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Carbohydrate quantities and timing recommendations

What you choose to eat on a daily basis has a major impact on how well you can train and perform. A well thought out eating plan is imperative to keep you going week after week with training, racing or competing. Carbohydrates are the backbone of the fuelling story as muscle glycogen is used during training and, for this reason, needs to be replaced on a daily basis. Healthy protein and fats are also part of the equation as is a diet low in sugar and processed foods.

Depending on your training volume, carbohydrates are recommended in varying amounts. The table below shows the suggested amount of carbohydrate to be ingested depending on the types of training undertaken. The important thing to note is these are only guidelines, not rules for carbohydrate intake, and each person needs to go through a trial and error process to discover the levels that work best for them. It is often better to start at the lower end of these recommendations and see how you go.

Which types of carbohydrate should you consume? This will depend on many factors. Food sensitivities, personal choice, those who are vegetarian, paleo, high fat or fall into another category will all have their opinion about what is best for them. Ultimately it comes down to what works for the individual, as well as using whole unrefined foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains etc.

Carbohydrate intake for physical activity (1)

Activity level Grams per kg / per day 
30-60 minutes 3-5g
5-7 hours/ week 4-6g

Moderate to high intensity,

2-3 hours/ day, 5-6 times/ week

5-8g

High volume, intense exercise, 

3-6 hours/ day, 1-2 sessions/ day, 5-6 times/ week 

8-10g

  

Carbohydrates

  • Provide important / short-lived fuel for exercise
  • Must be replenished daily from foods in diet
  • Provide fuel for training and optimum recovery
  • Use guidelines for carbohydrate intake and then tailor as needed
  • Needs are specific to each athlete depending on size, sport and training program
  • No longer given in % of daily intake
  • Best calculated by training volume
  • Grams per kilogram of bodyweight


So based on the above table and guidelines a 60kg female participating in seven hours of training per week will want to aim for 4-6g/per kg of body weight per day, spread throughout all meals and snacks. Starting on the low end this would translate to trialling an intake of 240g/per day, inclusive of all fruits, vegetables, grains and sports products. If a person is aiming for a lower carbohydrate diet with a higher fat intake this number will need to be adjusted but is beyond the scope of this article.

The timing of when to ingest carbohydrates is also important. Many people believe they will burn more fat if they train on ‘empty’ without ingesting anything. Scientifically this is true but it won’t be a very large amount of fat burnt and could potentially lead to earlier fatigue, poor form when training or an inability to finish a quality training session. It will depend entirely on the athlete, how long they are training for and their training goals. Generally if one does want to have a snack before training, a suggestion is for a small amount of mainly carbohydrate food such as one banana, two fresh medjool dates or a piece of toast (gluten free if one wishes) with a nut butter or avocado on it. The general idea is to aim for 20-50g of carbohydrate about 30 minutes before training to restock overnight glycogen losses and to give the muscle an easily accessible fuel to use. Many people will only need the lower end of this suggestion but it will depend on how long the training session is going to be.

Post training is also an important time to refuel with carbohydrates and proteins. Post training the body is primed metabolically to restock its used glycogen stores, insulin is ready to do its job and the body is needing to be changed from a catabolic to an anabolic state. The optimum window to refuel post training is suggested to be 30-45 minutes from the time of finishing training. For many people it is best just to eat as soon as possible after finishing training. It is recommended to refuel post training in a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrate to protein or some people will prefer a 3:1 ratio. For the general athlete after a one hour morning training session, depending on body size and exercise undertaken they could aim for 40-60g of carbohydrate and 15-20g of protein. The below tables show amounts of carbohydrate in a huge variety of fruits and vegetables. The amount of carbohydrates in grains, rice and breads is easy to find on the label of products purchased so is not included in this list.

Carbohydrates do not always have to be from grains. Many people focus on getting most of their carbohydrates from fruit and vegetables; it’s about being aware of the volumes of carbohydrates in differing foods and your individual needs, food preferences and sensitivities. Each person will function better on differing amounts and the table below is a guideline only. It is best to start on the lower end of the scale and see how you feel, and work your way higher if you need, depending on your sport, volume of training and energy levels.

