Where should we start with Carbohydrates? Once proclaimed to be the needed energy source of athletes and the fuel that is required for a successful start to your day, carbohydrates have now gotten somewhat of a bad rep as of recent years. From concerns that it is not the best energy source for endurance athletes to it is going to make athletes that are involved in the more power and strength sports such as football and baseball overweight, it has become the nutrient under the spotlight.
Without getting into too much depth today I wanted to answer some commonly asked questions. Are carbohydrates bad for us? Do they make us gain body fat? How do they affect our athletic performance? These are a few of the questions that as coaches we hear from our athletes on a regular basis. And if you have been unsure as of how to answer them make sure to read below.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Yes, as far as calories in and calories out, you will maintain the same bodyweight if those numbers are kept equal. Notice how I brought attention to the word bodyweight? I did not say your lean body mass and fat mass will stay equal, I said bodyweight! This is something that drives me nuts when talking to others in the nutrition community that harp on the calories in and out equation. You might keep the same bodyweight by following the math, but I guarantee you will not keep the same lean body mass and body fat percentage if this is your only approach. If you think having a sweet potato compared to table sugar where they equal one another from a caloric and carbohydrate standpoint are the same, then we can’t be friends.
The source of carbohydrate must been considered when discussing if it is a nutrient that is going to be beneficial to our health and performance or have a negative impact. Most of us would know that candy and soda are going to be a poor source of carbohydrates, but some might not know what a good source would be. Good carbohydrate sources would include starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, tropical fruits such as bananas and a few grains such as oats or rice.
The choice in carbohydrate that is good for you will depend on a few things. Mainly the energy you exert throughout your day, but there are also other things to consider. Are complex carbohydrates, which will be absorbed slower by the blood stream, a better choice than a simple carbohydrate that would be used if you are looking for a quick energy source? Faster absorbing carbohydrates would be white rice compared to a slower absorbing source such as sweet potatoes. How much fiber does your diet need? The more complex a carbohydrate is will usually lead to there being a higher amount of fiber. Also there will be a greater amount of water, vitamins and minerals found in complex sources for the most part.
No nutrient, including carbohydrates are bad for us. It comes down to making good choices. No nutrient should be demonized and if someone makes that calm I would strongly disagree. No nutrient makes us fat either, this again will include carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are easier to blame for overweight issues we see because the body is very poor at storing carbohydrates compared to protein and fat, but they by themselves do not make us fat.
When the right source of carbohydrates, in the right quantities, are consumed, the body uses that energy and those nutrients to accomplish the more physically demanding tasks such as would be found while playing sports. So let your athletes know that carbohydrates are a good source of nutrients, just make sure they are getting them from the right source.
Lots of people, young athletes in particular, put in a lot of work but don't necessarily get the results they want. The issue is that while sweat is required to get the gains you want, if you invest that sweat in the wrong exercises or programs you won't get the desired results. If a 100 meter sprinter wants to get faster, and spends his days running marathons, he is indeed working hard but his sprint times will probably get worse. This is the same premise for most team sport athletes - sweat doesn't always equal improvement.
I saw a video a friend of mine posted on facebook yesterday - it featured a few high school football players on a field doing a variety of different exercises in what he termed their "phase I" of the off-season. They were mixing in sets of flipping tires, jumping hurdles, running around cones, doing jumping jacks, sprinting, and a few other exercises, a crossfit style workout. I had two immediate thoughts - 1) it's great that these kids are willing to get to work and pursue their goals, and 2) it's a shame that their sweat could have been better invested.
Let's take a look at what they're getting out of that workout. They are most likely getting in better shape, improving heart health, and improving their conditioning. Also, they're bonding as a team and building trust between teammates, which can serve them well during the season. On the other hand, they probably aren't making big strength gains, or as good of strength gains as they could being on a more well structured program with basic tenants of progressive overload and strengthing specific movement patterns.
If we revisit the exercises shown in the video, we should note that nothing is wrong with any of the exercises. The question is, are they the right exercises for their particular goals? Are these exercises going to increase the players' maximal output and low rep max outs? Because for football players, that is largely what matters - how much force can you create in short bursts. Their workout doesn't match their goals, however, that workout might match someone else's goals. Each sport has different needs, and workouts can be catered to match. Generally, a good strength training foundation and progressive overload on the right exercises is the right path.
Working hard is a pre-requisite for getting reaching lofty goals, but it isn't the only pre-requisite. Working hard needs to be combined with working smart and directing your energy in the right direction. Don't just look for ways to make yourself sweat, look for ways to improve performance. Don't waste your sweat on the wrong exercises, and if you find a strength coach who's only looking for you to sweat and be tired, then keep looking. You need a strength coach who knows how to invest that energy to get the best returns.
SPU's Alex Drayson and Matt Migiano write the SPU Athletic Performance Blog.
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