The time is finally here for championship season! While preparation is an ongoing task it is never too late to zone in on the details that will give you the “slight edge” in and out of competition. It can be stressful banking on everything going “as planned” because there are inevitably going to be uncontrollable factors- that is just the nature of the sport. However, there are simple ways to prepare yourself and get the most out of this champion season, and it all starts with NUTRITION. This week has been all about carbohydrates and why our bodies need this macronutrient, so let’s dive into all the “need to know” when it comes to carbohydrates. 

As an athlete it is critical to fuel and refuel your body and there is a method to the madness when it comes to proper nutrition. Having a balanced diet is more than just throwing together any ole protein, carb, and fat into a meal, it is about fueling your body according to your unique nutritional needs. In a general sense, everyone needs protein, carbs, and fat in their diet, but this can look very different for each athlete. To help navigate nutritional preparation, let’s discuss what carbohydrates are, how they serve our bodies, and how to optimize the benefits by timing consumption.

What is a Carb?

Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient found in many foods and beverages, but there are different forms of carbohydrates, some of which promote energy and recovery while others can cause inflammation and unwanted side effects. There are three main types of carbs: sugar, starch, and fiber. Sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrate and occurs naturally in some foods such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products. Types of sugar include fruit sugar( fructose), table sugar (sucrose), and milk sugar (lactose). When we talk about simple carbs or “bad carbs” we are referring to the processed foods that are manufactured in the form of starch or added sugar. We will dive into “good” vs “bad” carbs later but it is important to keep in mind what makes a carb “good” and what makes a carb “bad.”

Starch is a complex carbohydrate which means the sugar units that make up this carb group are bonded together. Some examples of starch are found in vegetables, grains, and cooked beans. Fiber is another complex carbohydrate and is naturally found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and cooked dry beans. Starch and fiber facilitate healthy digestion and systematic functionality in our body. Common sources of naturally occurring carbohydrates include: fruits, vegetables, milk, nuts, grains, seeds, beans, peas, and lentils.

*For more reference on which carbs to go for check out our latest reels on instagram @ericabeine!* 

Why Athletes Need Carbs 

Despite the contradictory opinions of carbohydrates, carbs are vital to our health and serve our bodies in many ways. During digestion, carbs (sugars and starches) are broken down into simple sugars which are then absorbed into the bloodstream and converted into glucose which is our energy reserve. Glucose is what fuels our activity and can be stored in the liver, muscles, and cells for our bodies to use during the duration of exercise, or energy exertion. For someone who is swimming for hours at a time, you need increased carbs that will provide energy for your body to perform throughout a practice, meet, or training. Whether you are an athlete who trains distance, IM, sprint, stroke, or all of the above, you need carbohydrates. 

An average person should consume between 900-1300 calories worth of carbs, and as an athlete you can imagine this number needs to be greater. For some, carbohydrates are easily digested and can be consumed in a variety of foods and beverages. If you are like me and your DNA report shows you have a carbohydrate sensitivity, then you get to be a little more particular about your carb consumption. Despite how your body reacts to carbohydrates, you still need to be incorporating “good carbs” into your diet that will provide your body with sustainable energy and maintain a well rounded nutritional regimen. 

Good vs Bad Carbs   

Carbs tend to get a bad rep when it comes to nutritional purpose and benefits. Some say carbs are bad because they promote weight gain but carbs can actually do the opposite. Carbohydrates can help manage weight when consumed as whole, natural foods. The bulk and fiber content in naturally occurring carbs promote the sensation of feeling full on fewer calories. 

All of the internet fads, trends, and “verified” nutritionist/ dietitians that suggest carbs are not a dietary necessity may not be presenting all of the facts revolving around the science of carbs and how our body uses this macronutrient to function. The term “low carb” or “net carb” are frequently used on product labels and are promoting false advertisement. The term “net carbs” is used to describe the amount of carbs in a product excluding fiber or excluding both fiber and sugar alcohols. When we read a label that says “4 grams of net carbs” this means that there are 20 grams of carbs but 16 grams of fiber which is suggesting that the content is healthier or “low carb” due to the balanced carb/ fiber content. While this may sound trusting, you are better off consuming a bar made with natural ingredients that has a higher carb content, natural sugars, and fiber, than a bar that is highly processed and altered to appease the average consumer. 

The reality is everyone needs carbs, it is just a matter of what kind and how much of them that we need that may vary by person. Your genetic makeup is uniquely your own as is your ability to process and convert carbohydrates in your body. Some athletes can handle the heavy pasta while others might need a different approach to incorporating good carbs into their routine. 

Bad carbs: What happens when we consume the bad, or processed carbs is our bodies do not recognize the ingredients that are incorporated in highly processed foods such as cookies, soda, and candy which can leave us feeling fatigued and scrounging for energy. Ingesting bad carbs tricks our bodies into thinking it has long lasting fuel when really the foreign substances that are being ingested can disrupt our natural processing system and turn the processed “fuel” into short lived energy bursts that do not sustain energy. 

Good carbs: On the other hand, good carbs maximize sustainability and prioritize functional training and performance. Carbs such as natural fruits, vegetables, and whole grains promote energy production and sustainable fuel sources that allow our bodies to stay functioning and efficient for a longer duration. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables, and legumes are the “golden” carbs for your body. These carbs are considered “good carbs” because they are minimally processed and provide additional nutrients such as fiber that facilitate healthy digestion. 

Magic 30 Minute Window

Among other things that have been discussed, this is arguably the most important thing to remember when it comes to carbs: Timing of consumption. The carbohydrate magic window happens within 30 minutes. During this time, our bodies are able to effectively utilize carbs to the best of their ability. During a workout, your muscles resort to glycogen stores for energy and burn through fuel at a fast, intense rate. This results in your muscles being in a state of glycogen depletion and muscle breakdown. The timing after your workout is when the body kicks into recovery to rebuild glycogen and muscle proteins that were damaged during exercise. Eating the right nutrients soon after a workout can help your body work through the repair process much more efficiently. Carbohydrates play an essential role in the recovery process and can negate muscle breakdown but timing is crucial in order to get the most out of your performance and the nutritional benefits of carbohydrates. The longer to put off restoring glycogen and protein repair, the longer it will take for your body to recover and decrease onset inflammation, soreness, and fatigue.

Ideally you would want to ingest one of the following 30 minutes after exercise to prevent muscle fatigue and boost stamina: Sweet potatoes, chocolate milk, quinoa, fruits (pineapples, berries, banana, kiwi), rice, oatmeal, potatoes, pasta, whole grain bread, edamame…

Maximizing your performance is not just about what you do in the water and how you “prepare” it is about what goes into your “vessel” that allows you to get the most out of your training, and ultimately, competition. Athletes, especially swimmers build an entire season based around 1-2 championship meets throughout the year which makes recovery and nutrition essential to getting the most out of those opportunities. Without proper nutrition, you minimize the potential for optimal performance. Regardless of how you prepare, recover, and everything in between, carbs are an essential contribution to an athlete’s success and provide the slight edge to optimal performance. As always, take this information as you will and take care of your body according to your needs. For any additional questions, resources, or comments feel free to use the comment section below and/ or follow our social account on instagram @ericabeine.

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