The term athlete, in this text, refers to any individual who is regularly active, ranging from the fitness enthusiast to the competitive amateur or professional athlete.
I will begin by saying that carbohydrates are the most important energy source for the body. Carbohydrates are critical to uphold physical performance and play many crucial roles in the body. The primary role is to provide energy to our cells. Carbohydrates can produce energy more efficiently than proteins or fats. “Whether an athlete is engaging in long-duration endurance activities, intermittent exercise, or short duration, high-intensity power sports, carbohydrates are needed to supply fuel to the muscles and brain” (Fink).
The higher the intensity of an activity, the more the body depends on carbohydrates. They are a good source of rapid energy – available to provide energy immediately when exercising. They also provide energy without the need for oxygen, while our cells must have oxygen to get energy from fats. A person’s aerobic exercise rate is limited by how fast oxygen can be delivered to the muscle cells, therefore it prefers carbohydrates as less oxygen is needed (Campbell).
The quantity of carbohydrates needed on a daily basis varies among athletes based on body weight, total energy needs, specific metabolic demands of their sport, and their stage of training or competition schedule (Woodruff). According to the USDA, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans established the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrate of 130 grams per day for adults and children (USDA).
Average carbohydrate needs can be determined based on current body weight. Three to 12 grams of carb per kg of body weigh is a general recommendation for calculating daily carbohydrate needs for athletes (Fink). The large range in recommendation allows for changes in exercise intensity, environmental conditions, personal preferences, as well as type and quantity of physical activity.
Carbohydrate needs can also be determined based on percentage of total calories. The recommended range of 45-65% of calories coming from carbohydrates is quite large. The level can be chosen based on medical conditions, training regime, personal food preferences, etc. For athletes, the middle-higher end of this percentage is usually recommended; endurance athletes preparing for competition can increase to as high as 70-75% (Connolly). For recreational athletes or individuals with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, intake is at the middle to low end of the range. (See Table below).
Athletes who eat lower levels of carbohydrates will find that workouts become harder to complete, mental focus is more difficult, energy levels drop, and muscles feel fatigued. Furthermore, if an athlete’s carbohydrate intake is low, their body will turn to the breakdown of muscle protein to make up for the deficit. A diet including carbohydrates is important for overall good health, as well as optimal daily training and high energy levels.