Carbohydrate Recommendations for Athletes | End Sugar Cravings

A Comprehensive Guide to Carbohydrate Recommendations for Athletes

By Danny Webber
Danny Webber is a SENr registered practitioner, an ISAK certified Anthropometrist and a UK Anti-Doping accredited adviser.
| Updated on July 12, 2023

One of the biggest dietary challenges is selecting your carbohydrate intake based on your lifestyle and training requirements. This article gives tips on carbohydrate recommendations for athletes and offers smart swaps when you’re craving something naughty! At the end of this article, you will know how to fuel your training based on the demands of that session.

What is carb loading?

Carb loading is a nutrition strategy endurance athletes use to increase the glycogen stored in their body above its usual amount, improving exercise performance. This typically involves eating more carbs than average and decreasing exercise for one to six days before an athletic event or competition. Carb loading is recommended for endurance events lasting longer than 90 minutes, such as marathons, triathlons, long-distance cycling, and other sports that rely heavily on aerobic systems. Foods with low glycemic indices, like vegetables, legumes, and whole wheat pasta, should be minimised to ease food volumes and lower fibre to prevent gut issues.

What is the main purpose of carb-loading?

The main purpose of carb-loading is to provide you with energy for improving your performance on race/game days.  Carb loading is essential before a race to maximise endurance performance in those lasting more than one hour, particularly if you are an endurance athlete/triathlete such as a cyclist, swimmer, or marathon runner. Team sport athletes will also benefit from carb-loading the day before a game (GD-1), but otherwise, carb-loading may not be necessary for other athletes.

Why are carbohydrates important for athletes?

Carbohydrates are an essential component in the athlete’s diet as they are the primary energy source during physical activity. The intricate process by which carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver is crucial for sustaining physical performance during exercise. Using glycogen as a fuel source is essential in powering the body during training and preventing fatigue. Carbohydrates should also be consumed after training to help muscles recover by replenishing glycogen stores. Conversely, consuming too many carbohydrates may have a negative effect on body composition and weight management. As a result, athletes must understand their carbohydrate needs and choose carbohydrate intake wisely to maximise energy, speed, stamina, concentration, recovery, and fluid balance to improve their athletic performance.

What are the carbohydrate recommendations for athletes to maximise performance?

Carbohydrates for athletes are an essential part of an effective nutrition strategy. The carbohydrate recommendations for athletes to maximise performance are discussed below:


Use Carbohydrates to Maximise Training Performance

Carbohydrates are the main energy source for high-intensity exercise performance. For weight management, your nutrition should be periodized to maximize carbohydrate availability for performance and take into account your body’s energy requirements when at rest.  With this in mind, ensure that you sufficiently support your training with sufficient simple carbohydrates before, during (depending on duration & intensity), and after. Endurance exercise in the fasted state also promotes fat metabolism, so occasionally training with reduced carbohydrate availability is also recommended. Exercise intensity is associated with a simultaneous increase in the dependence of carbohydrates for energy, so naturally, when you’re resting or performing the low-intensity exercise, e.g., walking, the body wants to use its fat stores as fuel.  So when performance is not critical, periods of rest and reduced intensity should be fuelled by foods with reduced carbohydrate and higher fat (primarily unsaturated fats) along with sufficient protein.

Carb Loading After Exercise

Carb intake for athletes after their exercise depends on the intensity of the work and the timing of the next work session.  Maximizing glycogen resynthesis (replenishing muscle glycogen stores) is essential for athletes competing again within the next 24-72 hours.  This is enhanced by consuming carbohydrates at a rate of 1-1.2g/kg body mass per hour for the first 3-4 hours after competition.

Carbohydrate Recommendations For Endurance Athletes Should Be Done wisely

Low-glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates have long been better than high-GI carbs, especially for fat loss diets.  A food’s GI is determined by its effect on the body’s blood sugar levels; the higher the GI reflects, the higher the blood sugar response.  Although research suggests there to be no difference between calorie-controlled diets that solely contain low- or high-GI carbohydrates, it would still be recommended to prioritize low-GI carbohydrates for good health to keep blood sugar levels under control and also to improve satiety to prevent overeating.  So, carbohydrates for athletes should be chosen very carefully. Opting for fibrous, nutrient-rich vegetables to accompany a high-quality protein source helps reduce feelings of hunger during meals, and only adding additional carbohydrates (potatoes or whole grains) depends on training requirements.

