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Nailing your Carbohydrate Intake to Maximise Performance

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

If you read last week’s post, you know carbohydrates are crucial for athletic performance. Knowledge of the why, however, is nothing without the how.


Introduction

The fields of sports nutrition and exercise science have spent over a century asking questions on how the body performs during exercise (1). The result: there is overwhelming evidence that the human body performs best with carbohydrates, particularly during moderate- to high-intensity exercise (2). With this knowledge under your belt, it’s time to figure out how to put this knowledge into practice. Let’s get straight to it.


High-carbohydrate foods

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it is important to explain what foods are good sources of carbohydrates. Generally speaking, all fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes are carbohydrate-rich foods. There are exceptions, of course, but this holds true most of the time. Below are some examples for each:

  • Fruits: apples, berries, bananas, etc.; fruit juices too!

  • Vegetables:

    • Starchy: potatoes, squash, etc.

    • Non-starchy: peppers, broccoli, etc.

  • Grains: pasta, rice, cereals, bread, etc.

  • Legumes: beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc.


High-carbohydrate foods.

Examples of healthy carbohydrate-rich foods


These foods have the added benefit of being health-promoting, too, which is something we will cover in more detail in a future post. Refined carbohydrates, such as sports drinks (e.g., Lucozade Sport), fizzy drinks (e.g., Coke), and sweets (e.g., jelly beans) are also high-carbohydrate foods, although less health-promoting options. For the purposes of sports performance solely, all types can contribute to optimal carbohydrate intakes.


Recommended daily carbohydrate intakes for athletes

Evidence-based recommendations vary depending on the level of activity each sport (2). The bullet points below give the carbohydrate recommendations for different levels of activity, given in grams per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/d):

  • Light activity (low-intensity/skill-based activity): 3–5 g/kg/d

  • Moderate activity (~1 hour per day of moderate- to high-intensity exercise): 5–7 g/kg/d

  • High activity (~1–3 hours per day of moderate- to high-intensity exercise): 6–10 g/kg/d

As a footballer, most of your training days will likely fall under moderate activity, with days off from training falling under light activity, and your match days falling under high activity. This means that your carbohydrate intake doesn’t have to be the same each day. However, it would be wise to carb-load with a higher amount of carbohydrate the day or two before a match.


Template for a semi-pro footballer

Let’s put these recommendations into action with a typical week for a semi-pro footballer who weighs 75 kg:

  • Monday: Day off (light-activity day: 3–5 g/kg/d carbohydrates)

    • Multiply 75 x 3 and then 5 = recommended range of carb intake: 225–375 g/d

  • Tuesday: Club training session (moderate-activity day: 5–7 g/kg/d carbohydrates)

    • Multiply 75 x 5 and then 7 = recommended range of carb intake: 375–525 g/d

  • Wednesday: Day off (light-activity day: 3–5 g/kg/d carbohydrates)

    • 225–375 g/d (same as Monday)

  • Thursday: Club training session (moderate-activity day: 5–7 g/kg/d carbohydrates)

    • 375–525 g/d (same as Tuesday)

  • Friday: Day off; day before match so higher carb intake to carb-load (6–10 g/kg/d)

    • Multiply 75 x 6 and then 10 = recommended range of carb intake: 450–750 g/d

  • Saturday: Match day (high-activity day; 6–10 g/kg/d)

    • 450–750 g/d (same as Friday)

  • Sunday: Day off (light-activity day: 3–5 g/kg/d carbohydrates)

    • 225–375 g/d (same as Monday and Wednesday)

To reach these higher carbohydrate intakes, each meal should contain a good source of carbohydrate. This could be a hearty bowl of porridge for breakfast alongside some fruit and/or fruit juice. For lunch, sandwiches are a good choice, possibly paired with some more fruit. For dinner, pasta and rice are good as a base, with beans and/or potatoes and vegetables, alongside a higher protein food (e.g., lean meat/fish, or plant-based protein, e.g., tofu/Quorn) for a balanced meal. Simple snacks could include Nākd or Nature Valley bars, along with some more fruit. These are just tips: customise the diet how you see fit. For match day, refined carbohydrate sources like Lucozade Sport can be an easy way to ensure you’re getting enough carbs in.


Important point: Don’t stress if you are not able to meet these higher intakes all (or any) of the time. But do try your best to include carbohydrate-rich foods at each meal.


Resources

There are websites and apps where you can calculate how much carbs are in the foods and meals you’re eating, e.g., MyFitnessPal. I recommend visiting the website *Cronometer, where you can set up a free account, and add foods to your day and create set meals. This website shows you exactly how much carbs, as well as other nutrients, are in the foods you eat. See Figure 1 below for an example of the carbohydrates in my bowl of porridge this morning.


*Regarding Cronometer, sometimes certain branded foods are listed, but their nutrients are not fully listed. So if you add the food to your log and see zero vitamins and minerals, that’s just because they haven’t been entered to the database, and doesn’t mean the food contains zero vitamins and minerals.


Carbohydrates in Cronometer.

Figure 1. Bowl of Porridge: 60 g oats + 1 medium apple + 80 g frozen blueberries + 250 g unsweetened soy milk. Total carbohydrate: 79.2 g.


That's a wrap

That’s enough to digest for this week. Check back next week for the final part of the 'Carbohydrates and Performance' series, where we will chat about how to nail your pre- and post-training meals.


If you are interested in leveling up your football knowledge by working with our team of coaches, contact us at [email protected]


Have a lovely rest of your week and weekend!


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121

Instagram: @just.health.info


Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.


References

(1) Hawley JA, Maughan RJ, Hargreaves M. Exercise Metabolism: Historical Perspective. Cell Metab. 2015;22(1):12–7. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26154050/


(2) Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(3):501–28. Available at: https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2016/03000/Nutrition_and_Athletic_Performance.25.aspx


Technical Terms

Health-promoting: In the context of healthier vs. unhealthier carbohydrates, health-promoting means more likely to reduce your risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, and obesity. For example, the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are associated with lower risk of such diseases, whereas the consumption of more refined carbohydrates like white bread, sweets, desserts, and fizzy drinks, for example, are associated with higher risk of these diseases.


Carb-loading: A strategy used by athletes to make sure their body is fully stocked with carbohydrates before a match or race. This stored carbohydrate is called glycogen, which we covered last week.

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