Carbs, Protein & Performance

Carbs, Protein & PerformanceWhat percentage of my diet should come from carbohydrates? … Should I exercise on empty? … How much protein should I eat after I lift weights? … Is whey the best source of protein?

These are just a few of the questions addressed at the 27th annual meeting of SCAN, the Sports And Cardiovascular Nutritionist’s practice group of the American Dietetic Association ( Over 400 sports dietitians gathered to learn the latest news from prominent sports nutrition researchers. I hope this information will help you choose a winning sports diet.

Carbohydrate Update
Louise Burke, PhD, Director of Sports Nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport, addressed the following questions:

What’s the best percentages of carbohydrates, protein, and fat for a sports diet: 40-30-30 or 60-25-15?

Neither! A better approach is to define nutrient needs according to body weight. For example, the International Olympic Committee developed these guidelines:
Intensity of exercise g carb/kg body wt gm carb/lb body wt
Low intensity 3-5 g 1.5-2.5
Moderate (~1 hour/d): 5-7 g 2.3-3.2
Endurance (1-3 hours/d): 6-10 g 2.5-4.5
Extreme (>4-5 hours/d): 8-12 g 3.5-5.5

How much should I eat during extended practices and games?
–During hard soccer sessions that last 1 to 2.5 hours, you want to taraget 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate (120 to 240 calories) per hour. That’s about 1 to 2 gels or 16 to 32 ounces of a sports drink per hour (after the first hour, if you ate a pre-run meal or snack).
–During exercise that lasts longer than 2.5 hours (more common among triathletes and cyclists than most soccer players), consuming 60 to 90 grams of different sources of carbohydrates (such as sports drink, banana, gummy candy) per hour is appropriate, as tolerated. Consuming the higher end of the range (90 g, as compared to 60 g) are associated with better performance.

How long does it take to refuel from a long, hard practice session?
If you eat a carb-rich sports diet, you can replenish depleted glycogen stores in 24 to 36 hours post-exercise (with no exercise during that time). While it’s important to pay attention to your recovery diet, most soccer players do not need to eat immediately after exercise unless they are doing double workouts or are in a tournament and exercising again within the next six hours. (Soon after exercise, yes; immediately, no.)

What can I do if I cannot tolerate a sports drink during a hard soccer game?
Try mouth swishing with a sports drink. This sends a message to the brain that energy is forthcoming and you’ll feel more energetic. Swishing can enhance performance by 2% to 3% if you are exercising on empty and have not eaten pre-exercise—as often happens with morning soccer players. (Swishing seems to be less beneficial after a pre-run meal, but more research is needed to verify those findings.)

Train low, compete high?
Should I train with poorly fueled muscles, as a means to teach my body to burn more fat, so it spares the limited glycogen stores?
Training with low glycogen stores (“train low”) drives up the metabolic adaptations to burn more fat. By burning fat instead of glycogen, you’ll spare the limited glycogen stores. Theoretically, this should enhance stamina and endurance because glycogen depletion is associated with fatigue.

To date, “training low” has been most effective in research with untrained individuals. Soccer athletes who exercise with depleted glycogen are unable to train at high intensity and that may hinder performance. Training with low glycogen during low intensity workouts might be one way to stimulate the muscle adaptations to burn more fat (and thus spare the limited glycogen stores). But soccer athletes should do their high intensity workouts when they are fully glycogen-loaded.

Exercise physiologist and researcher John Hawley, PhD of Melbourne, Australia acknowledged that training low and competing high (i.e. with high muscle glycogen availability) is receiving a lot of attention among serious endurance and ultra-distance athletes (not soccer players). Hawley suggests “train low” should be defined as “train at 50% of resting muscle glycogen, 50% of the time”—and only for selected sessions. Training with low carbohydrate availability can be achieved by exercising with 1) low blood glucose, or 2) low muscle glycogen stores. Both generate adaptations that promote the training response and might be advantageous to competitive endurance athletes. Hawley cautions serious athletes who “train low” that this compromises training intensity and may lead to inferior performance during an event, particularly if the athlete needs to do a competitive sprint to the finish.

Protein Update
Stuart Phillips, PhD, professor of kinesiology, McMaster University in Ontario, Canada presented an update on protein, answering these questions—

Do athletes need more protein than non-athletes?
While the recommended protein intake for the average American is 0.4 gram protein per pound body weight (0.8 grm protein per kg), most exercise scientists agree that athletes need a more to optimize muscular development: 0.5 to 0.8 grams protein per pound (1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram) body weight per day. However, most active women and men generally consume about 0.55 to 0.65 g protein/lb (1.2 g and 1.4 g protein/kg) body weight per day, respectively. They can appropriately meet their higher need without supplements.

How much protein do I need after I lift weights?
Consuming 20 g of protein-rich food (Greek yogurt, tuna sandwich, 16 oz. chocolate milk) after resistance exercise is plenty to optimize the rate of muscle synthesis. Soccer athletes should then continue to eat protein and carbs at meals and snacks throughout the day. The highest rate of protein synthesis is 3 to 5 hours post-exercise. This raises the question: Should soccer players who work out twice a day plan to avoid exercising during that time frame? Remember: The “good stuff” (building muscle) happens during rest and recovery and the “bad stuff” (muscle damage) happens during exercise. Hence, rest is an essential part of a strength training program.

Should I buy whey protein supplements?
Probably not unless you are a frail, elderly person with a limited food intake. Drinking milk (20% whey, 80% casein) and eating a balanced sports diet can be as effective as whey supplements. Hard, hard work is the basic trigger for stronger muscles!

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) helps both casual and competitive athletes find peace with food. Her practice is at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook and her Food Guide for Soccer (co-authored with Gloria Averbuch) offer additional information. They are available at See also


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