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Carbohydrates for Performance

Hi Hazel! One Q about carbs for sports: I’m gently getting back into being more active (swimming, walking and wanting to add in cycling – not too fast!). I listened to a talk recently on sports nutrition (v outdated info!, and not in line with the mostly raw vegan cleanse that I’m following) but it does seem that carbs before and after aerobic exercise are a good idea. But what kind of carbs? Any fruit/veggie? Or more starchy carbs? Is there a difference to the carbs (type and quanitity) we need when we’re sporting to the carbs we eat normally? So many juicy questions, which I’d love to find the answers to!

Also, what would you recommend instead of say quinoa or even sweet potatoes? One of my friends cannot eat any starchy carbs. I’d like to help her to address this at the root – and work on improving her gut health. But I’d like to give her some alternatives in the mean time… With much gratitude if you can point me in the right direction. X Su

Hi Su

Thanks for your great question, carbohydrates are the macronutrient that we need for energy, but with so much choice its important to understand the effect that different types have on the body. The basis of any diet but especially when improving performance is to emphasise nutrient dense, easy to digest foods in place of foods that contain little nutrition and are hard to digest.

There are two types of carbohydrates.

  • Simple carbohydrates which are the sugars namely glucose and fructose (found in fruits and vegetables) and galactose (found in soured milk products). These are easily digested and enter the blood stream quickly so they are often called fast-releasing carbohydrates.
  • Complex carbohydrates are the starches. They take longer to break down and digest. Grains, legumes and root vegetables are examples.

In the right form at the right time, sugar is an essential functional fuel pre and post exercise. Before exercise you need to ensure there is enough sugar in the bloodstream and this is especially important if exercising in the morning after fasting overnight. After exercise, it is essential to replenish muscle glyclogen (where sugar is stored) within 20 minutes before having a higher protein meal at around 60 minutes.

So when exercising, the fruits that you may have been avoiding due to their high sugar content become your best friend. The best ones are dates, bananas and apricots. They are also great fruits to carry with you if you are exercising for longer than an hour.

I would recommend a pre-workout smoothie which has a a mix of fast releasing carbohydrates such as a date and banana together with slow releasing carbohydrates eg gluten free oats, with a little protein and essential fatty acids like nuts and seeds. Almond nut butter and hemp seeds are easy nourishing options.

Good clean burning starchy carbohydrates are sweet potatoes, squash, quinoa, wild rice, brown basmati rice and buckwheat so at other meals I would emphasise these instead of wheat based products or try spelt as a gentler alternative to wheat and use oat cakes and rye bread.

If you have low blood sugar issues due to adrenal fatigue and are just starting to increase your exercise levels, I would recommend this simple home testing to measure your blood sugar so that you can be sure your body is being fuelled properly. We hear so much about high blood sugar issues resulting in Type II diabetes, but I often find that clients are running on too little sugar due to limiting carbohydrates in the diet rather than emphasising the good carbohydrates eaten at the right time.

With regards to your friend, you are right to concentrate on her digestive health as being unable to split the starches or polysaccharides (ie many sugars) into simple sugars for absorption can result in fermentation causing gas, bloating and gurgling. She should avoid starch to give the digestive system time to recover, once rested and repaired she should be able to introduce them again with the exception of gluten. Broadly, the non starchy vegetables to focus on are those that grow above ground. She may have to be careful with fruit if there is fermentation present. I have developed a two week “Love Your Guts” plan aimed as a jump start for anyone with digestive issues which avoids starches and high FODMAP foods with gut healing recipes which may be helpful for her.