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Carbohydrates: Fuel of Choice

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Muscle glycogen is the stored carbohydrate within the muscles. Athletes can use the “energy stores” during pro-longed exercise.

All About Muscle Glycogen

Muscle glycogen is stored carbohydrate in your muscle. Imagine this: after you eat and digest a meal, the amount of carbohydrate that you immediately need will get used as fuel, but the rest (up to a point) will be stored in your muscles for future fuel. Athletes in ultra-endurance sports such as soccer, basketball, hockey, and distance running rely on high-octane muscle fuel for energy. In fact, between the grueling practice sessions and vigorous competitions, serious endurance athletes are constantly depleting and restoring their muscle glycogen stores, so they require much more carbohydrate-rich food than athletes involved in less aerobic activity (golf, archery, and martial arts).

Food for Thought

You can take in more than 100 grams of carbohydrate by eating 4 bananas, or 2½ power bars, or 3 cups pasta, or 6 medium pancakes, or 2½ cups Raisin Bran cereal, or 2 medium baked potatoes, or 8 fig cookies and a glass of milk.


For you nonathletes who decided to browse through, not everyone is a candidate for overdosing on carbs. Active people might continuously burn loads of carbohydrate calories, but your muscles can only store a certain amount of carbohydrate. If you're not using what is already there, you'll just end up putting on weight.

Just because you don't compete in an ultra-endurance sport doesn't mean you can fumble in the carb department. Think about all of the laborious practice sessions that wrestlers, divers, or short-distance swimmers put in during the week. Bear in mind, it's not just the actual competition that matters, but the intensity of your training as well.

What happens if you don't replenish your muscle-glycogen stores? Simple: if you run out of glycogen, you run out of energy. The amount of muscle fuel you have determines how long you can exercise. As a car needs a full tank of gas before heading out on a long trip, an endurance athlete requires sufficient "muscle gasoline" to sustain the pace and go the distance. Always tired or run down? Obviously, a vigorous training schedule alone is enough to make you feel that way. You might also want to look into your carbohydrate consumption. Keep a food log and do the math; there could be an easy solution to your problem.

Personal Protein Requirements

It's true that athletes do need more protein than sedentary folks, but because most people already take in far more protein than the RDA, chances are you're A-okay. (You're okay unless you're one of those “carb-o-holics” who live on the “cereal-bagel-pasta” program, or you're trying so hard to carbo-load that you forget the other key ingredients for optimal performance.)

Athletes do need protein for that competitive edge. You learned the vital roles of protein in Your Personal Protein Requirements, but let's get sport-specific for a minute. Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle tissue, as well as repairing the muscle damage you endure during hard workouts. Remember, dietary protein does not automatically build bigger muscles: you build bigger muscles through regular exercise and training. Dietary protein simply allows all your hard work to pay off. Following are the recommended daily intakes for protein. You'll see that athletes do have greater requirements than the RDAs for the general population. But keep in mind that your total proportion should still be higher in carbs, moderate in protein, and low in fat. This is because you're taking in more of everything.

Find your exercise category, and then multiply your weight (in pounds) by the number of grams to the right. After you do the math and know your personal daily requirements, keep a food log for a week and tally up your daily protein totals by checking your foods in the chart in Your Personal Protein Requirements..

Exercise CategoryRecommended Daily Protein (Grams per Pound)

Sedentary folks .36
Moderate exercisers .36 –.5
Endurance athletes .5 –.8
Strength athletes .6 –.8
Growing teenage athletes .6 –.9

Here are some examples:

  • A 200-pound bodybuilder needs between 120 and 160 grams of protein daily.
  • A 150-pound triathlete needs 75 to 120 grams of protein each day.
  • A 14-year-old elite gymnast weighing 92 pounds needs 55 to 83 grams of protein each day.
  • A casual 120-pound health-club member needs 43 to 60 grams of protein each day.

Notice that even though the growing gymnast might require more protein per pound than the bodybuilder, bodybuilders usually weigh a lot more and therefore tend to have greater protein requirements.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Total Nutrition © 2005 by Joy Bauer. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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