Smart Carbohydrates for Athletes

Written By: Leah Perrier, RD

Title: Registered Dietitian

Alumni: University of Saskatchewan

Last Updated on:

When training for the Ironman, one of my biggest challenges was to determine which food sources were best to use as fuel. Eating enough carbohydrates to sustain my energy throughout a prolonged training session, and to help my body recover, was at times a challenge. It clearly made the difference between having a good training session and one that left me feeling fatigued.

How Many Carbs Do We Need?

The Nutrition Recommendations for Canadians state that the diet should provide 55% of energy as carbohydrate from a variety of sources. For athletes, it is recommended that 60% of total energy come from carbohydrates. Endurance athletes like marathon runners and triathletes can require up to 70 per cent of their total calories from carbohydrates.

Without adequate dietary carbohydrates, the body inefficiently converts fat stores and proteins from muscles into energy. This can increase muscle breakdown during exercise and impact overall fitness. It’s a good thing there are abundant food sources of carbohydrates, including fruits, vegetables, grain products, and milk products!

Timing is Important

For athletes with a busy and rigorous training schedule, finding sources of carbohydrates to snack on before, during, and after exercise is essential to maintain muscle glycogen and to sustain optimal energy levels.

  • Before: Carbohydrates consumed before exercise top up energy stores and delay fatigue. What you eat depends on how much time you have, but aim for a light carbohydrate meal. My favorites include half a bagel with nut butter, fruit and yogurt, oatmeal with dried fruit, or a fruit smoothie.
  • During: Carbohydrates help to maintain blood sugar to fuel muscles during exercise. If your training session lasts longer than 90 minutes you will need additional carbohydrates to maintain energy levels. Go for easy to digest carbohydrates and aim for 25-50 g of liquid or solid sources every 30 minutes. Sports drinks and sports gels work well. Other energy boosters include dried fruit, cereal bars, or a peanut butter and jam sandwich.
  • After: Quick replenishment of your energy supply after exercise helps guarantee the ability to last longer in the next exercise event. For continued success in future training sessions or events, consume a source of carbohydrates and protein within 30 minutes of completing your training session to optimize glycogen stores. Stellar recovery snacks include trail mix, carbohydrate-based sports bars, and yogurt.

The Bottom line

Whether you are a weekend athlete or you rank among the elite, remember that maintaining a high energy level is the key to peak performance. For this reason, carbohydrates are your best friend!

The Role of Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the body’s favorite fuel. They are the first energy source the body uses to perform daily tasks, especially exercise.

Carbohydrates are unique because when cells have enough energy obtained from carbohydrates, any excess is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver to be used as a reserve. However, during strenuous exercise, energy reserves can quickly drain, leaving muscles tapped and dependant on carbohydrate replacement. That’s why a diet high in carbohydrates is particularly important for the athlete.


athletes, carbohydrate, sports nutrition


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