Carbs have received a bad reputation from dieting gurus in recent years as high-protein diets gained in popularity. However, carbohydrates are essential nutrients vital for daily physical and mental processes as well as fueling exercise demands. A diet too low in carbs can lead to fatigue, muscle soreness and the inability to complete workouts. To exercise efficiently and optimally, fuel your body with essential nutrients, including the right type of carbs.
Complex vs. Simple
Carbohydrates come in two forms: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are the ones you want to limit in your diet, because they have little to no nutritive value. These carbs include white bread, cookies, cakes and crackers that are high in sugar and low in dietary fiber. In contrast, complex carbs are not stripped of valuable nutrients during the milling process, resulting in foods lower in sugar, higher in fiber and a source of essential vitamins and minerals. Complex carbohydrates include whole grains including brown rice, oatmeal and quinoa, and most types of vegetables. These foods provide a slow stream of energy to help you exercise longer and decrease hunger cravings mid-workout.
Fruit is a simple carbohydrate that is higher in sugar; however, it is also a source of essential vitamins and minerals, making it a healthier alternative to other sweet, fatty carbs such as cake. Fruit is low in calories and easy to digest, which makes it an ideal pre-workout snack. The higher sugar content will be quickly converted into energy for workouts. Fruit is also higher in water, which can help replenish fluid stores after workouts. According to Australian Government Sports Coach, fruits contain vitamins and minerals that aid in exercise performance and muscle recovery. Many of these vitamins and minerals cannot be produced by the body itself, meaning that you must include a variety of produce in your daily diet to reap the benefits.
Whole grains are good carbs to burn for exercises. Because they are a complex carb, they take longer to digest, meaning their energy is stored and then released slowly in the body. This is beneficial for exercises requiring endurance, such as running, cycling, skiing and soccer. Whole grains also help regulate the digestive system; eaten a few hours prior to a workout, they can help eliminate waste to prevent bathroom stops during a workout or decrease risks of constipation leading to tummy upsets. A 2009 study done by "Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition" found that cyclists who ate whole-grain cereal with milk after a workout increased glycogen stores post-workout more than cyclists who had a simply carb drink alone.
Vegetables are a complex carb that can be starchy or nonstarchy. Starchy carbs such as carrots, beets and potatoes tend to be higher in simple sugars. These foods can provide slow-digesting fuel for long-distance or high-intensity exercise when eaten a few hours prior to exercise. In contrast, nonstarchy carbs are very low in calories, and have less sugar and more water content. These carbs, which include green leafy vegetables, celery and cucumber, do not provide as much quick-releasing energy to the body; however, they do assist in weight loss when combined with a regular exercise program. Vegetables are also a source of antioxidants, which protect against free radicals produced during exercise, according to Australian Government Sport Coach. Free radical damage needs to be minimized because it leads to oxidative stress, which causes fatigue and muscle damage.
- Harvard: School Of Public Health: The Nutrition Source: Carbohydrates: Good Carbs Guide The Way
- Huffington Post Canada: Foods Before Working Out: 10 Carbs To Eat Before And Post-Workout
- Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition: Cereal And NonFat Milk Support Muscle Recovery Following Exercise; Kammer et al.; 2009
- Australian Government: Australian Sports Commission: Sports Coach: Fruit And Veg: The Winning Edge
Jennifer Andrews specializes in writing about health, wellness and nutrition. Andrews has a Master of Science in physical therapy from the University of Alberta as well as a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. She teaches yoga and pilates and is a recent graduate of the Institute of Integrative Nutrition.