Factors Determining CHO Intake In Athletes And 'Normal' Populations

When I talk to clients about Sports Nutrition and carbohydrate intake, and how it’s different to nutrition for optimal health and wellbeing, I often like to say the following:
Athletes train and perform to run, bike, swim (or all three) for hours, or athletes train to compete and smash personal bests for themselves, or a team are asking their bodies to do extraordinary things. As such, their food choices and intake may also need to be extraordinary to meet the demands of their sport.

We all need carbohydrates, some of us more than others

It’s a slightly Orwellian take on things, but it’s the truth.

Everybody needs carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are a source of ‘energy’.

When we eat carbohydrates, simple or complex, our body turns them into glucose which ultimately gives us energy. Not only does our body use carbs to fuel our muscles, but the carbohydrate is the brain’s number one choice for fuel.

If our brain was at a macros buffet, it would choose glucose (carbohydrates) first.

This can often explain why, if we’ve skipped a meal or haven’t fueled properly, post-training, we can start to experience mood changes, irritability, poor memory, and decreased concentration; it’s because our brain is starving for fuel!

Carbohydrate intake for general health and wellbeing

When I’m working with a non-athlete client, there a few factors to consider regarding their CHO or carbohydrate intake.

If we look at the Australian Government Nutrient Reference Value, CHO intake is based on a percentage of the overall daily energy consumption.

This is different to the other macronutrients which are based on grams per kilo of bodyweight. In general, the AMDR has set the macronutrient balance at 45-65% carbohydrate.

When I’m working with a client the other factors I need to look at are based on:
  • Why they’ve come to see me,
  • What’s going on for them medically, and
  • What their health goals are.
There are some conditions like insulin resistance, low immune system, and body composition which will affect not just HOW MUCH carbohydrate a client should be eating, but also what TYPE of CHO we put on the plate.

How is this different for athletes?

To put it simply, the more fuel you’re using, the more fuel you need!

And whilst it’s not that cut and dry. it’s a great starting point.

An athlete who is training and/or competing regularly will need more fuel (not always just CHO) than someone who is quite sedentary and does yin yoga and a few walks a week.

When looking at athletes, there are many factors which can help determine how much CHO they need.

One of the first things we need to think about is the energy system requirement for the sport.

This refers to what energy system the body primarily uses to produce fuel, based on the duration and intensity of the sport.

For example, a 100m sprinter will have different CHO requirements to a marathon runner or Ironman. You can read up about energy systems in this blog

Other factors we need to look at to determine your CHO intake are things like:
  • How much training are you doing
  • How long you're training for
  • What type of training (strength and condition or cardio) you're undertaking, and
  • What intensity you're training at
CHO intake may also vary depending on if you’re in off-season, competition phase, or recovery; and what the climate is like where you are training/performing.

A final consideration needs to be given to your overall health, fitness, and body composition goals; weight classed athletes, or athletes requiring a certain physique will use CHO in their diets differently.

So how much do I need?

Great question! How long is a piece of string?!

I have some great info about carbohydrate ratios for pre-training, post-training and during training and events.

Here are some questions you might want to think about before making any drastic changes:
  • Have I been following a fuel plan (from a coach/nutritionist/online program)?
  • Has my level of training changed since starting that program?
  • If yes, have I adjusted my fuel (either dialling up or down to match these changes)?
  • Do I experience fatigue or cravings on training days?
  • Am I experiencing weight/muscle loss or weight/muscle gain?
  • If you’re a woman, has there been any changes in your cycle, is it getting longer, or completely disappeared?
I want you to really think about if your body is trying to tell you if it needs more, needs less, or if it’s happy.

Hopefully, this article has helped you understand why athletes or those of you who train hard, might need to focus on their carbohydrate intake more than someone who doesn’t.

There are a lot of factors that come into play to determine how much you need, which type, and when.

If you want to learn more about this, you can check out my Fuelling for Fitness course.

Alternatively, for a private face-to-face or online consultation, book here.