Why carbs are so important for runners

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Whilst I try to vary the content of my weekly running columns, I really do enjoy it when one of them leads to plenty of debate and further content via social media with a collection of other people’s thoughts and views. 

Providing it’s always constructive, then it can only be a good thing. 

With this in mind, I am sure this week’s article about nutrition will definitely get a response. A subject with so many differing ideas, that’s for sure. 

I will also point out that this is also a subject which in reality requires far more space than what is viable within this column and my qualifications only go to level 3, with distinction I have to add! 

I will try to keep it to the very basics and there are a lot of people who are far more qualified than I am. 


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One of the athletes who I lend (not coach) some weekly advice too, recently sent me a message to say that her heart rates were much higher than normal during a run and the day after a pretty hard session. 

Through her various social media posts, I have also been aware that she has been following a diet which is very low in carbohydrates. 

Whilst I have made it not my business to make any comments, after receiving her message, I did indeed let her know what I think. 

When it comes to a well-balanced diet and good nutrition particularly when wanting to be able to perform at your very best, carbohydrates are a very important source of energy. 

They are stored in our muscles and liver as glycogen and have a direct effect on performance levels. 

However, if glycogen stores become low, then there will a reduction in training performances. Certainly if it goes on for a few days. 

Carbohydrates during the last few years have for some people been a bad word, but for any runner in heavy training, good complex carbohydrates should be an essential part of your daily intake of calories to sustain a slow release of energy throughout the day. 

Simple carbohydrates also have a place, but only in limited amounts. Perhaps just prior to a session or of course during exercise in well balanced energy drinks and even then not those which are too heavily concentrated and syrupy. This is applicable to gels too. 

Whilst protein is very much a key word and indeed the most important nutrient required, I also personally think that some people do go overboard with it. Particularly when it comes to extra supplementation. 

Protein is required to help repair muscle cells as well as helping to stimulate the nervous system whilst also having an effect upon the production of certain hormones. But our bodies only require so much of it per kilos of body weight. 

Certain sports persons such as those which require extra strength and power may of course require a bit more than your average long-distance runner. 

Protein will also provide energy, particularly when our bodies are depleted of other sources, but that is not really a good thing. 

Essential fats too are also of prime importance. Whilst also being required to bind the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, along with hormone production, fat is a very good source of energy providing the body with around two and a quarter times that of carbohydrates. 

However, fat oxidation also requires significantly more oxygen when combusted at higher intensities hence why it is also important for those in endurance events to get their pace correct particularly in marathons i.e. not to go off too quickly so as to deplete glycogen levels and hit the wall. 

In some respects this is exactly what the athlete in question within this article had done albeit perhaps not quite to the extreme of that horrible feeling when having done so in a marathon. 

I am aware that there may be times when it is good to train hard when partially depleted (low glycogen levels) to stimulate our bodies to becoming more efficient with fat oxidation, but these sessions should be built in to a plan and performed only occasionally if you want to stay on top of your game. 

At the end of the day, it is not rocket science. There may be times when a radical approach may have to be taken, but on the whole, there are no short cuts or magic formulas. A well-balanced diet which meets all the essential nutrients and your body’s needs is without a doubt the best way for any athlete who has serious intentions to perform at his or her best. 

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