Carbohydrate: Premium Fuel for Sports Performance

By Shonda Brown, RD, CNSC, clinical dietitian at CHOC Children’s

Carbohydrates have received a bad rap as low carb diets gained in popularity and other fad diets advertized messages of “good” and “bad” carbs. However, carbohydrate is the preferred fuel source for exercising muscles and provides two thirds or more of the energy source during intense exercise.

CHOC Clinical Nutrition and Lactation Services

Carbohydrate rich foods include: breads, cereals, pasta, potatoes, fruit, and dairy as well as honey, jam and sweets. An athlete needs carbohydrate to store energy in preparation for exercise, to provide an exogenous fuel source during exercise and to maximize recovery after exercise. The source of carbohydrate is not as important as the amount and the time which ingestion occurs. Check out the following guidelines:


Athletes should consume 200-300 grams of carbohydrate 3-4 hours prior to exercise or competition. An example would be four pieces of French toast with berries and syrup, and 12 ounces orange juice or 1 ½ cups pasta with meat sauce, 1-2 breadsticks, 1 cup fruit salad drizzled with honey, and 16 ounces low-fat milk.


During intense exercise or activity lasting longer than 60 minutes, a sports beverage containing approximately 15 grams of carbohydrate per 8 ounces should be consumed at regular intervals. This keeps blood glucose (sugar) available for the working muscles and can delay fatigue, allowing an athlete to exercise longer and harder.


After exercise, it is important to refuel with carbohydrate within the first 30 minutes to maximize carbohydrate storage in the muscles. It can also help decrease muscle protein breakdown. Anything portable and easy will do. Some examples include chocolate milk, granola bar and fig bars.

It can be a challenge for an athlete to consume the amount of carbohydrate needed for optimum performance. Some tips to increase carbohydrate intake are drizzling honey over cereal, fruit or yogurt; spreading jam on toast or crackers; adding fruit to cereal, yogurt or pancakes; and packing dried fruit, trail mix, or pretzels as a quick snack.

Learn more about CHOC Children’s Clinical Nutrition and Lactation Services.

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