Good carbohydrates for athletes - what really matters!

Carbohydrates for athletes

How to decide if carbohydrates are good or bad for you

Avoid black and white thinking with the necessary knowledge

Often you hear about good and bad carbohydrates. But it is rarely helpful to label a thing as perfectly good or bad. Here you shall learn why this also applies to good carbohydrates for athletes.

If you type “good and bad carbohydrates” on Google, you get a table with three columns suggested. It is divided into good carbohydrates, beneficial carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates. For example, in the last column is white bread or long-grain rice, while in the first column are legumes and whole-grain pasta. 

So whenever I would eat a slice of bread, I just eat a bowl of legumes instead and the problem is solved? 

Unfortunately, it’s more like math class. If it is too simple – it is wrong.  So before we decide to eliminate certain sources of carbohydrates from our diet, let’s take a closer look at the theory and revisit it later. The above-mentioned foods will serve us as examples of “good” or “bad” in each case in the following article.

Simple carbohydrates

There are different types of carbohydrates. These have different structures and perform numerous functions in the body. Depending on the chain length, a distinction is made between mono-, di-, oligo- and polysaccharides. Let’s start with the shortest chain, monosaccharides.


Monosaccharides, also called simple sugars, consist of a single sugar molecule and cannot be broken down further. Probably the most famous representatives of the monosaccharides are the hexoses glucose, fructose and galactose. These are often found in sodas, candy, honey, fruits but also in many energy bars and sports drinks. As already mentioned, monosaccharides do not require further cleavage. The body can thus quickly absorb them and use the energy. Glucose and galactose are absorbed most rapidly, fructose at about 70% of this rate.    

Monosaccharides are often warned against, frequently being called bad or fattening. This statement is based on the fact that monosaccharides cause blood glucose levels to rise quickly, but they also fall again quickly. In other words, they do not keep you full for long and provide energy only for a shorter time. However, whether monosaccharides are good or bad depends on the situation.


Disaccharides consist of two molecules of the same or different monosaccharides. Lactose, for example, consists of the monosaccharides glucose and galactose. Other representatives of this group are sucrose (also known as household sugar) and maltose. 

The disaccharides are broken down into monosaccharides in the digestive tract by digestive enzymes. Digestion is therefore somewhat slower than with monosaccharides, but still relatively fast.

Complex carbohydrates


… are compounds containing three to a maximum of nine glycosidically linked monosaccharides. The most famous representative of the oligosaccharides is raffinose, which is found in sugar beet, for example.


These consist of over 10 monosaccharides. Polysaccharides can be divided into two groups: usable and non-usable polysaccharides.

Usable polysaccharides include starch and the storage carbohydrate glycogen in the liver and muscles. The glycogen can be broken down to glucose when needed and provide energy.

The non-utilizable polysaccharides include dietary fiber. These are found, for example, in plant foods such as potatoes, legumes, fruits or vegetables.

The digestion process of polysaccharides is correspondingly more time-consuming and complex. The simple sugars produced during the cleavage process are slowly released into the blood. Fluctuations in blood glucose levels are therefore smaller when polysaccharides are consumed, and the satiety effect is more long-lasting. These facts give polysaccharides the reputation of “good carbohydrates”

The glycemic index – what you should know about it

Since the response of the organism to the supply of carbohydrates is different regardless of the chain length and depends on several factors, it is not enough to divide them into simple and complex. To better predict blood glucose response, the glycemic index (GI) should help.

This is a measure to determine the effect of a carbohydrate source on blood glucose levels. 

The GI is obtained by comparing the area under the curve (AUC) after consumption of different carbohydrate sources, with the AUC after ingestion of pure glucose. The two curves can then be superimposed and compared, as in Fig.1. In fig. 1 shows the blood glucose curve of glucose compared to that of lentils.

The GI is 100% when the AUC of a dietary carbohydrate and of the same amount of glucose are equal over a period of time. It is less than 100% if the rise in blood glucose from the food is slower than from glucose. Above 100%, on the other hand, when blood glucose rises faster than with pure glucose. 

However, there are a few catches and this quickly causes confusion among laymen. The following lines should explain why GI should not necessarily be confused with good carbohydrates for athletes. 

Among other things, the amount of carbohydrates consumed plays a role. The measurement uses the amount of the respective food in which 50g of usable carbohydrates are contained. As a result, a food can have a high GI but a low carbohydrate content. 

So, in practice, such a food may even trigger a lower blood glucose rise than a low GI food.

A practical example             

Watermelon has a GI of 72, lentils have a GI of 30. You want to take in the 50g of carbohydrates used in the measurement. You’d have to eat about 250g of lentils to do that – it’s totally doable. However, to get 50g of carbohydrates from a watermelon, you’d have to eat a whopping 625g of watermelon – that’s a lot of watermelon. 

