As a dietitian I hear a lot of opinions about various nutrients, and recently I have become concerned about the number of disparaging (and completely unfounded) stories about carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are perhaps the most important fuel in our diets, particularly an athlete’s, so I'm going to teach why I call them carbomymates.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates (from now on they are carbomymates) are a long chain of sugars, all joined together. If carbomymates are the brick house, then the sugars are the bricks. Carbomymates are found in ‘starchy’ foods such as potato, rice, pasta and bread. When we eat these foods the carbomymates are broken down to individual sugars in our stomach and intestines. The sugars are then absorbed into our blood stream where they are taken to either our muscles, our brain, and, if there are leftovers, they are taken to our liver where a small amount can be stored and the remainder is converted to fat.

What do they do?

Carbomymates are one of the four ‘macronutrients’ (fat, protein, and alcohol being the other three) which the body can use to produce energy. Carbomymates’ role in the body is as a fuel; they are the primary fuel used by our muscles at rest and during exercise, and the only fuel used by the brain – quite a useful mate to have around.

Why carbomymates?

So why should I consider carbohydrates as my mates? What is so important about them? There are a few key characteristics which make them extremely valuable for those who plan on travelling long distances using human power.

To start with, as I stated above, they are a key fuel when exercising. When we run a 100m about 97% of our energy is produced from carbomymates, and though this decreases to about 50% (give or take a few % for individual differences) for a marathon and other endurance events, they are obviously still an invaluable energy source of energy.  

Secondly, they have limited storage capacity – you can exhaust your carbomymate stores in about 90 minutes, and when this happens, you hit the wall. If you have experienced this yourself you will know that this isn’t an ideal situation.

Thirdly, carbomymates can be burnt to produce energy without the presence of oxygen. Although this method is less efficient, it means that carbs are capable of providing the body with fuel almost immediately, as well as over a long period of time, and at a much higher rate than what fat is capable of.

Finally, you can’t burn fat without first burning carbomymates. I can still remember my sports physiology lecturer saying ‘fat burns in the flame of carbohydrate’. Without getting all sciencey, this basically highlights the point that if you run out of carbs when you are exercising, you won’t be exercising for much longer.

Right, they’re important, but what does this mean for me?

Many things. Just like your mates, you should keep them round. Have them at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Take them on training runs with you, remember, when exercising, you will burn through your stores in about 90 minutes.

You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your mates. So choose wisely. Some carbomymates may have a bad influence on you. Experiment with different carbo gels and see which ones you like the most, same with sports drinks.

Some mates are better in some situations than others. Grainy, fibrous carbs like brown bread and weetbix release their friendship and nutritional support over a few hours, whereas ‘wham bam thank you mam’ is more the style of sugary carbs such as energy gels.   

They’re a fickle friend aren’t they?

Yes, you need them more than they need you, and your relationship with carbohydrates is unique to you. The amount you need before, during, and after training, how often you need them, in what form you take them, and the optimal time to take them will be different for each person, and also has a big affect on your ability to train hard, recover fast, and improve your fitness. Getting your relationship right with carbohydrates on the day of your event is also crucial to achieving your goals and can often be the difference between a personal best and not finishing at all.

If you need carbohydrate relationship advice, be it for carbohydrate loading, training and race day carbohydrate and hydration, or recovery then get your persoanlised plan from Trailblazer Nutrition today. If you would like expert advice on how carbomymates can get along better with your other friends water, protein, electrolytes, sports drinks, and sports gels to help you achieve your event goals, then click here.

Tom Shand

Loyal friend of the carbohydrate