Carbohydrates in Sport

Hidratos de Carbono y Deporte

The importance of carbohydrates as a macronutrient in sports recovery.

  1. What are Carbohydrates?
    1. What are the functions of carbohydrates in sports?
    2. What are the types of carbohydrates that exist?
  2. Carbohydrates as an energy source for sports.
  3. How to apply the best nutritional strategy in competition?
  4. Bibliography

01 | What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are molecules composed of Carbon, Hydrogen and oxygen, with certain proportions of these components, which are specifically these:

6 : 12 : 6

This means that for every 6 carbon atoms, each carbohydrate contains 12 hydrogen and six more oxygen.

Its main task, within the sports field, will be energy metabolism of glycolysis to obtain ATP (adenosine triphosphate), an energy currency towards which all the foods that are consumed are degraded. are ingested.

Outside this sports field and, in physiological terms, it is interesting to emphasize that the digestive processes, the beating of the heart, the generation of thoughts, the maintenance of the nervous system and many other functions that allow life are consuming ATP at all times.

In the same way, our entire metabolism manifests itself in two ways: catabolism or degradation and anabolism or creation.

In this article we are going to explain how the intake and subsequent degradation (catabolization) of carbohydrates influence sports practice.

01.01 | What are the functions of carbohydrates in sport?

The two main functions of this macronutrient, in sports, are:

  • Energy function
  • Resynthesis of muscle and liver glycogen.

The energy function has as its ultimate objective obtaining ATP, which is the molecule that will allow muscle contraction to occur.

To obtain it, however, the carbohydrates that come from our diet or from the storage deposits of Glycogen (reserve carbohydrates) that we have stored in the muscles and in the liver must be previously degraded.

This degradation is intended to obtain Glucose molecules (H2C12O6), which are going to be the main way of obtaining energy, which is GLYCOLYSIS. The ultimate goal of this metabolic pathway is to obtain ATP.

The second function has to do with glycogen resynthesis, or what is the same, the need after any sports practice to eat carbohydrates to “replenish” again the buckets that have been emptied during activity. It is mainly about not being in energy debt with our body continuously after doing our training, since this can have adverse effects on our performance, not only in sports, but also in our daily lives.

It is also important to clarify that from a physiological point of view, there are other very interesting metabolic pathways for training that provide extra energy to the glycolysis pathway, and that in specific strategies our body is capable of perform and recover without the need to ingest carbohydrates in a timely manner.

01.02 | What are the types of carbohydrates that exist?

There are several types of carbohydrates and they are classified according to the length of their carbon chain They are basically divided into two basic categories:

  1. Sugars – they are soluble in water and directly digestible by our body (glucose, sucrose, fructose),
  2. Complex Sugars or Carbohydrates – Composed of longer chains of sugars, they are not soluble in water and to be digested they must be degraded in our body until its simplest version.

Complex carbohydrates are subdivided into the following categories based on the length of their sugar chains:

  1. Disaccharides
  2. Oligosaccharides
  3. Polysaccharides

02 | Carbohydrates as an energy source for sports performance.

Rendimiento Deportivo e Hidratos de Carbono

As we have seen, the main function of this macronutrient has to do with obtaining energy for our cells. But, obviously, it is not the only energy pathway available to our body, since evolutionarily we would not have prospered if we had always depended on the intake of energy foods continuously, since full pantries, supermarkets, and availability have not always existed. of immediate food.

In order to continue existing as a species, our physiology created other mechanisms for obtaining energy in cases of famine or low availability of this energetic macronutrient.

Bringing this fact to the sports field, it means that apart from carbohydrates, we can obtain energy from other macronutrients, in the form of food or reserves that we have in our body.

Energy sources in sports:

  1. Use of stored ATP – very small reserves, only last a few seconds.
  2. Circulating glucose – part of the circulating glucose is used in the first movements.
  3. Glycogen hydrolysis – liver and muscle glycogen stores begin to break down into glucose, which passes into the blood and is used to obtain ATP.
  4. Replacement of carbohydrates – the intake of gels or bars during sports activity is done to continue supplying glucose and storing glycogen so that processes 2 and 3 continue to occur.
  5. Use of other macronutrients – if you have trained, the body can supply energy through reserve fats, and through these, synthesize glucose or glycogen to be stored .

It is vitally important to understand that none of these energy pathways turn on or off at any time, all of them produce energy at different or with different prevalence depending on the ATP/time demands, or what is the same depending on the intensity of the exercise we perform.

03 | How to apply the best nutritional strategy in competition?

Carbohidratos y Deporte

The best way to start this point is to emphasize that the digestive system or, what is the same, the nutritional strategy, must be trained in the same way that we would do it with any muscle, or physiological system, otherwise we do it, it will be very likely that in the competition we will suffer digestive problems.

The most accepted general recommendations are indicated below, but it must be taken into account that it will depend on many factors that must be taken into consideration:

  1. Exercise intensity
  2. Duration of the activity
  3. Sports discipline
  4. Optimal state of hydration – hypotonic drink
  5. Individual tolerance of each subject
  6. Types of gels or bars chosen - with a formulation adapted to our physiology..
The most accepted amounts, according to sports nutrition, range from 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of physical activity, although there are athletes who have trained to have higher tolerances and others who need lower doses.

04 | Bibliography

MARINS, J.C., et al. Carbohydrate supplementation during exercise: Effects on electrolytes and glucose. International Journal of Medicine and Sciences of Physical Activity and Sport, 2018.

de Viñaspre, Pablo López. "Hydration and carbohydrates in intermittent esports Hydración y MACMILLAN, Norman. Usefulness of the glycemic index in sports nutrition.

Chilean journal of nutrition, 2002, vol. 29, no 2, p. 92-97.Carbohydrates in intermittent sports." NOTES 31.37 (1994).

ZEVALLOS, Carlos Merino. Carbohydrates in physical activity. Systemic, 2010, no 5, p. 60-61.

Rodríguez, Fernando Rodríguez. "Glycemic behavior during resistance exercise, applying two types of carbohydrate rations prior to exercise." Readings: Physical education and sports 85 (2005): 26.

Peinado, Ana B., Miguel A. Rojo-Tirado, and Pedro J. Benito. "Sugar and physical exercise: its importance in athletes." Hospital nutrition 28 (2013): 48-56.


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