Sugars, otherwise know as simple carbohydrates or “carbs” for short, have long been touted as the best fuel for athletic activities, but how much carbs? How often? And is that really true?

Unless you’re diabetic, most of us don’t really think about the impact of carbs on our blood sugar handling. That’s right, blood sugar handling. The very words “blood sugar” usually have people skip right past the info thinking to themselves, “I don’t need that, I’m not diabetic.” but the fact is we all have blood sugar handling or we’d be dead. The difference is that diabetics have a disorder with their blood sugar handling; but all of us are susceptible to blood sugar handling ups and downs. An interesting note is that type II diabetes is also referred to as “adult onset” because we can eat our way into it after years of training our bodies through wrong food choices. Yes, training our bodies.

Just as an athlete can train their body through exercise, we can also train our bodies through nutrition. Train it to do what? To be healthy, of course, but of particular interest to the athlete and in the case of blood sugar handling, the body can be trained to handle energy more efficiently. Handling energy more efficiently means having more energy for longer periods of time, when you need it. It means taking longer to “bonk” or run out of energy during an event, or even just in day to day activities. Our bodies are a series of biochemical reactions and foods are some of the natural “chemicals” we throw in the mix to get reactions. The trick is learning the balance to get the most optimal reactions out of our bodies or, the reaction we want.

One of the signs that we’re not getting the right “blood sugar” biochemical reaction we want, besides a lack of energy and food cravings, is fat storage. Carbs are energy on the way to be burned, while fat is stored energy waiting to be turned back into carbs, aka sugar, when we need it. Whether you have a spare tire or not, fat storage is also very important to the athlete. Energy production is a complex balance between stored fat and carbohydrate conversion for on-demand energy. An endurance athlete, for example, at some point runs out of sugar stores and needs to be able to convert fat into energy asap to be able to complete their event. What if their body isn’t very good at that?

If the body hasn’t had enough practice or the right nutrition to make that happen, then the end of their event is either really tough or much more eminent than the finish line. Figuring out what’s the “right” nutrition for this can be a little tricky, but “practice”? What do we mean by “practicing” fat burning? Well, the good news is you don’t have to run a marathon on a regular basis to get enough “practice” for your body in burning fat. In fact, you don’t want to wait for the marathon to teach your body how to burn fat! The body can get good at energy production through the right nutrition. Having the right balance of carbs, proteins and fats, on a regular basis, is key.

So in the end carbs are important and necessary for the athlete, but in the right balance and amount with other nutrients, and not just for the event! All the eating you do leading up to an event plays a role on how well your body will be able to produce the energy you need, when you need it. “Okay, great”, you say, “but what’s the right balance?” Well it varies slightly for each individual but typically it’s a surprisingly more moderate balance of carbs than what most people eat. The best advice is to work with a professional to learn what’s right for your body so you can start enjoying the benefits of good consistent energy and optimal fat burning right away!