Carbohydrates- How to Choose the Right One For Your Activities

If you are an athlete, you most likely have a relatively good relationship with carbohydrates.

You’ve come to appreciate how effective they are in fueling your training sessions, how they help you recover between sessions, and how they can promote a restful night’s sleep.

Even if you’re someone who’s new to fitness, or maybe doesn’t exercise quite yet, you can still come to appreciate how carbohydrates play a role in your day to day life. This includes choosing the “right” carb for your activities.

Have you ever heard the term Glycemic Index?

This term refers to how quickly our carbohydrates are broken down and enter our blood stream to be used as fuel. And when I say fuel, I mean glucose.

Carbohydrates are converted to glucose- our body’s primary energy source. Glucose (also referred to as blood sugar) is what our bodies use to run our systems- from our brains processing information to our hearts pumping. We also use fat as fuel, but that’s typically secondary to glucose.

Foods are ranked on the glycemic index as an easy way to manage and recommend which carbs you want to choose depending on your needs.

Now you may be asking, “what do you mean- “needs”?

Here’s a scenario for you. You’re a runner lining up at the start of a 400m relay. You are going to run as fast as you can around the track- its going to be an all out sprint. You need accessible fuel your body can access quickly. You aren’t worried about protecting how much you fuel you have- you just want to make sure there’s as much available as possible.   

Now here’s an alternative scenario. It’s your rest day. You will be spending the day working, maybe doing some mobility, and taking a walk around the neighborhood. You still need carbohydrates to fuel your day, but you want them to trickle into your bloodstream slowly so you have a constant supply throughout the day. This gets replenished by each meal you eat.

These are examples of carbohydrate “needs”.

There are times for eating things that give us instantaneous energy and there are times we eat things to give us sustained energy.

And sometimes we mix them so we can have both!

So how do we know which to eat when? We refer back to the glycemic index.

Some carbs are going to digest super-fast and enter your blood stream quickly (these foods are referred to as “high glycemic index” foods).

These foods are things that tend to not have any other macronutrients in them (meaning little to no protein and fat), and they tend to have little to no dietary fiber.

White sugar, honey, maple syrup, fruit juice, candy, liquid carbs, and white bread are examples of foods that are high on the glycemic index. You may have also heard these foods referred to as simple carbohydrates.

These are the foods you want to eat if you need a rush of energy (they are also the foods that will give people who are sensitive to sugar a “sugar high”). You would eat these foods right before, during, or right after a longer training session.

These are also the foods that will cause a fast blood sugar drop, based on how quickly your body digests and uses them.

This is why eating candy as an afternoon snack can leave you feeling cruddy- you will have energy for say 30 to 40 minutes, then you go back to baseline and you are left feeling tired and maybe even hungrier than before.

Foods that are lower on the glycemic index, referred to as complex carbohydrates, enter your blood stream slower.

These foods will give you a slower blood sugar spike and more sustained energy. These foods are great for eating two to three hours before training, or at most of your meals.

Examples of lower glycemic index foods are sweet potatoes, brown rice, and oatmeal. You want to get most of your carbohydrates from these foods as it will help provide you with even blood sugar throughout the day without creating dips in energy.

In the middle of the low GI foods and the high GI foods are things like fruit and white rice.

These foods won’t give you a super quick hit of sugar like eating a tablespoon of honey but will digest faster than your oatmeal. These foods are great for eating 30 to 90 minutes before and after training, as well as during if eating food while exercising does not upset your stomach.

This is also a great opportunity to remind you that carbohydrates do not inherently make you fat, nor are they inherently “bad” for you.

Eating too much of the wrong kind of carb at the wrong time (think eating a package of skittles first thing in the morning on rest day) can create a scenario where your body stores these carbs for later.

It also goes back to the consequences of eating high GI carbs and then not putting them to work- your blood sugar spikes then drops, leaving you tired and possible even hungrier than before you ate them.

If you learn HOW to use carbs appropriately, you set yourself up to feel amazing all day long, optimally fuel your training sessions, recover well, and crush your sleep!

Have questions? Want some help dialing in YOUR carb intake for your needs and goals? It’s what I do!

Email me coaching@shawnanorton.com, find me on Instagram or Facebook, or contact me through Shawnanorton.com

My mission is to help everyone I can become the healthiest, strongest versions of themselves. I am a Crossfit coach, athlete, Health and Nutrition coach, Movement Rehab Specialist, and a grad student completing my masters in Kinesiology with a focus on integrative wellness.

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