 

Vegetables Volume Amount of carbohydrate (in grams)
Avocado 1/2 cup (115g) 10
Asparagus 1/2 cup (90g) 4
Artichoke hearts 1/2 cup (85g) 10
Brussel sprouts 1/2 cup (80g)  6
Broccoli 1/2 cup (80g) 5.5 
Beetroot 1/2 cup (85g)  8
Carrots 1/2 cup (80g)  5.8
Cauliflower 1/2 cup (50g)  2.6
Cabbage (raw) 1 cup (70g)  4
Capsicum (bell pepper) 1/2 cup (75g)

3.5

Cherry tomato  5 pieces (85g) 3.3
Cucumber  1/4 cucumber (75g)  2.7
Celery 2 stalks (80g)  2.4
Chard (swiss) 1 cup (36g)  1.6
Corn (sweet) 1/2 cup (82g)  2
Eggplant (cooked) 1/2 cup (50g)  4.3
Kale (raw) 1 cup (67g) 6.7 
Kim chee 1 cup (150g)
Lentils (boiled) 1/4 cup (50g)  10
Lettuce 1 cup (55g)  1.5
Mushrooms 1 cup (85g)  2.8
Onions (raw) 1/2 cup (80g)  7.5
Onions (red)  1/2 cup (60g)  5.8
Peas (sugar/snap)  1/2 cup (32g)  2.4
Pumpkin (cooked)  1/2 cup (125g)
Radicchio  1 cup (40g)  1.8
Radish   6 pieces (30g)  1
Sauerkraut  1/2 cup (118g)  5.1
Seaweed (kelp)  1/2 cup (40g)  3.8
Seaweeed (spirullina)  1/2 cup (8g)  3.8
Tofu   1/2 cup (90g)  2.2
Spinach (raw) 1 cup (30g)   1.1
Squash, butternut (cooked)  1/2 cup (100g)  11
Sweet potato (cooked)  1/2 cup (100g)  20
Tomato (raw)  1 piece (125g)  4.8
Zucchini  1/2 cup (90g)

 

Fruits   Volume Amount of carbohydrate in grams
Apple 1 piece (135g) 10
Apricot (dried) 1/4 cup (33g) 20
Banana 1 medium (115g) 25
Backberries 1/2 cup (75g) 8
Blueberries 1/2 cup (75g) 9.5
Cherries 1/2 cup (75g) 10
Cranberries (raw) 1/2 cup (55g) 6.7
Dates 1/4 cup (45g) 33.5
Figs (fresh) 2 pieces (100g) 19
Grapefruit 1/2 cup (115g) 12.2
Grapes 1/2 cup (75g) 14
Grapes (raisins) 1/4 cup (40g) 32.5
Guava 1 piece (55g) 8
Kiwi fruit  1 pece (75g) 11
Lemon  1 piece (110g) 11
Mandarin orange 1medium (88g) 11
Mango 1/2 cup (85g) 14
Melon  1/2 cup (85g) 6
Melon (water) 1/2 cup (75g) 5.7
Orange 1 piece (130g) 15
Papaya  1/2 cup (70g) 7
Passionfruit 1 piece (18g) 4.2
Peach  1 medium (150g) 14.3
Pear 1 piece (150g  20
Pineapple 1/2 cup (78g) 10
Plum (large) 1 pice (66g) 7.5
Pomegranate 1 piece (55g) 26
Prunes (dried) 2 pieced (17g) 10.7
Raspberries 1/2 cup (62g) 7.3
Strawberries 1/2 cup (72g) 5.5
Tangerine 1 piece (88g) 11.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Potgieter S. Sport nutrition: A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition from the American college of sport nutrition, the international Olympic committee and the international society for sports nutrition. South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2013 Jan;26(1):6–16. (ISSN position stand 2013 carb chart)