So if we put the GI in relation to realistic portion sizes, it loses some of its significance. For this reason, the so-called glycemic load (GL) was developed. But this concept is not as widespread and far less well known than GI. It is also important to take into account that the blood sugar response to certain foods varies from individual to individual. 

The combination of different foods also affects the blood glucose response. The GI or glycemic load of bread can be calculated in the laboratory, but if you eat your bread with butter and jam, the calculated GI for bread is of little help.

So even the glycemic index can’t easily tell us whether a carbohydrate is good or bad. What do we do now?

Good carbohydrates for athletes: Depending on your goal!

It makes significantly more sense to ask yourself what goal you want to achieve with a meal or with a food. This ultimately results in situationally good carbohydrates for athletes.

If, for example, a strenuous training session or a competition is coming up, we basically need a lot of energy quickly. So the best solution at this moment offers a food that provides a lot of energy and is well tolerated.

 In such a situation, depending on the time interval from the training, you could eat a plate of noodles, rice, a banana or even bread. Shortly during the unit or during which it is even better to resort to special sports nutrition. 

In prepared carbohydrate drinks or solutions, the focus is on carbohydrates that are quickly available as well as well tolerated. If you’ve been paying attention (or scrolling up), you’ll see that these properties apply to monosaccharides. So if there are many of these supposedly “bad” carbohydrates in products for athletes, the manufacturers don’t want to get one over on us. Instead, they provide us with the most suitable carbohydrates in this situation – and thus help us to get through our workout full of energy.

Those who instead resort to so-called “good” or complex carbohydrates just before the session could have a problem. Legumes, for example, provide significantly more valuable nutrients and fiber than rice. But: high amounts of fiber in the meal before a high load should be avoided if possible, because the more complex digestive process can cost us energy and cause gastrointestinal discomfort. 

On the other hand, if we are sitting down to dinner or breakfast before a day of school or work that will require our attention and concentration for several hours, it makes much more sense to put aside the white bread and reach for the bowl of legumes. In addition to legumes, whole-grain products such as oatmeal, millet or whole-grain couscous are also suitable here. 

Apart from the time immediately before, during and shortly after physical exertion (open window), complex carbohydrates should understandably form the basis of the daily diet. These are used to prevent some diet-related diseases such as diabetes mellitus type2 or obesity. The nutrient density of these foods is higher, which is why they provide us with important nutrients.

So instead of asking yourself which carbohydrates are good or bad, complex or simple, and healthy or unhealthy, it makes more sense to ask yourself:

What carbohydrates will do me the most good in this particular situation? What is my goal for the next few hours, and how can I use my diet to achieve it?

Designed for two common training goals, we want to show specifically how you can optimally supply yourself with the right carbohydrates. To illustrate the carbohydrate amounts, we use our sports nutrition products FAST CARB, SLOW CARB,   POWER CARB , RECOVERY SHAKE , RECOVERY 8 and the PORRIDGE BAR bar.

Example supply during training of carbohydrate metabolism

Before training:
– Full glycogen stores; carbohydrate-rich meal 2-3h before exercise (medium GI, medium energy density).

During training:
– Supply of fast available carbohydrates during exercise ( FAST CARB 40g/h or POWER CARB 60-80g/h; target: carbohydrate intake 60-80g/h; if “train the well” consistently 80-100g KH/h)

After training:
– Use open window and consume 1g KH/kg body weight and 0.2g EW/kg body weight immediately after exercise (RECOVERY SHAKE with rice milk + 5 dates or 1 banana or RECOVERY 8 with water)

In the episode:
– High carbohydrate meal within 2h after exercise (medium to high GI, medium energy density; approx. 2g KH/kg body weight); moderate carbohydrate meal within 2h after exercise if “train low” the next day (medium GI, medium energy density; approx. 1g KH/kg body weight)

Example supply when training the fat metabolism

Before training:
– Possibly pre-drained glycogen stores; carbohydrate-moderate meal 2-3h before exercise (low GI, medium to high (if higher fat intake) energy density).

During training:
– Supply with slowly available carbohydrates during exercise (SLOW CARB 30g/h, total maximum 90g/exercise, increase amount slowly); cover additional energy demand with medium to slow available carbohydrates in combination with some protein and fat(PORRIDGE BAR); target: carbohydrate intake 30-60g KH/h

After training:
– Use Open window and consume 0.5 g KH/kg body weight and 0.2g EW/kg body weight immediately after exercise (RECOVERY SHAKE with rice or almond milk + 5 apricots or dates)

In the episode:
– High carbohydrate meal within 2h after exercise (medium GI, medium energy density; approx. 2g KH/kg body weight); moderate carbohydrate meal within 2h after exercise if “train low” the next day (low to medium GI, medium energy density; approx. 1g KH/kg body weight)

–  Ibrahim Elmadfa; Nutrition; 3rd edition
– Claus Leitzmann, Ibrahim Elmadfa; Nutrition of man; 6th edition.

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