With Thanksgiving upon us, it’s a great time to talk about cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Yes, they are all carbohydrates, but you can relax – we aren’t here to tell you not to eat them. We agree that carbs can be glorious. After all, they are the fuel of choice and the easiest way to get instant energy when you need it. What’s important as an athlete, is that you know how they work.
Basically, carbohydrates can be broken down into “slow sugars” and “fast sugars.” Fast sugars are generally very sweet and comprised of simple carbohydrates. Think white sugar, jam, honey, fruit juice, white pasta and rice, and energy drinks.
Slow sugars are more complex and take a bit longer to break down and digest – foods like oatmeal, brown rice, whole grains, quinoa, and whole fruit. Slow sugars provide lots of energy, but that energy isn’t released as quickly into the bloodstream as fast sugars are, meaning that they can provide sustainable energy all day, whether you are training on the trails or working hard on your laptop.
This isn’t to say fast sugars – or simple carbs – are all bad. In fact, simple carbohydrates are extremely useful during training or competition where they bring quick energy when the body is at high intensity and muscles are working at their maximum potential.
Fast sugars are also useful an hour or two after intense training or competition because they can restore glycogen reserves in the muscles and liver that were depleted during a workout. Generally, glycogen reserves act like an emergency fuel and make it possible to train at a high level for 45-75 minutes, depending on your fitness level.
The downside of quick carbs is that outside of training or recovery, their consumption causes a sudden rise in blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and the secretion of insulin from the pancreas. The blood doesn’t like to be loaded up with sugar, so insulin ferries away sugar into the cells, where it is stored as fat. You may experience this as the sudden drop in energy that occurs shortly after eating a donut.
An interesting fact is that insulin is most reactive in the morning, which means that it condition your cravings for sugars during the day. This is a great excuse to skip sugar at breakfast and stick to oatmeal, eggs, and green smoothies packed with protein.
The good news for everyone’s favorite holiday is that the body digests quick carbohydrates differently when they are accompanied by fat, protein, fiber, and exercise. This means that if you eat cranberry sauce with turkey and sweet potatoes, you won’t bonk before dessert. Similarly, if you have a good workout on Thanksgiving morning (there’s still time to sign up for that turkey trot!), your body will be ready for that slice of pumpkin pie and use it for tomorrow’s workout.
Alexandra Borrelly Lebrun is a pharmacist and has studied sports nutrition and natural medicine. She works alongside her husband, a former professional XTERRA athlete & 2005 XTERRA World Champ, Nico Lebrun, at Organicoach, where they create optimized nutrition plans for athletes of all levels. For more info please visit www.organicoach.fr.
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