not just the race) an athlete can significantly improve performance and the ability to metabolise a workout, with the same experience and level of training.
By now it should be clear to you why carbohydrates are essential. Now, however, you may be wondering why it is not possible to take fat directly, especially in endurance disciplines, i.e. lasting more than two hours. The answer is soon said. Fat oxidizes much more slowly than glycogen, which means it doesn’t provide energy as quickly and as powerfully. Moreover, to burn fat it is essential that there are sugars and therefore glycogen. An ancient saying in exercise physiology held that “fat burns at the hearth of sugar.”
In short words
It is therefore now evident that carbohydrates provide quick energy to muscles during exercise and cannot be replaced by any other nutrient.
Photos: Marta Baffi (cycling); Valentina Celeste (run)