CARBS role in your Endurance Journey

CARBS role in your Endurance Journey

We continue our look at macro nutrients on episode six of our Endurance Journey podcast series. Here we focus on carbohydrates, and why they cannot be ignored! But at the same time you need to look at healthy options, and understand when you’ve earned certain carbs. Listen to this…


David Katz: As we continue our endurance journey here on 32Gi Sports Nutrition; Mark Wolff has been looking at the various aspects of what an endurance athlete needs, and that doesn’t just refer to when you’re exercising. When it comes to nutrition, when it comes to diet, it is a lifestyle, it’s about every day. We’ve talked previously about the macro nutrients, and we’ve touched quite extensively on protein, a fantastic podcast.

I’ll put a link up to that if you haven’t seen it, but today we’re moving from protein to a carbohydrate which Mark; you know there’s been a lot in recent years of people looking to eat more fats and eating more protein and coming down on the carbohydrates. It’s a lot more complex than that? There is a need and a place for carbohydrates, and what you need to do rather is be able to break up between your different kinds of carbohydrates and realise what you need.

2 NB sections of carbohydrates

Mark Wolff: David, I think carbohydrates are still very important in anyone’s diets. I break carbohydrates into two sections; the one being your healthy carbohydrate and we’ll touch on that first. Those are your carbohydrates that have a very low net, let’s say carbohydrate value, in other words, higher in fibre. Those come in the form of very healthy vegetables, can come in the form of some fruits, but mainly very healthy vegetables. Things like broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, kale, spinach, all these types of things that people maybe love to hate, but they really do provide health benefits.

Don’t forget about the health benefits

Those cannot be cut out of the diet, they’re very, very important. In actual fact especially for immune system strength and overall health, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals etc, you get that from a lot of those, what I call ‘healthy’ carbohydrates.

If you’re looking at some of the fruits, yes, the fruits definitely do give rise to blood sugar; but again, it depends on what kinds of fruits you’re eating and in the quantities that you’re eating them in. I wouldn’t say then go cut out fruit either because fruit also has very good health benefits. We know they’re also high in antioxidants and we know that fruits also are loaded with very good minerals and vitamins.

A lot of people say, “I’m just going to cut out carbohydrates, and I’m just going to go on a Banting diet.” I’m not knocking the ketogenic community now because as a lot of people know, I was ketogenic for about three years. I’m just saying carbohydrates do play a very important role.

What are earned carbohydrates?

The problem with carbohydrates is, if I look at the second section of carbohydrates, which I’m going to touch on now, those are what I call ‘earned’ carbohydrates. Those are the carbs that do give a big rise to blood sugar. There you’re looking at more your starches, your grains etc, and some of the fruits, things like grapes and dried fruit et. All these things do give rise to blood sugar but again, it’s also related to the quantities that you eat them in.

If I go and have a tablespoon of wild rice for example, I don’t think it’s going to cause a rise in my blood sugar, but I go and eat a whole bowl of wild rice, actually yes, it is going to cause a rise in blood sugar. Again, we’re not just looking at what we’re eating but you’re also looking at the volumes of what you eat and you need to put that into perspective.

Why Endurance Athletes need carbs!

I fully believe that as an endurance athletes, endurance athletes have to be fat efficient. So yes, very important to be able to burn fat and very important to be able to be very efficient at burning fat in order to spare glycogen. But from a performance perspective, carbohydrates do play a crucial role and it has been scientifically proven that when you consume carbs, you’re able to put in a higher percentage effort.

Dr Asker Jeukendrup, a very famous sport scientist from Europe, he’s actually done what’s called the Mountain Test, even just rinsing with a carbohydrate and spitting it out has shown to cause an improvement in performance. I would say that most athletes that are very successful athletes are very good at metabolising fat and being very fat efficient; but at the same time they are extremely efficient at metabolising carbohydrates and utilising it as well.

I think you need the best of both worlds. I just think everything in moderation. You need to find what works best for you. When it comes to carbohydrates, again, there’s also certain vitamins that are water soluble vitamins. So those are much better absorbed in a carbohydrate environment. I can use Vitamin C as an example, where if you look at something like a Vitamin B, which is a fat soluble vitamin. There you would require a fat in order to be able to enhance the absorption rate of that.

Both play very crucial roles and I don’t think that either should be cut out completely from a diet. Again, a person needs to find out what works for them. But the reason that carbs have got a bad rap is because over-consume carbohydrates, and I also think they over-consume what I call ‘unnatural’ or processed carbohydrates which are very unhealthy over the long term.

List of Healthy Carbohydrates

DK: Mark, you touched briefly on healthy carbohydrates, but if people are now trying to wrap their minds around this, as you said with earned carbohydrates, people associated carbs more with the processed grains and looking at rice. When you’re talking about healthy carbohydrates, what are some good examples of that? 

MW: A healthy carb, like I mentioned earlier, it’s the carbohydrate that doesn’t give a big rise to blood sugar. I mean things like Brussels sprouts, things like mushrooms, things like tomatoes and asparagus, kale, spinach, watercress, Swiss chard. There’s so many green, leafy vegetables and multi coloured vegetables, even peppers that are out there.

There’s so many different types of what I call, and you can call them ‘greens’ if you want which to me are very high fibre foods, which are what I classify as a healthy carb. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with consuming those because they’re not going to cause weight gain. In actual fact they’ve got very good health benefits to any individual.

