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Carbs 101: Ideal Energy Young Rowers Need for Success

by Jill Castle, MS, RDN | Oct 30, 2015
Nutrition can be a confusing and conflicting topic for young athletes. Even adults become confused by it! One subject that all young athletes should understand is the topic of carbohydrates, including what they are, what affect they have on athletic performance, and which sources are best for performance and training.
Nutrition can be a confusing and conflicting topic for young athletes. Even adults become confused by it! One subject that all young athletes should understand is the topic of carbohydrates, including what they are, what affect they have on athletic performance, and which sources are best for performance and training.

The Basics

Carbohydrate is a major nutrient, along with protein and fat. It contains four calories per gram, and for the athlete, provides an easy source of fuel for the muscles to use.

As an ideal source of fuel, the rower should know the two types of carbs in food: complex, or slow-acting carbs, and simple, or fast-acting carbs. Both are important to the rower and are used at different times in training and competition.

Simple carbs are quickly absorbed and as such, are a readily available source of energy. Examples of simple carbs are sports drinks, dried fruit, energy gels, and energy chews. All of these showcase a concentrated source of simple carbohydrate.

The body burns through simple carbs quickly. Often, an athlete will “top off their energy tank” with simple carbs, right before a competition, or use them during an endurance event.

Complex carbohydrate foods (example: pretzels, bread, potato) take longer for the body to digest, therefore offering a sustained release of fuel to working muscles. Carbs may be built up in the muscle as a reserve of energy (called glycogen), which can be mobilized during long bouts of exercise.

Complex carbs should be the mainstay of an athlete’s diet, and are commonly eaten at all meals, snacks, and incorporated into recovery nutrition. Low-carb or carb-free eating may be counter-productive to athletic performance, and has not been proven effective in young, growing athletes.

For young athletes, researchers advise a daily high carbohydrate diet containing about 45-65 percent of total calories, mostly from complex carbohydrate food sources.

Carb-loading

Eating a high-carbohydrate diet a day prior to competition is a practice called carb-loading. Although a popular concept, carbohydrate loading has not been proven to be effective in young athletes.

For one, carbohydrate loading is an approach based on what we know about the adult metabolism of carbohydrate. When researchers have studied young athletes, they’ve found that they don’t store—or load—carbohydrate in their muscles as well as adults. Females, because they have less muscle mass than males, store even less. It’s not until teens reach late adolescence and adulthood that they may see the benefits of carb-loading.

Best Carbs

Despite the media spin that carbs are “bad,” carbs are a great fuel source for the rower. Rowers can incorporate them into meals and snacks to help them train and compete at their best.

Keep these complex carb foods in your day-to-day diet and use them pre-exercise as a fuel source:

Sweet potato: A baked sweet potato is full of fiber and vitamin A. Nix the brown sugar to keep it a healthy option.

Potatoes: Potatoes are high in fiber, potassium and vitamin C. Eat them baked or roasted, not fried, most of the time.

Rice: Rice is low in fat, and if you chose brown or wild rice, you’ll get a kick of fiber as well.

Quinoa: Quinoa offers a good source of fiber, potassium, healthy fats, protein, and magnesium. Cook it like you would cook rice.

Pasta: A classic pre-competition meal inclusion, pasta is a favorite among youth athletes. Bump up the fiber by opting for whole wheat versions.

Corn: As a starchy vegetable, it may surprise you to know that corn also contains protein and iron. It’s also a good source of vitamin B6 and magnesium.

Peas: Peas enhance the diet with potassium, fiber, protein, and vitamin C.

Beans and lentils: Beans and lentils are a nutritional powerhouse. They are low in fat, high in protein, fiber, potassium, and iron.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. For more about Jill, go to www.JillCastle.com.
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