These are the fuels that the body needs to run. It is recommended that approximately 60 per cent of the daily calories are carbohydrates. They must be the right kind of carbohydrates at the right time to be beneficial. Some are fast acting and therefore beneficial before, during and after exercise. Others are slow acting and provide longer lasting energy and often come packaged with other types of nutrition.
Carbohydrates in the form of glucose are needed by the body to feed the brain. The brain needs a steady supply in order to keep it alive and functioning properly. Without this fuel several health problems will arise. Wait though, don’t take this as a reason to stock up on lots of sugary foods. The brain needs a steady, constant supply that comes from different types of food and the body knows how to sort out needs and supplies for all parts of the body.
It is not necessary for us to keep stoking the engine by consuming carbohydrates all day long. The body stores these energy givers and distributes them where they are needed and when they are needed. They are converted into a substance called glycogen and this is stored in the muscles and liver.
When needed, it is this glycogen which is despatched to the parts of the body calling for it. During training and racing the body is reliant upon theses stores. Go further than you have stored glycogen for and you will gradually come to a halt.
So how much glycogen is the body capable of storing? About 500g which is divided between the liver (about 100g) and the muscles. This is probably enough to run eighteen miles in a race. It is at this point that the infamous “wall” is hit.
The lack of energy at this point allows performance to falter. Lack of sugar affects the brain and causes dizziness and confusion. Without an infusion of sugar the athlete will collapse and become very ill. The term used for this is hypoglycaemia.
If you have run a marathon or have put in some long training runs you will probably be aware of the feeling of absolute exhaustion. You get the heavy legs that become difficult to move with any semblance of grace and the thinking process seems to have deserted you.
Of course, the sensible thing to do when you are exhausted is to stop, give in, lie down, have an energising drink. However, most of us who are determined to do the long distance have something built in the brain that tells us to keep going – not to give up. Have a look at this video to see two athletes at the end of the Ironman Triathlon who force themselves over the finish:
Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham – The Crawl
Ironman Triathlon 1997
For all endurance sessions and races it is important to have eaten the right foods in the days preceding. Glycogen stores should be stocked up and then replenished as used if the body is to produce the optimum performance.
Now it is not just a case of stuffing in carbohydrates – nice as that seems. Different types and amounts of carbohydrates are needed at various times in order for the enzymes in the body to be ready to act upon them.
Immediately after a race or training the muscles and liver are made ready to receive new stocks. This period lasts for about two hours. So a meal or drink rich in carbohydrates would be sensible at this point. This will have the body prepared for the next outing.
Runners can usually consume more carbohydrates than non runners but this does not mean that you can go mad with the Krispy Kreme doughnuts! Many snacks and other tempting treats are also high in saturated fat.
The best diet contains complex carbohydrates such as potatoes, wholemeal bread, pasta and rice. It is also a good idea to actually measure your food intake instead of guessing at portions.