How cooking impacts carbohydrate benefits

DK: Looking at eating them in their raw state. I know a lot of people like to do that, especially with greens, some people don’t like the taste of raw green vegetables, and prefer cooking them. In terms of nutrition and diet, is there a huge difference? What way should you be preparing healthy carbs in general?

MW: That’s an excellent question because in actual fact the way you prepare your food can ultimately determine absorption rates etc. Spinach for one, you should steam, you would probably get better nutrients out of steaming spinach than just eating it raw, just an example.

An interesting example that I use with a lot of athletes is if you take a potato and you boil or steam it, you’ll get a lower rise in blood sugar. But if you bake a potato, you’ll get an excessive rise in blood sugar. Those are two different cooking methods where one gives you a sugar bomb, and the other one doesn’t give you a quick sugar release like in a boiled or a steamed format.

The reason being, when you bake a potato, what happens is that all the moisture leaves the potato, obviously it evaporates and it becomes very concentrated sugar molecules within it. In the same tone, if you look at eating a whole orange or drinking orange juice, it’s the same thing.

An orange, because of the fibre, because of the fleshy fruit, if you eat an orange or a grapefruit it’s absolutely fine, but if you go and squeeze the juice out of that fruit, in actual fact you’re causing a concentrated juice mix which is basically very, very high in sugar. Eating fruit in their natural form is very important and each food has got a different type of an attribute based on the way that you prepare that food as well.

DK: Mark looking at the so-called ‘earned’ carbs then, if you’re doing this big bulk of training and you’re utilising a lot of energy and a lot of glucose and eating through your carbs very quickly, what carbs should we be looking at in terms of earned carbs? If you’re looking at something like rice or pasta, is it always better to go for a whole wheat or a brown version and what are the processed carbohydrates that people should really look to avoid?

How to keep your “earned carbs” healthy

MW: I actually don’t eat pasta at all. To me in a way it’s a processed carbohydrate, I don’t touch it. Carbohydrates I do eat are things like quinoa, spelt, millet, those to me are natural grains. I also look at the higher protein grains and the higher fibre grains because to me those are a lot healthier.

We know quinoa has got a higher protein content than most other grains, and millet has got a very good one, sorghum is also an excellent form of a grain. These are the types of grains that I personally look at. I don’t like to look at processed grains.

Somebody once said to me, “Is there a difference between one oat and the next?” Yes, 100% there is. There’s steel cut oats and rolled oats or a processed oats, they’re very different in how the body is going to respond to when you consume it.

When it comes to processed carbohydrates I say definitely stay away from them. When it comes to what you touched on now about training and earned carbs, without a doubt. We’ve got two fuel tanks, as you know, in the body. Actually we’ve got three, but let’s look at the major two which is fat and glycogen.

We know that if you’re doing exercise over a long period of time, you will deplete your glycogen tank. It doesn’t matter how fat efficient you are, you might deplete it at a slower rate, but you will deplete your glycogen tank.

If you’re doing high intensity exercise you’ll deplete your glycogen tank at a higher rate and there again, it doesn’t matter how fat efficient you are, if you’re going at a very high intensive, you’re still going to burn off a high rate of glycogen.

How do you replenish your glycogen stores?

Quite simple. You earn the carbohydrates and you need to eat it. You need to actually take it carbs to help replenish those glycogen stores as quickly as possible. You cannot go and just say you’re going to eat fat and get your glycogen stores back up to where they are. An athlete that wants to perform at a high intensity and once his performance is going he’s going to have to use his rocket fuel tank, which is your glycogen fuel tank and he is going to have to consume carbs in order to be able to support those efforts.

If you’re going at a very pace controlled aerobic zone where you’re getting a lot of oxygen into the system, and you are predominantly burning fat, then yes, you can eat a lower carb diet and there’s absolutely no problem with doing that because you won’t need to top up your glycogen stores, and replenish them as much as you would if you were going at a higher intensity.

Basically what I’m saying is that depending on the kind of exercise that you’re doing or the kind of exercise that you’re going to do, that will ultimately determine the structure of your meal. Whether you should have earned carbs in that meal or whether you can have fat and lower that earned carbohydrates in that meal will ultimately determine by the kind of effort that you put in during an exercise session and also the duration of that exercise session.

Somebody says to me, “How do I know if I’m burning fat or if I’m burning carbohydrates,” and it’s quite simple, if I’m doing exercise and I’m battling to breathe, I can honestly tell you, you’re probably burning a lot more glycogen than you are fat. The reason being, you need oxygen for the fat to ATP conversion process.

If you are breathing very, very controlled and you’re getting a lot of oxygen in and you can talk while you’re exercising, then you’re obviously going to be in more of an aerobic zone. You obviously have the ability to burn off a higher rate of fat, so then you don’t need to consume carbohydrates, rather support the fat burn and that’s how you’ll be able to manage both of them.

Really, your food needs to revolve around your training and specifically what I’ve been focusing on around the earned carbs section is, you need to utilise those for recovery. The amount that you consume and when you consume it will ultimately depend on the kind of workout that you’ve done.

DK: On that note Mark we’re going to leave it there. In terms of carbohydrates and earned carbohydrates and healthy carbohydrates; we will look at that more closely, at endurance and what quantities and products you can use around your sessions to help supplement your diet.

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