Carbohydrates: before/during/after Exercise
  Kurt Ellingson 12:00 AM
Even after the whole "low carb" diet phase that struck North America a few years ago, I still meet people who have this "fear" of carbohydrates. I hear outrageous statements such as "carbs will make me fat" and "I don't eat carbs past noon" just to name a few. In the words of Nancy Clark, the author of my favorite nutrition book, "Carbohydrates will not make you fat, excess calories will make you fat".

As an athlete, I need carbohydrates because they are the most important nutrient for exercising muscles. Not only do they keep my brain fueled, they fuel my muscles during activity, and are a great source of dietary fiber. There aren't so called "good carbs and bad carbs" but there are one's that are going to fuel the body better than others.

Let's now review the carbohydrate. There are two types: Simple and Complex. Simple carbohydrates are also called simple sugars and are found in refined sugars (white table sugar). They are also found in foods such as fruit and milk. Complex carbohydrates are also known as starches. Starches include grain products, such as bread, crackers, pasta, and rice. Some complex carbohydrate foods are better than others. White rice and white flour have been processed, which removes nutrients and fiber. It is always better to choose whole wheat flour and brown rice whenever possible. These grains contain vitamins and minerals and are rich in fiber, which aids digestion. Fiber also helps you feel full, so you are less likely to overeat. Depending on activity level, most individuals require 4-6 grams of carbs per kilogram (1.8-2.7 per pound) of body weight.

Pre Activity: it is important to fuel your muscles with carbohydrates. They should be eaten with a little bit of protein approximately 1-3 hours prior to activity, depending on your digestive system. If you process food really quickly, then 1-2 hours should suffice. On the other hand, if you have a slow digestive system, 3 hours may be better.

During Activity: If you are exercising longer than 75 minutes you will need to replenish your glycogen stores with the necessary fuel to keep your muscles functioning optimally. This may come in the form of energy drinks (Powerade, Refresh, Ultima), gels (GU, Powergel, honey Stinger), and/or gummy chews (Sharkies, Clif Shots, GU chomps). The ideal is 100-250 calories (or 25-60 grams of carbs) per hour, after the first hour of running (Nancy Clark, 2008). That is the equivalent of one to 2 ½ sports gels or 16-40 oz of sports drink per hour. If you are like me and can't handle taking a flavored energy drink, you will need to find another way to get the necessary electrolytes which are lost through sweat. My product of choice is an electrolyte supplement called Thermolytes. A serving size (2 capsules) packs 300 milligrams of buffered sodium to replenish the sodium lost through sweat. All that sodium is balanced with potassium (85.2 mg), calcium (25.2mg), magnesium (12mg) and a few more mg of trace minerals. Salt stick and Elite are 2 more products of this kind. As for me, in a race that is a marathon or longer, I take 2 gels an hour, 1-2 salt pill an hour, and 500 ml of water per hour. In the event that I really start to cramp up in an ultramarathon, I will take a bunch of salt pills and a lot of water, until the cramp subsides.

Post Activity: Directly after prolonged or intense exercise, specifically within the first 15-30 minutes, it is important to replenish muscle glycogen. The tank is going to be empty and unless you replace what you used, the tank (your muscles) will be dry the next time you go to use it. Liquids are the easiest and quickest way to do this. It is recommended to have a ratio of 3:1 carbs to protein. Shakes and smoothies are great but I personally use a product called Endurox, which contains L-Glutamine that helps with muscle repair. If I do not have access to that, I'll grab low fat chocolate milk, as it has the perfect combination of carbs, fat, and protein. Post exercise, blood is still in your muscles, there is not a lot in the stomach for digestion. If you eat solid food to replace your stores, it may take longer to be absorbed and digested, and you risk missing that 30 minute window. It is important that within the next 45-90 minutes you have a larger whole foods meal with a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein. Examples include almond butter on a bagel and a banana or eggs on whole grain bread with an apple. If you are in a rush or you don't feel like eating any solid food, eat an Elevate Me Organic Energy Bar, which pack approximately 16 grams of muscle repairing protein and 35 grams of carbohydrates per bar!


It is common for endurance athletes to carbo-load for events 90 minutes or longer. Carbo-loading aims to prevent the onset of fatigue during endurance events. If completed properly, carbo-loading will almost double the normal amount of stored glycogen found in a trained person. It is suggested to carbo-load in the 2-3 days leading up to an event. Sports nutritionists recommend consuming 9-10 grams of carbs per kilograms of body weight.

I hope this has cleared up the false notion that carbohydrates are ‘Bad' for you! Athletes, eat up, and remember to choose organic whole grains whenever possible.

Until next time,

Nicola Gildersleeve

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