Sugar for Athletes: Is it Important for your Training?

10th February 2020
Are you trying to banish sugar from your diet? Think again. As any food group, sugar and carbs are key to a healthy and balanced nutrition. This is especially true for athletes! In today’s article we’ll cover the importance of sugar for athletes.

If you’re starting your fitness journey, banishing sugars and carbohydrates from your diet might be tempting. Many people believe carbs and sugars should be completely eliminated. Nevertheless, you definitely should eat sugars and carbs! Today we’ll explain the importance of sugar for athletes, even if you’re trying to lose weight!

For starters, it’s important to understand what sugar is. Simply put, sugar is an essential nutrient and our body’s main way of obtaining energy. Compared to other food groups, sugars (whether they’re simple or complex) are relatively calorie-dense.

Calorie-dense foods are just what they sound: their calorie count is relatively high in comparison with other foods. Think about it like this: a cup of lettuce has fewer calories than a cup of white rice.

Because sugars and carbs are calorie-dense, eating large quantities of them can cause you to become overweight and ultimately, lead to obesity. Thus, for sedentary people, it’s best to control your sugar and carb intake. This is easily done with a meal plan or a meal tracking app.

On the other hand, sugar for athletes can be a positive addition to a workout routine. In general, athletes benefit from a good amount of sugars and carbohydrates. In fact, a healthy sugar dose boosts performance.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean you should add plain sugar to your diet: researchers found that plain added sugar, when taken in excess, contributes to the development of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and chronic inflammation.

Sugar for athletes: before or after training?

Because it acts as our main source of energy, sugar has very different roles when taken before or after training.

Before training, consuming carbs ensures you have enough energy to complete your workout. You might even see a boost in performance after eating a high-carb snack before your daily routine!

On the other hand, having a carb-heavy meal after training helps your body recover. In turn, you’ll be able to build muscle and strength, lowering your risk of injury and performance drops.

Should an athlete eat any type of sugar?

We’ve been calling “sugar” and “carbohydrates” as if they were the same thing. And scientifically they’re the same thing. Nevertheless, most people understand “sugar” as the granulated, white stuff we use to sweeten our food. That’s refined sugar.

As an athlete and a generally healthy person, you should strive to lower your refined sugar intake. In fact, if you take large amounts of refined sugar it might cause reactive hypoglycemia!

It’s important to have a healthy amount of complex carbs in our diet.

In general, try to stick with complex, unrefined carbohydrates. These will keep you full for longer while replenishing your energy.

Using glycogen loads to boost performance

Some professional athletes take advantage of glycogen loads to improve sports performance. This is especially useful in anaerobic sports such as weightlifting.

Boosting glycogen will prevent the onset of muscular fatigue, boosting overall performance.

So, how can you implement glycogen loads in your training? For starters, you need to decrease carbohydrate intake for 48 hours under normal training conditions.

Then, boost your consumption of sugars during the next 48 hours – prior to the competition – as you lower your training load.

During this period, alternate the consumption of foods rich in complex carbohydrates with other foods rich in simple sugars. By doing this, your body will accumulate more glycogen than it would store under normal conditions.

This situation benefits sports activity and is useful in medium-duration anaerobic sports or in collective sports, such as soccer.

Eat sugar without getting fat

Despite being an essential nutrient for athletes, it’s interesting to know how to ingest sugars without this affecting the body composition. Keep in mind that, on days off or when you’re inactive, carbohydrate intake should decrease substantially.

On the other hand, we need to emphasize the planned consumption of sugars. The ideal is having a diet generally low on refined sugars and using them only sporadically. Sticking to complex carbohydrates is your best option.

An interesting strategy to prevent weight gain in the athlete and not lose performance is to use intermittent fasting. During the feeding period, sugars can be included in at least two of the three meals that you consume.

In turn, this would ensure optimal sports performance and the maintenance of glycogen stores without affecting your body composition. On rest days, the ideal would be to reduce the consumption of sugars to one out of three meals – in the case of fasting – and choose different foods that contain carbohydrates with a low glycemic index.

The benefits of oatmeal make it an ideal ingredient for breakfast.

Sugar for athletes: our final take

Sugar is an essential nutrient for athletes. Although, if you’re sedentary, it’s best to limit its intake. Athletes should use them to their advantage.

An active person can boost their performance with a properly balanced diet, and this includes carbs! However, knowing how to consume sugars is crucial to prevent injuries and undesirable changes in your body composition.

As a rule, foods rich in complex carbohydrates should be prioritized over those rich in simple sugars. Of course, as an athlete, you don’t need to have sugars at every meal. Try to stick to complex sugars, especially on rest days, to avoid weight gain.

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  2. Stingl H., Chandramouli V., Schumann WC., Brehm A., Nowotny P., Waldhausl E., Landau BR., Roden M., Changes in hepatic glycogen cycling during a glucose load in healthy humans. Diabetología, 2006. 49 (2): 360-8.