Pasta & Athletic Performance

The quality of training runs and races is related to how well-fueled an athlete’s muscles are. Because it can be a challenge for athletes to balance training with work, family, socializing and other pleasures and obligations, nutrition often suffers, and missing or delaying meals, or grabbing unplanned snacks can result in under-fueling. When they’re in training, endurance athletes – runners, cyclists, soccer players, skiers, tri-athletes – often load up on “carbs” (usually a pasta meal) in advance of the big race, game or run. Why do they eat this way? Does carb-loading work? How important are carbohydrates to the professional athlete, to the weekend marathoner, or even to the average regular exerciser?

Carbohydrates supply the body with its key energy source – glucose – which is stored in the muscles. So when athletes take advantage of “carb-loading,” they’re storing up energy in their bodies. During long, tiring exercise, the glucose energy is then released as needed. Carb-loading can help improve performance in a high-intensity exercise for 90 minutes or longer, such as long-distance running and swimming, soccer, canoe racing and triathlons.1

Most everyday athletes don’t need to worry about “carb-loading.”2  But dieticians and sports nutritionists recommend that carbohydrates, such as pasta, should make up the largest portion of an athlete’s diet.

According to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, athletes should get 55 to 60 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates (10 to 15 percent from sugars and the rest from starches), no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, and the rest (about 10 to 15 percent) from protein.3 These recommendations are the same for all athletes, regardless of their level of physical activity.

Carbs: Fuel for the Body

When we eat starches or sugars, our bodies change them to glucose, the only form of carbohydrate used directly by muscles for energy. Most glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles.4 During exercise, the body derives energy from the break-down of glycogen in the muscles. So it’s not surprising that one of the primary goals of sports nutrition is maximizing the amount of glycogen stored in the body.5

Complex carbohydrates, such as those found in pasta, grains, breads, and starchy vegetables, are the body's best source of energy for the athlete. They increase glycogen stores more efficiently than simple carbohydrates and contain many essential nutrients.6 After exercise, you should drink plenty of water and eat a nutritious meal high in carbohydrate-rich foods, such as pasta, grains, potatoes, fruits, and vegetables, to help replace depleted glucose and ensure rapid recovery. Eating protein after exercise provides your body with amino acids to build and repair muscle tissue.7

What to Eat When?

How and when you fuel your body and mind can have a big impact on your athletic performance. “What you ate for breakfast affects how you think and feel in the afternoon. Similarly, what you ate yesterday affects the energy you will have at the end of today’s run,” says Heidi Skolnick, MS, CDN, a nutritionist for the New York Giants. “Since it takes 24 to 48 hours to stock and restock the energy your muscles need to get the work done, skipping dinner the night before hurts your run today.”

Skolnick suggests the following rules-of-thumb: The further away from a workout, the more you can eat; the closer to a run, the less you can eat. Far in advance of your workout, eat a bigger meal that includes a variety of foods groups – a mixture of carbohydrates, protein and fat. If your workout is coming up soon, eat smaller amounts and be sure that the food, snack or meal is primarily made up of carbohydrate. Link to this chart to see Skolnick explain what happens to runner, who is fueled properly with carbohydrates vs. one who does not.

We suggest a food-and-flavor partnering plan for optimal health, performance and well-being. Choose your favorite Barilla pasta cut and partner it with lean protein (like shrimp, chicken or lean beef), nutrient-rich vegetables (broccoli or spinach, carrots or peppers), some cheese for calcium, and spices and olive oil for flavor. The result is a very smart – and very delicious – sports nutrition meal.

Ten Nutrition Tips for Top Running

1. Eat morning, noon and night.
2. Bridge the hunger gap: plan on snacking.
3. Fuel up before you run – carbohydrates are particularly helpful.
4. Refuel after a run; include some protein, but be sure adequate carbohydrates are consumed as well.
5. Remember: hydration is key to top performance.
6. Salty foods are OK; salt helps with fluid balance.
7. Partner protein and fat with your carbohydrate selections.
8. Remember: rest and sleep are important parts of healthy training.
9. Eat good food; the quality of what you eat will help keep your immune system strong.
10. Include carbohydrates with each meal and snack to keep your muscles stocked and your training runs fresh.

Footnotes:

1 Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com, accessed 4/19/04.
2 Ibid.
3 ”Winning Nutrition for Athletes,” www.fitness.gov/nutrition.html, accessed 4/19/04
4 Federal Citizen Information Center of the U.S. General Services Administration.
www.pueblo.gsa.gov
5 Winning Nutrition for Athletes,” www.fitness.gov/nutrition.html
6 Federal Citizen Information Center of the U.S. General Services Administration.
www.pueblo.gsa.gov
7 J Am Diet Assoc. 2000;100:1543-1556, available at www.eatright.org/, Web site of the American Dietetic Association.


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