Young athletes burn a lot of calories, so obviously, they need to eat more food than the average person. Yet, for optimal athletic performance, they not only need more food, but they need the right kind of extra nutrition. Besides needing food to meet the body’s basic nutritional requirements, the young athlete will need extra energy in proportion to the demands of the sport. For example, if an athlete in training uses a thousand extra calories per day (the average amount used in two hours of vigorous exercise), the child needs to add a thousand extra calories of high energy food to an already balanced diet. These foods should be primarily complex carbohydrates, foods such as fruits, juices, and grains. These additional energy requirements cannot be met by taking vitamins, protein powders, or mineral supplements, since these are not energy sources.
Get your stamina from starch. Studies of athletes and the foods they eat have shown that complex carbohydrates are the best energy boosters. To appreciate the connection between what you eat and how your body uses the energy, it helps to understand a bit of muscle biochemistry.
Your body stores extra fuel in energy “banks.” As you expend energy, you withdraw fuel from your bank. Your body’s best bank – the one that provides the quickest service — is the carbo bank. The central carbo bank is in the liver, which stores a lot of carbohydrate energy in the form of glycogen, long chains of glucose molecules linked together. Glycogen molecules are like stacks of money in the bank, ready to be withdrawn as needed. The carbo bank has branch offices located in the muscles throughout your body. The deposits in the branch offices are known as muscle glycogen. When muscles need energy during exercise, they quickly withdraw muscle glycogen from the bank, like having a cash machine right there at the shopping mall.
Of course, you have to put money in the bank before you can take it out. So it is with depositing fuel into your carbo bank. Before a high-energy competition, you’ll want to be sure you have enough extra energy stored so that you can withdraw it as needed. Depositing energy stores before the big game is called carbo loading, which means you stock your carbo bank with extra fuel to burn on game day.
Best foods for carbo loading. Starches, such as grains and legumes, are the best foods for building up muscle glycogen. A steady insulin level is necessary for stocking the muscles with glycogen, which is why complex carbohydrates, those with a low glycemic index, promote better glycogen storage than simple sugars, such as glucose or sucrose. Eating an increased amount of complex carbohydrates for several days before a major competition will build up stores of muscle glycogen. Best carbohydrates for carbo loading are: fruits (such as apples and oranges), vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Carbo loading does not mean overeating. It simply means increasing the percentage of carbohydrates in your diet to around seventy percent of your total daily calories for three days before the game. Immediately before (2-3 hours) or during a game it’s best to eat foods with a high glycemic index, such as honey, bananas, raisins, carrots, and white rice. Corn flakes also have a high glycemic index.
Why not simply eat more complex carbs right before the game? Because of a biochemical quirk, stored muscle glycogen is a more readily available source of fuel than carbohydrates consumed right before the game. Muscle glycogen is like an automatic withdrawal system, releasing energy quickly as the muscles need it during exercise. The sugar consumed just before the game must go through some biochemical processing before it can be released for energy. That takes time, like depositing a check in the bank and then having to wait for the check to clear before withdrawing money. For maximal energy release, you load the muscles with glycogen for several days before the game.
Best foods for amateur athletes. Carbo loading is not necessary or advisable for every sport. It is mainly used by participants in endurance sports, those that require continuous exertion for longer than 90 minutes. For most amateur athletes, extreme carbohydrate loading is not necessary. Instead, sticking to a balanced diet (approximately 60-70 percent complex carbohydrates, 15-20 percent protein, and 20 percent fat) in the days before the game is sufficient. If you are involved in an important competition and you think carbo loading might help you, consult a professional trainer or ask your coach about the right type of diet and training regimen for the week before your competition.