Risk Of Carb Loading

Carb loading is not good for every athlete. You must consult with your doctor before beginning a carb-loading diet.  Carb loading is not the perfect diet. In addition, it may lead to some side effects, such as: Digestive Discomfort: The foods rich in fibre should be avoided when you are on carb loading diet. Foods like beans and broccoli can cause bloating and loose stools.

Recommended Carbohydrate Intake For Endurance Athletes

Carbohydrate recommendations for athletes during exercise depend on exercise duration and intensity. The body requires more carbohydrates for more prolonged (>1.5 hrs) and higher intensity (>60% VO2max or max HR) sessions, typically averaging 30-60 g/hr carbohydrates when exercising for 1.5-2hrs, and a minimum of 60 g/hr and possibly as much as 90 g/hr for >2.5hours. Athletes can obtain the required carbohydrate intake by consuming simple sugars that are low fat, low protein, and low fibre. It can be from solid foods (energy or cereal bars, soft bake bars, white bread with jam, jelly sweets, rice cakes, or soreen), carbohydrate chews, gels, or drinks. Athletes can often get bored or discouraged from taking the same carbohydrate source during very long exercise sessions because they get fed up with the taste, texture, or gastrointestinal discomfort from overuse. Therefore, athletes may adopt the mix and match strategy using different sources to obtain the required carbohydrate intake. Athletes are highly encouraged to train and practise the nutrition strategy for competition to reduce gastrointestinal difficulties.

Carbohydrates For Athletes: Athletes Guide

Carbohydrate is considered the primary fuel for physical performance. Carbohydrate recommendations for athletes depend on the exercise, training, and intensity of the activities performed by athletes. Depending on the duration and intensity of training, athletes should consume about 40-70% of the total calories as carbohydrates. Similarly, athletes on low-energy diets should consume >25% fat, and athletes with large energy diets should consume about 30% fat. Overall, with factoring in a 15-25% demand for protein in the diet, athletes should adopt a low fat (20-30% of intake) and higher carbohydrate intake when energy demands for training intensity and volume are increased. Talking about the athletes who have low-calorie intakes, they should consume iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B12. Similarly, high-calorie intakes athletes should be naturally high in or fortified with B-group vitamins. Athletes who are doing regular high-intensity activities are recommended to consume carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks during exercise as this helps to support the metabolic, circulatory, and thermoregulatory functions. Elite athletes should prioritise their diets for high-quality foods ahead of any supplements. The use of carbohydrate supplements during prolonged training, i.e., carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks/gels and other ergogenic aids, complement their diet to maintain energy levels. Still, getting the essential eating habits right first and foremost will allow athletes to maximise their performance.

Also, Learn about muscle repair foods for athletes.

How to Avoid Sugar Cravings

When you’re craving something sweet, then here are some sensible options to satisfy your sweet tooth:

Swap Chocolate with 85% Dark Chocolate

A natural source of cocoa that contains important nutrients such as iron, manganese, and zinc, it’s also a source of antioxidants.  Just a couple of squares is also sufficient as it can be quite bitter, so you’re less likely to demolish a whole bar which is always possible when it’s Dairy Milk! Learn About Milk Chocolate Nutrition Vs Cacao Nutrition.

Use Nuts & Berries Instead of Sweets & Confectionary

Heavily processed sugary treats of no nutritional value should be swapped for sweet-tasting, antioxidant-rich, low-calorie berries. Together with mixed nuts and Greek yogurt makes the perfect snack.

Milk and Eggs are Good Replacement for Crisps, Chips & Savoury

Indulging in foods like crisps, chips, and pretzels are high in salt, but swapping these for a pint of milk is a great alternative that contains protein and is a natural source of sodium and other electrolytes.

Swap Cereal With Eggs

Cereals can be very high in sugar, which can negatively influence what you eat the rest of the day.  Research shows that having high protein foods for breakfast improves food choices, suppresses appetite, and curbs sugar cravings later in the day compared to a typical carbohydrate-based breakfast.  Replace your bowl of empty calories with some nutritious, heart-healthy eggs to help you feel fuller for longer and control your late-night sweet tooth cravings.

