Carbohydrate for endurance athletes
Ah, the good old carbohydrate. Once the beloved friend of the endurance athlete and nutritionist alike, carbohydrates really aren't all they're cracked up to be when going long, fast and efficient is your goal and the subject of carbohydrates for endurance athletes is long overdue a massive rethink.
The biggest performance-sapping culprits are heavily-processed synthetic carbohydrates found in most energy gels, protein powders, drink mixes, electrolyte tablets and bars. These nutritionally-bankrupt specimens are unfeasibly cheap to produce, have a half-life many planets would be proud of, and can be sold at a huge markup which pays for the all-important marketing campaign to ensure we scoff loads of them.
But they really are not helping when it comes to endurance performance. Worse, they're actively hindering us by shutting down the body's own abilities to burn fat, which is far and away the most efficient primary fuel source for any endurance athlete (more on this here).
While many guides on sports nutrition for endurance athletes will merrily advise you stuff yourself with as many gels and bars as possible on the hoof, the truth is you should try and do precisely the opposite.
Carbohydrate for endurance athletes: high GI synthetic carbs slow you down, hamper endurance efficiency and harm both short and longterm health
Carbohydrate for endurance athletes: excessive carbohydrate consumption limits performance
Simon Vincent is a performance and nutrition consultant with his own company, Total Cycling Performance, and he specialises in boosting cycling performance through smart training and smart nutrition. From the results of his own tests monitoring blood sugar levels of clients during long ride simulations, he's discovered far too many are limiting their own performance simply due to an over-reliance on sugary energy products.
Over to Simon
"Before working with us, many clients who are involved in long endurance training sessions had an alarming over-reliance on synthetic carbs, preventing their body from becoming more efficient at utilising a higher ratio of glycogen preserving fatty acids for fuel.
"Our specialist work to date has demonstrated to many clients their perceived 'low blood sugar' levels are all in their head. Without an active blood sugar assessment, they have no way of knowing this other than through personal perception.
"A recent client used to go through about 4-5 synthetic carbohydrate gels on a typical four-hour training ride.
"During a recent three and a half hour blood sugar monitoring assessment he was taken through a range of intervals and hill work and, any time he felt his blood sugar levels to be low (which would normally result in him ingesting a gel), his levels were recorded for the true picture."
This is where it gets really interesting...
"At no time during this assessment did his blood sugar fall below a level that would indicated his perceived low blood sugar to be correct, and by largely limiting his heart rate to approximately 10 - 15 beats below lactate threshold, he was able to complete the entire ride without ingesting a single carb gel whilst only having pure water to drink".
Pure awesomeness, and proof once more that the human body is a lot better than much of the nutritional advice out there today if we can only tune into it. If you're pushing hard in any endurance effort, you will still need carbs, but weaning yourself off them as much as possible in training will make you a faster, more efficient fat-burning machine and will mean that when you do need them they're being used as the supplements they should be, not as your main fuel source.
Carbohydrate for endurance athletes: carbohydrate still matters, but quality, timing and volume are key to unlocking real performance gains
According to Vincent, "carbohydrates are essential for endurance but the timing of ingestion along with the sources of this carbohydrate are key".
Work on your endurance fueling to prioritise fat-burning and, as Vincent explains, "you may never again need to reach for the carbohydrate gels or drinks.
"Just think of the positive long term effects to both your health and wallet as a result. Refined synthetic products really are no good for the human body so what are you doing consuming them, when with the right training levels and nutrition strategies, nature will provide everything you will ever need".
Amen to that.
If you want your blood sugar levels during endurance tested, or are simply after more endurance from your own performance, you can contact Total Cycling Performance here
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