Discover how carbs support your athletic performance

Sabina Muminović Last updated: 26 October 2023

When it comes to performance, athletes swear on proper nutrition. And this is where carbohydrates enter the game. Discover why and how carbs help athletes and gym-goers improve their performance.

For many, carbs equal weight gain. But nutrition is never as black and white. You definitely should not overindulge on simple carbs in day-to-day life – think white bagel at breakfast, white pasta for lunch, and a sandwich for dinner. But if you have a demanding practice, a day of trekking or a marathon to run, carbs become your best friend.

If you want to brush up on the basics, head to our blog post about all things carb, while we dive into what they bring to the table for athletes.

Carbs are the ultimate energy-source

50 years of research has been consistently proving that athletes need carbs to reach their peak performance.

Carbohydrates are our fuel which we store as glycogen in muscles and liver. During an intensive physical exercise such as running or cycling, those stores need to be topped up to sustain your body’s efforts. If your nutrition doesn’t include enough carbs, you won’t have the energy and will get fatigued really fast.

Competitive athletes usually need more carbs than an average gym-goer. How much, depends on the intensity and duration of the exercise. For example, sport nutrition experts generally recommend that runners get as much as 60% of their daily calorie intake from carbs.

Immediately before, during, and after high-intensity exercise, athletes need simple carbs with a high glycemic index. Those are rapidly absorbed and also used immediately.

Some of the best quick-acting carbs include bananas, pasta, couscous, rice, wholemeal bread, sweet potato, and sweetcorn.

Food rich with fast-acting carbs

Potatoes – the food of champions?

Many athletes resort to carb-gels and other fancy high-carb products. There is a far better, cheaper, and tastier alternative – potato purree.

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, a team of researchers tested the effectiveness of potato purree, carbohydrate gel, and water on the performance of trained cyclists.

Potatoes met all the criteria for a whole-food race fuel – they are readily absorbed and digested, and able to sustain performance the same way as carbohydrate gel.

The researchers wrote: “Potatoes are a promising alternative for athletes because they represent a cost-effective, nutrient-dense and whole-food source of carbohydrates. Furthermore, they serve as a savoury race fuel option when compared with the high sweetness of carbohydrate gels.”

Even if you’re not a competitive athlete, you might benefit from adding potatoes to your meals before a visit to the gym or a trip into the mountains.

Can carbs help grow muscles?

Carbohydrates have an indirect influence on muscle gain. It is a simple equation: carbs are your body’s go-to source of energy. If they are unavailable, your body turns to proteins. But proteins have other roles, such as supplying your body with amino acids – building blocks to grow and repair muscle tissue.

By cutting too many carbs from your diet, you are forcing your body to use proteins instead  – at the cost of muscle gain. So if you are thinking of sculpting your body and buffing up, forget about keto and similar low-carb diets.

Some people find out that they are noticeably leaner and less bloated after excluding carbs from their menu. But this is not weight loss, but the loss of water. Carbs bind water, and if we significantly lower their content in our body, we also get rid of that water.

It is what bodybuilders do before shows, basically dehydrating their body to make their muscles more prominent and visible.

The influence of genes on sports performance

There is also a genetic component to many sports-related factors, including muscle gain and the type of activity you are most suited for. Read more about each in our blog post about how genes determine your athletic predispositions.

To get the most out of your gym membership, you need more than a strong will and proper nutrition. You need to know your body – its limitations and its strengths. Discover all that and more with an analysis of genetic predispositions.

Meanwhile, hop online and search for some yummy recipes involving potatoes, give your body a healthy carb boost, and hit that gym!

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