The Body’s High-Octane Fuel - Carbohydrate

News Written by Boris Clark

We’ve told you about what carbohydrate is. Now it’s time to tell you about how it can help fuel your workout to maximise your training and ultimately get those gains!

In a future blog we will be discussing how much carbohydrate you can/should take when exercising, types and mixtures of carbohydrate to maximise absorption, and how UpShift SUSTAIN ticks all these boxes. But for today we are just going to go over the basics of why carbohydrate can help you maximise your training.

The ‘Tank’

In our blog about what carbohydrate is we told you about how fat is essentially an unlimited fuel source, but it is a ‘slow burning’ one, therefore we need carbohydrate. We also discussed how our stores of carbohydrate (called glycogen) are quickly available, but only in limited supply.

You can think of your glycogen levels as a fuel tank. Sure, if this fuel tank runs out you still have your unlimited fuel tank of fat to use, but you won’t be going very fast!

As a general rule of thumb, you probably have enough glycogen in the tank to power up to 2h of intensive exercise, but after that, you’ll be pretty much spent. Luckily, there are ways we can stop this fuel tank from becoming empty.

Pre-workout nutrition

The first way we can prolong how long our tank lasts is with pre-workout nutrition. This starts with your general training and nutritional habits. It includes things like the total volume of training you are doing, the intensity of it, how good you are at burning fat at different intensities and your general nutritional habits. Each of those becomes an increasingly complex topic, which could fill several blogs, but we are going to start with nutrition the day before.

Essentially what we are aiming to do with our pre-workout nutrition is top off our stores of glycogen to really maximise how full our reserves are. Luckily, this is pretty simple. Eat a higher proportion of high carbohydrate foods such as oats, potatoes, rice, bread, or pasta the day before a hard workout, or training session, and you will store more of the carbohydrate as glycogen in the muscles and liver.

The morning of our workout/event we want to again have a carbohydrate rich meal. The aim of this meal is mostly to top off our liver glycogen which will have been lowered through the night, and perhaps squeeze the last little bit into our muscles. How much carbohydrate your breakfast should contain depends on how much you can tolerate before exercise, how long before exercising you are eating, and individually what you find works for you with trial and error, but aiming to start in the range of 1.5-2 gram of CHO per kg of body mass is a reasonable starting point.

In the lead up to your session, continue the high carbohydrate theme with any snacks or meals if you are training or competing in the evening.


During exercise nutrition

This is the area SO MANY people get wrong. They don’t take on enough carbohydrate during hard exercise!

You are constantly drawing from that glycogen ‘tank’, so why not fill it up/stop it getting empty? This is entirely possible to do while exercising (and super simple). All you need to do is consume carbohydrate while exercising. This can be in the form of any carbohydrate really, but for the quickest delivery into the system, you will want to take in carbohydrate from simple sugars.

Suggesting you take in sugar may ring some alarm bells. “Isn’t sugar bad for me?”.

Well… Yes and no.

In general day to day life, when we eat a lot of sugar, it gets absorbed through the gut into the blood causing our blood sugar to rise. This isn’t good for us. There is nowhere for the sugar to be used at that time so our body releases insulin. Insulin helps us store the sugar (or any carbohydrate) as either glycogen or as fat. If we keep having a lot of sugar we will keep getting really large blood sugar spikes and therefore pumping out a lot of insulin to reduce our blood sugar levels. This is not only bad for us, but also leads to that ‘sugar crash’ as generally our body overcompensates a little and lowers blood glucose a bit too much.

When you are exercising this is a totally different story however.

When you eat sugar while riding it is still absorbed via the gut into the blood stream, which again causes blood sugar to rise. The difference in this situation is that we have a high energy demand since we are exercising. So instead of needing insulin to reduce our blood sugar levels, we simply transport the sugar into the muscle to be used as fuel.

So, no insulin spike, no sugar crash and best of all, since we have used ‘exogenous CHO’ (carbohydrate we recently took in) as a fuel source, we didn’t need to tap into our glycogen tank.

What does this mean for performance?

The main benefit to taking in this exogenous CHO during exercise is that you can ride harder and longer before fatigue sets in. This means you can get that extra hour of training in, complete those last couple of intervals at higher quality, or even get a couple more in before fatiguing, or finally and most importantly, have that quick fuel available for a race winning effort or sprint finish. With limited glycogen you won’t stand a chance of doing that!

There is also research that shows higher CHO intake during exercise reduces muscular stress. This means you can train harder and longer before the body starts to break-down, and also increase your training volume and intensity as a whole (within a week/month/training cycle for example) when you are taking in higher levels of carbohydrate.

Furthermore, if you are training hard and depleting your glycogen stores, you may not be topping them up adequately to get them ready for your next training session. First of all in this case you should eat some more carbohydrate in the recovery period between training sessions or events, but secondly, if you take on board more carbohydrate during the workout, you will finish with more glycogen left in the tank and therefore before the workout is even finished you are more recovered any ready to go just by eating more carbohydrate while exercising! There is even research which shows by consuming more carbohydrate you can avoid, or at least reduce, the effects of over-training!

So, in general, more carbohydrate during exercise equals better performance, and better recovery, for subsequent sessions. There are, however, times when you feel it may be beneficial to have fewer carbs while exercising, and we will write about that in another blog. But in general, Carbs = performance!

What to eat during exercise?

There are many options when it comes to intra-workout nutrition.  What works for you will be a combination of personal preference and what you can comfortably take with you. Some great examples are muesli bars, rice cakes, or even boiled potatoes with some salt. All of those can be made at home and are great ‘real food’ options. When you want something a bit easier to consume you can move into more sport specific products such as energy gels, or a product like UpShift SUSTAIN.

When we have a drink during exercise it is important to match the solute concentration (e.g. carbohydrates and electrolytes/salts) to below that of the blood to ensure the drink is absorbed properly and doesn’t cause us any gastrointestinal distress. UpShift SUSTAIN has managed to achieve this by combining 60g of CHO, multiple source carbohydrate in a 1:0.8 ratio of maltodextrin to fructose, with a comprehensive array of electrolytes to fit everything you need into the drink, without making the osmotic pressure too high.

Other brands may have squeezed in a few more carbs into their drink mixes (SIS Beta Fuel, Maurten products etc), but they have had to seriously compromise on their electrolyte mixes to do this without making the osmotic pressure intolerable. Considering we want our sport’s drink to both hydrate AND fuel us this isn’t ideal!

UpShift has you sorted in this regard!

To sum up. Get those carbs in before exercising, and especially while exercising. You’ll be able to go harder, longer, faster, and train more frequently with less fatigue. All of which equals better performance. In short, grab some SUSTAIN, a muesli bar and maybe a gel or two and get out the door and stuck in to your next training session.

After that, come home, put your feet up, and wait for my next blog when we will be talking about how much carbohydrate you can take in during exercise, the science behind improving this, and how UpShift’s unique formula maximises your ability to get those carbs in!

Until next time, happy training.

Boris Clark
Head of Performance
Metabolic Performance Solutions

PS. For those interested in learning more about performance optimisation head to my website

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