Eat Like a Pro — Eating enough carbohydrates is a key to success

Q:  Now that I am in full swing with my racing season, I am noticing that I am not recovering well after races or hard training days. My legs are heavy and I just don’t have that edge I need for the end of the race. What can I do to feel my best and get more out of all this training I have invested in?

A: This is a great question that many athletes pose right around this time of year. When you’ve taken the training advice from your coach and you’ve spent money on new gear and sacrificed your social life to compete, it can be frustrating not to see results. Becoming a top athlete involves looking at the whole picture: physical, mental, social and emotional. Many athletes don’t realize that there is more to the physical piece than just training – You need to look at what you’re eating and what’s missing in your diet. Here’s why:

It’s not a mystery what foods fuel our muscles. Unless you’ve had your head in the sand since the last millennium you should know that athletes need carbohydrates for performing at their best. It’s been shown in the lab setting in scientific studies and for the professional athlete in competition; eating foods that contain carbohydrates is a key to success. Not convinced? Check out this website: and feed on a few articles until you’re satisfied.

In a nutshell: Your muscles require glycogen – long strands of glucose or carbohydrates – to work at their best. The more you train and compete the greater amount of carbohydrates your body needs. In essence, you want to pack your muscles with glycogen to be able to fuel your body for any type of aerobic or anaerobic exercise. The higher the intensity of exercise, the greater the demand is for carbohydrates.

Calorie needs for athletes are high – even for women who often restrict calories for fear of gaining weight. Calorie intake for athletes training full time can range from 3000-5000+ calories/day and carbohydrates will make up about 60-70% of that total intake. Even athletes training part time need far more carbohydrate than their sedentary friends.

Use this formula to determine how many carbohydrates you need on a daily basis. The recommended range depends on how intense your training level and competing is:

Carbohydrates/day: 6-10 grams/kg body weight

Training & competing:

~10 hours per week: ~6 grams carbohydrate/kg body weight/day

~15 hours per week: ~7 grams carbohydrate/kg body weight/day

~20 hours per week: ~8 grams carbohydrate/kg body weight/day

~25 hours per week: ~9 grams carbohydrate/kg body weight/day

30+ hours per week: ~10 grams carbohydrate/kg body weight/day

Consuming this quantity of carbohydrates takes planning, counting and getting familiar with how many grams of carbohydrate are in common foods. Have a look at this website to get familiar with grams of carbohydrates:

Let’s look at an example:

Take a male cyclist, David, weighing 80 kg (176#) training and competing 20 hours per week. He would be fueling optimally if he ate ~640 grams of carbohydrate per day. Here’s what a sample day of eating would look like for David:

Breakfast: 1 cup oatmeal, 2 Tbsp raisins, 1 Tbsp honey, ½ cup berries, ½ oz. walnuts, 1 cup milk, 4 oz. orange juice, coffee or tea with honey or sugar

Morning Snack: ½ cup low fat granola, 1 cup yogurt, ¾ cup blueberries

Lunch: Burrito with whole wheat tortilla, grilled meat and vegetables, beans, rice, guacamole, salsa, lettuce, cheese, chips – a small handful

Afternoon Snack: ½ turkey sandwich on whole grain bread, cranberry relish, spinach, cucumber, tomato and avocado. Fruit, glass of milk, oatmeal raisin cookie

2 hour evening training ride: 24 oz. sports drink, 2 energy gels

Dinner: 1.5 cups whole wheat pasta, ½ cup garbanzo beans, sautéed red bell peppers, red onion, kale, 1 lean Italian sausage or 3 oz. shrimp, marinara sauce. 2 oz. French bread, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, etc.

Evening Snack: Whole wheat English muffin, 1 tsp honey or scoop of ice cream or yogurt & fresh fruit

As you can see it’s a lot of food! If you are training close to 20 hours per week but not eating these quantities of carbohydrates at the moment, I would advise gradually increasing the amount over a week or so until you achieve your goal. When you aren’t training or racing as often, reduce your carbohydrates accordingly. Pay attention to signs of hunger and satiety – this is the key to not overeat or under-eat.

David will be able to train and compete on a daily basis without feeling extreme fatigue in his muscles and, assuming he fuels properly during his races, will have enough stored glycogen for that winning sprint.

Let’s look at a different example for a female cyclist, Karen, weighing 65 kg (143#) training and competing 10 hours per week and not trying to gain or lose weight. In order to fuel optimally, she needs to eat 390 grams of carbohydrate per day. Here’s what a sample day of eating could look like:

Breakfast: 2 slices sprouted grain bread with 2 tsp almond butter, 1 banana, coffee or tea

Morning Snack: 1 cup plain low fat yogurt, ½ cup low fat muesli, ½ cup berries

Lunch: 1½ cups quinoa and black bean salad, ¼ avocado, ½ cup bell pepper strips, peach

Afternoon Snack: 1 cup homemade trail mix: ¾ cup lightly sweetened cereal, 2 Tbsp dried cranberries or raisins, 4 walnuts or 6 cashews, 1 Tbsp chocolate chips

2 hour evening training ride: 1 energy gel, 20 oz. sports drink

Dinner: 4 oz. grilled fish, tofu or lean meat, 8 oz. roasted sweet potato w/ skin, 2 cups steamed broccoli or seasonal vegetable, 1 tsp olive oil or butter

Evening Snack: 1 cup chocolate milk or ½ cup frozen yogurt or ice cream

For this example, Karen’s needs are similar to David’s needs; eating carbohydrates at every meal and ensuring that the food choices made are fiber rich and complex vs. refined and highly processed. It’s okay to occasionally have foods that contain refined sugars, e.g. chocolate milk or ice cream so long as you are eating wholesome foods and a balanced diet, as in the example day provided. Most of the refined sugar you are consuming is in the form of energy gels, bars and sports drinks. When eaten in the correct quantity and timing our body will use the sugar as needed and not store it as fat. Making the right choices can lead to better digestion, and sustained energy levels. Try it out; you’ll see and feel the difference in no time.

Remember, carbohydrates contribute greater than 60% of your calories, with fat coming in second at about 20-25% and then protein rounds out the numbers. Tracking your food intake on an online food journal, such as, or is a good way to see what you’re eating. If you’re unsure of where to begin to eat like an athlete consulting with a sports dietitian is your best bet. Once you begin to eat correctly you’ll be racing at your full potential. Good Luck!