It seems that everyone in fitness has a thing with carbohydrates. Most people love them and choose to eat a lot of them in their diet. Others demonize them and prefer to leave them out (almost) entirely. Interestingly, carbohydrates are not completely necessary in our diet. Other nutrients like certain amino acids and fatty acids cannot be manufactured in the body, which makes them “essential.” Carbohydrates don’t fall into this category. We can make the sugars and such we need from other substances in our body. This is why some people have advocated a low carbohydrate diet. So, if we don’t need them, why eat them?

Well, it turns out that eating carbohydrates makes it much easier for us to perform certain tasks. This is especially true when it comes to performing at our best. But in spite of this, there is still a lot of conflicting information about carbohydrate intake. The sport and/or activities you engage in will dictate carbohydrate intake to a large degree. Marathon runners definitely need high levels of carbohydrate in their diet, but do all athletes need the same amount? Should powerlifters and weightlifters be “carbing up” for their sport? It’s important to understand how many carbs you should be eating in order to maximize performance without potentially harming your health.

 

Aerobic Activity

You might be aware that many endurance athletes “carb up” prior to big races. This serves as a tool to maximize the amount glycogen that is stored in their body. That way, when they are out there running the race, they can delay fatigue as long as possible. You see, when running an endurance race, there may come a time when you “hit the wall.” Your will to continue running is thoroughly tested and your body screams at you to stop running. This is most often, but not always, associated with heavy depletion of glucose/glycogen availability. Put simply, your body senses that glycogen and glucose are running low and tries to get you to stop exercising.

This phenomenon is one of the worse things that can happen if your goal is to perform your best in a race. So, in order to combat this, endurance athletes need to keep their glycogen stores high most of the time. Carbing up is a great way to make sure things are fully topped off. However, endurance athletes still need to consume a diet that is high in carbohydrates. At least that’s what the research has said up to this point. When comparing constant high carbohydrate (CHO) diets to lower carbohydrate strategies, high carb diets have consistently led to better performance [1][4].

So how many carbs should you be eating as an endurance athlete? The International Olympic Committee provides guidelines based on the intensity of your training [2]. Moderate duration/low intensity endurance exercise would be well supported by 5-7g/kg of CHO per day. Those who engage in heavy endurance training would need somewhere between 7-12g/kg of CHO per day. And if you happen to be an extreme endurance athlete (marathon, ultramarathon, triathlon), you may need more than 12g/kg each day.

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