Get a good night’s sleep

Sleep deprivation is a common cause of overeating by disrupting hormone levels that regulate appetite.  You are much more likely to eat more, especially poor choice foods if you regularly go with 6 or less hours of sleep per night.  Sleep is essential for your body to recover and function properly, so make sure that you’re getting 8 hours each night.

Daily Carbohydrate Recommendations For Athletes: Take Home Points

  • Periodize your carbohydrates to support your training reduce intake at times of rest, and reduce activity to promote fat utilization.
  • Focus on low-GI carbohydrates in the form of fibrous vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes & dairy.
  • Try to choose a sensible alternative when craving something sweet, e.g., dark chocolate, nuts, berry fruits & dairy.
  • Increase protein at breakfast instead of sugary cereals to prevent sweet tooth cravings later in the day.
  • Go to bed earlier and get at least 8 hours of sleep each night.


Are carbs bad for athletes?

No, carbohydrates are the primary energy source for moderate to high-intensity training, so they are extremely valuable for athletes to maximize their energy levels for performance.

Do athletes eat a lot of carbs?

It will depend on the sport, the level they compete at (training volume), dietary preferences, and training goals, but generally, an athlete will eat a high carbohydrate diet.

Why do athletes need more carbs?

Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for exercise, so to fuel the high volume of training that athletes do, carbohydrates are needed to support it and maximize their performances.

Why are low carb diets bad for athletes?

Carbohydrates are the best source of energy for training. Fats are also an important energy source. However, they are only effective at the low-moderate intensity and are switched off at maximal intensities. Low carbohydrate diets can therefore impair training performance in athletes.

How many carbs can you digest in an hour?

During exercise, the body can utilize carbohydrates at a 1-1.2g/min rate, so typically 60g per hour. However, highly trained athletes can tolerate larger intakes up to 90g per hour, which improves endurance performance further.

What are the best carbs for athletes?

Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and starches are the most nutrient-dense carbohydrate sources for athletes and make up most of their diet. In addition, simple carbohydrates used in carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks, gels, and energy bars effectively consume the energy they need during training without causing any gastrointestinal discomfort.

Which carbohydrates should be avoided?

Excessive intakes of processed, sugary carbohydrates such as sugary drinks, sweets, and foods with added sugars are not advised for athletes.

Is Rice a good carbohydrate?

Yes, rice is a high-quality carbohydrate staple in Asian cooking. Brown, basmati, and wild rice are excellent choices with a lower glycaemic index and higher nutrient and fibre content. It is also gluten-free.

Can you run on a low-carb diet?

Yes, you can. However, after long periods on a low carbohydrate diet may cause severe fatigue in non-ketogenic adapted athletes, drops in energy levels, and impaired performances may be experienced.

What is the role of carbohydrates in post-exercise recovery?

Consuming carbohydrates after exercise help to replenish muscle and liver glycogen stores to support subsequent training sessions.

Should athletes eat complex carbohydrates?

Yes, athletes should eat complex carbohydrates as part of their diet. It provides a controlled release of energy throughout the day, which is essential for athletic performance. Consuming slow released carbs 3-4 hours before a workout or game ensures improved blood sugar levels for sustained energy. After a workout or game, a combination of simple and complex carbs help replenish glycogen stores burned during training. It is recommended that athletes consume 3-12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight throughout the day, depending on their training routine.

What is the daily recommendations for carbohydrates for athletes?

The daily carbohydrate recommendations for athletes vary depending on the training routine, type of activity, and individual factors. General guidelines suggest consuming 3-12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight daily. 5-7 g/kg/day is recommended for general training needs, while endurance athletes may require 7-10 g/kg/day.

How many grams of carbohydrates should be consumed during exercise?

For exercise lasting 1-2 hours, consuming 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour is recommended to improve performance. For up to 3 hours an athlete should aim for 60-90g carbohydrates per hour, but for events >3 hours, the body can effecitvely use up to 120g/hour. Finding the balance between carbohydrate intake and exercise duration is essential to optimise performance and energy balance.

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