Phil Holmes BA (Hons), PGCE, Adv Dip.Nut MRSPH

The short answer is yes. Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient for any human and are invaluable to any sports performer. The rate at which we consume carbohydrates and the quantity required will obviously differ in relation to our sport; a triathlete wouldn’t have similar requirements to a crown green bowler for example. So let’s look at how carbs help us and how we can shape our nutrition plans to maximise their benefit.

In order to perform exercise we require energy. Most people are aware that carbohydrates will help provide energy but may not be clear as to the percentage contribution they make to our total energy use – or expenditure. We will, in an ideal scenario, use carbohydrates and fat stores to provide the fuel. Protein may be utilised but only in certain circumstances as we really want this macronutrient to be available for muscle repair and recovery.

Athletes also have to understand what parts of our body requires fuel whilst we perform. A netballer has to cover space, change direction, jump, pass, challenge opponents and, for those in the correct positions, shoot. So it’s logical to think of muscles having to work and our bodies requiring oxygen to work for the game duration. Yet our brain is the one organ which is assessing the game and directs our actions. In fact the brain must be supplied with blood glucose in order to operate at all. Hence it will constantly need feeding and, as a game or skill becomes more challenging, will increase its demand. For older athletes this scenario is more acute as we require even higher levels of glucose with age.

All sports will require our minds to be in a good place. A cyclist will have to be aware of his race strategy, position in the peloton, threats from key opponents and position of teammates. A golfer has to make smart club choices in relation to on-course hazards, flag positions and weather conditions; professional players will therefore need their caddies to be sufficiently fuelled also. You can all think of a myriad of examples.

We convert carbohydrate to glycogen which can then be stored within our muscles and aid contraction – or muscle movement. This is particularly relevant to fast, high intensity activities. This is an area where gym focused exercisers often lose sight of; protein fixation clearly evident when people have read magazine articles which may have a sponsored link to a supplement company. Carbohydrates are extremely beneficial as they enable us to perform intense workouts whilst allowing protein stores to remain intact and help with our muscle repair and recovery.

For muscular contraction we use Adenosine Triphosphate – ATP. This isn’t a limitless product and we must use carbohydrate to replenish as we move. To do this we have to reduce our intensity which is why Usain Bolt can’t run 400m in 38 seconds. The other extreme of the sports spectrum would see ultra-marathoners moving at lower intensity but planning meal breaks into their race as the body will certainly deplete the majority of the muscle glycogen stores – think of the image of Jonny Brownlee being helped over the finish line by his brother as his body hit the wall.

And we are fortunate to also store glycogen in our liver. Liver glycogen helps maintain blood glucose, the major source of energy for our brains. This becomes almost empty overnight and hence why breakfast is a useful method for helping us provide energy for our bodies each morning by increasing the liver’s fuel tank thereby having a support network if we begin to deplete our muscle glycogen stores.

The main relationship between exercise and energy source, in a crude, simplistic way is, the higher the intensity the more carbohydrate is used for energy. The lower the intensity the more fat is used for energy.  

As another general rule, exercise lasting for more than an hour requires some carbohydrate support during the event. Less than this and we may be well served from a balanced and purposeful pre-contest meal which would be rich in carbohydrates for most sports performers.

Details on how we can find appropriate methods and timings for fuelling mid-event will be in a following blog.

Some of the issues I’ve seen from clients have included being carb scared and trying to almost eliminate this macronutrient from the diet. The reasons for this range from trying to lose weight to the desire to sculpt a better physique. In the first example the individual is bound to lose weight due to carbohydrates attracting water when in the body; each gramme possibly carrying 3 grammes of water. So if we cut down carbs we cut weight. The main issue being that this isn’t a long term fix and isn’t cultivating smart eating habits. For sports performers this is most certainly not a desirable choice.

The irony of the individual who is chasing a sculpted physique is that when eliminating carbs, they are then asking the body to take energy from fat stores and protein stores. Thus they reduce the macronutrient that is most readily placed to help repair muscle tissues.

For non-elite athletes we should aim for 4-5g per kg of carbohydrate per day. A 70kg person therefore is looking at between 280g and 350g per day.  This can increase to 6-8g per kg for games players and hit double figures for high level endurance athletes.

Carbohydrate use is a complex area but I hope you can see the need we have for carbohydrate and why we need to be mindful when certain media sources demonise this valuable macronutrient.

Whether a marathon runner or a powerlifter, you should include carbohydrates as part of your nutrition plan. They are a vital component when fuelling for success.

Future blogs will provide examples of how complex and simple carbohydrates differ and why both have their place in our performance nutrition plans.

Any questions, please email