Nearly all athletes require carbohydrates in order to perform at a high level. While going low carb and upping the fat is a proven and effective tool for fat loss, it’s only a short-term solution for athletes and is not sustainable over the long-term. Instead, athletes should eat an amount of carbohydrate that matches their gender, body type, and activity level.
Typically, a diet under 100 grams of carbohydrate per day is considered low carb. If you are very active, eliminating large amounts of carbohydrates from your diet may not be something you want to experiment with. Excess levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower levels of testosterone in both men and women, along with disrupted sleep patterns, tend to accompany the decreased performance that results from extended periods in a carbohydrate deficit.
It is important not to confuse “eating clean” — eating whole, mostly unprocessed foods — with eating low carb. The prominence of gluten-free, paleo-style diets eliminate large quantities of calorie-dense foods that are typically high in carbohydrate such as breads, pastas, pastries, and many packaged snack foods. The goal of whole food diets is to eliminate processed and refined carbohydrates, not carbohydrates in general. Replacing those calorie-dense foods with higher quantities of nutrient-dense sources of carbohydrate such as fruits, tubers, and whole grains is necessary, even for cavemen athletes.
Athletes and high-level performers need carbohydrates, plain and simple. Knowing your body type and eating to that type is the first step toward understanding how your body will perform at its best. These Body types fall into three main categories:
Ectomorphs are on the lean end of the scale. They typically have a smaller bone structure and thinner limbs. Ectomorphs typically self-select towards endurance sports and have the highest tolerance for carbohydrates. Lance Armstrong and ultrarunner Kilian Jornet are two of the best examples of the ectomorph body type. They can eat a couple servings of dense carbohydrates with each meal, and can tolerate larger amounts of starchy carbohydrates after exercise. Ectomorphs should eat foods that roughly comprise this macronutrient breakdown: 55 percent carbohydrate, 25 percent protein, and 20 percent fat.
Mesomorphs fall in the middle; they have a medium bone structure and tend to carry more lean mass. Gymnasts and sprinters are the archetypical mesomorphs, which are characterized by explosive power. The general recommended macronutrient breakdown for mesomorphs is 40 percent carbohydrate, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. Active mesomorphs should be eating a serving of fibrous, dense carbohydrates at every meal and partitioning starchy carbohydrates into the post-workout window.
Endomorphs tend to tip the scales with a large bone structure and higher amounts of total body mass and fat mass. Ever see the World’s Strongest Man? Those guys are endomorphs, and so are the linemen on your favorite football team. Endomorphs typically do better on a lower carbohydrate diet where many of the excess calories from carbohydrates tend to be stored as fat. The recommended macronutrient breakdown for endomorphs is 25 percent carbs, 35 percent protein, and 40 percent fat. Endomorphs should eat most of their carbohydrate consumption after exercising and limit any carbohydrates outside of that period to fibrous types such as vegetables, fruits, and legumes.
It should be noted that these are general recommendations not to be taken at 100 percent face value. An extremely active endomorph doing daily bouts of CrossFit-style, high-intensity interval training will require far more than the recommended 25 percent carbs, just like a sedentary ectomorph will begin to hold onto more body fat if he consumes 55 percent carbohydrates, especially if the carbs are starchier.
Timing strategies for getting the most out of your carbs
The post-workout period can range from one to three hours depending on the intensity of the workout or activity. During this period the body is more adept at handling high volumes of carbohydrates and restoring the fuel needed to repair the muscle tissue that was broken down. In fact, if you typically eat clean, the post-workout window is the best time to sneak in a few of those cookies you were thinking about earlier. Just make sure to meet your protein needs prior to indulging in the starchier carbs and don’t make workouts an excuse to eat whatever you want.
Refeeds are the best strategy for athletes that are looking to cut body fat but not spiral into hormonal disregulation from chronic, low-carbohydrate consumption. This can be done a number of ways and it is best to experiment to find what works best for you. Refeeds are just that — go low carb for a period of time to reap the fat loss benefits but replenish glycogen with carbohydrates periodically and strategically. Common strategies are:
• A once-weekly refeed where an athlete will go to town on carbohydrate-rich foods following a workout on a chosen day (monitor sleep and hormone status closely; if things start to get weird change the strategy).
• A daily refeed, which is milder in nature, where an athlete limits carbohydrate consumption for the majority of the day, then takes in the presumed necessary amount of carbohydrate following their workout or activity.
Following protocols like these and knowing how to eat for your body type are necessary steps to take when determining what your carbohydrate needs should be. Be smart — listen to your body, give it real food, and don’t skimp on the carbs.
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