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Does a High Carbohydrate Diet Improve Endurance Performance?

 

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carbohydrate intake for endurance athletes

How Important is a High Carbohydrate Diet for an Endurance Athlete?

Let’s talk about a question I receive quite a bit from athletes and active individuals.  What’s the importance of a high carbohydrate diet and does a high carbohydrate diet improve endurance performance?

The simple answer is yes! Consuming a high carbohydrate diet is the most common method endurance athletes use to improve their training and racing.

Carbohydrate is in Almost Every Food We Eat

Examples of carbohydrate foods include pancakes, pasta, and grains like oatmeal or ready-to-eat cereal.  But remember that vegetables and fruits are really high in carbohydrate too. People often forget that even dairy products like yogurt and milk have about 12 grams of carbohydrate per serving. As you can see, carbohydrates are everywhere which is why it is not hard for endurance athletes to get in plenty.

Once digested carbohydrates are stored in the form of glycogen in skeletal muscle and the liver. When an endurance athlete runs out of stored carbohydrate it is called ‘hitting the wall’. So, they are vital for athletes who normally eat a moderate amount (50-55%) of carbohydrate.

The Research is Clear

Eating a carbohydrate-rich diet is one way to improve performance. It has been demonstrated many times that high
High Carb Dietcarbohydrate diets work. One classic study by Astrand (1977) had subjects run on a treadmill to exhaustion after athletes consumed either a low (40% carbs), moderate (normal- 50-55% carbs) or high (70%) carbohydrate diet. I have drawn a graph that describes the study results. Muscle glycogen and run time to exhaustion was four times greater in athletes who ate a carbohydrate-rich diet.

I would venture to guess that most of these subjects in the study were already eating a diet containing moderate (50-55%) amounts of carbohydrate. So what does this mean? Well, eating less carbohydrate than normal would definitely hinder performance. Fewer stored calories in the form of carbohydrate means a smaller amount of glycogen in skeletal muscle and the liver. Consuming more carbohydrates than normal would increase muscle glycogen stores and invariably improve performance.

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