A Sports Dietitian’s Take on the Best Carbs for Athletes
If you are an athlete, you probably have heard that carbs are an important part of fueling for optimal sport performance. It’s also not surprising that you might be wondering what are the best carbs for athletes, so you can be sure to include them in your fueling plan to help your performance.
Ultimately, the answer is my favorite answer to most great questions: it depends. By the end of this post we will cover the different types of carbs, timing of intake, and we’ll go over an example of how to use the information. If you look up “what are the best carbs for athletes,” there are some decent blogs with good information, but I noticed quite a few things that I didn’t like in almost every one.
Each blog I encountered wound up committing one of three errors in my book:
- Ranking the carbs
- Labeling or focusing too much on healthy vs unhealthy
- Making things too simple or too complicated
The reason I’m bringing you in on the process is because a big part of health and sports is not only getting the right information, but also being able to identify misinformation.
By ranking or numbering different carbohydrates (Ex: Top 10 Carbs for Athletes) we as humans will assume that the one with a #1 in front of it is the best, better than number two. This is not the case.
By labeling carbs or types of carbs as healthy (Ex: Whole Grains) or unhealthy (Ex: Sugar) an avoidance or hyperfocus can be created which can also be very limiting, or downright incorrect.
Finally, if things are made too simple (Ex: avoid sugar) the information can be misused or misinterpreted and by making things too complicated (Ex: Net Carbohydrate Intake) it can lead to confusion and unnecessary information.
Before we go into more detail on carbs for athletic performance, you may also be wondering about supplements! Check out my recommendations for the best vitamins and minerals for athletes.
Alright, back to carbohydrates!
Types of Carbohydrates
There are three main types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches, and fiber. All three are important and 100% necessary for a well field and healthy athlete.
Of the three, only sugar and starch supply energy because fiber isn’t fully broken down by the human body. Fiber is still important, however, as it keeps our digestive system healthy and regular. Most carbohydrate foods contain some amount of all three of these nutrients, but there are definitely some that contain only sugar or only starch.
We think about carbs in the sense of how quickly they will give you energy. We categorize our carbohydrates as quick-acting or long-acting. Sugar is going to be much quicker energy than starch, but there are some fruits, like raspberries, that have a ton of fiber and may not provide as much energy as a banana (sugar/fiber) or a slice of white toast (starch). Why is that? Because fiber slows down the speed of digestion and the rate ate which food becomes energy. The small amount of fiber in a banana and the lack of fiber in a slice of white toast allow these carbs to become energy more rapidly.
I recommend experimenting with foods to see which carbs give you more rapid or long acting energy and make a mental list of foods in each bucket. General rule of thumb is that sugar is faster than starch, but fiber can slow things down.
Timing of Carbohydrates
This section is where the quick-acting vs long-acting really comes together. It’s also where we dispel the healthy vs unhealthy carbohydrate noise. The most important things to think about is when is your next planned activity and how long will it last.
The farther out you are from the event or practice, the more long-acting carbohydrates you will want to focus on. This will give you sustained energy and give the body time to digest it into energy.
The closer you are to the activity, the more you want to focus on quick-acting carbs to top off the tank before hitting the field, pitch, or asphalt.
Eating high in fiber too close to activity can lead to discomfort, gas, and even vomiting in extreme cases.
Also, how long you will be training helps us understand how heavily we need to fuel, whether or not we need to top off our energy tank, or if it’s necessary to bring extra carbs along for the ride or run.
How does this dispel the healthy vs unhealthy myth? I’m glad you asked! As we mentioned, sugar is our primary quick acting carbohydrate, so if you’re about to go practice immediately after school and haven’t had a chance to eat anything of substance since lunch 3-4 hours ago, something low in fiber, with plenty of sugars to ensure ample energy is ideal. If you have some bananas lying around that’s great. If the only thing accessible is a vending machine, eating some fruit snacks, chips, gatorade, or candy is better than going into practice with low energy available.
See how if we called candy and sugar unhealthy it could get in the way of being well fueled? Heck, when I worked for the Miami Dolphins, we had jelly beans and gummies galore!
Speaking of gatorade, check out my blog on hydration for athletes!
2 Examples of Fueling More Effectively:
Mike is a college football player who has to hit the field in the mid-afternoon most days. He has a full day of classes from 8am-2pm and practice starts daily at 3:30pm. Since each practice is 2-3 hours long, Mike needed help fueling accordingly because he found himself struggling as the week went on. After talking about types and timing of carbs, Mike started paying attention to his fiber intake. He ate more starchy, fiber rich foods at breakfast and lunch, like oatmeal and whole grain bread, to help keep his energy up. He also added some gatorades and honey stinger chews and waffles (affiliate links) for some quick energy on his way to the football field.
Brynne is a runner who is regularly experiencing stomach issues when running. She often runs 10 or more miles and decided to increase her carbohydrate intake, which is a great idea. After talking for a while, it seemed apparent that Brynne had heard that carbs should have fiber in order to be healthy. She also preferred to go running in the morning after eating breakfast. After switching Brynne to a lower fiber breakfast, she hasn’t had an ounce of discomfort!
If you’re focusing on improving your athletic performance, check out my other sports blogs!