To carbo-load or not

As a rugby player you need enough energy in the form of carbohydrate to be able to train efficiently on a regular basis.

For a sport like rugby your body prefers to use carbohydrate as source of fuel rather than protein or fat. However, unlike fat, your body can only store a limited amount of carbohydrate in the muscle (as glycogen), liver and blood at any time.

Regular training rapidly reduces these small reserves and therefore you need to ensure that you eat enough carbohydrate every day.

The amount of carbohydrate you need depends on your training programme and other factors. Refer to your eating plan and remember that the bulk of your diet should always come from carbohydrate-rich foods such as grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy foods, sugars and some carbohydrate sports-specific products.

Practical tips:
Enjoy a variety of carbohydrate-rich foods to optimise your nutrient intake focusing on nutrient-dense carbohydrates that are also rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre (e.g. wholegrain cereals, fruit and vegetables).

Split your total carbohydrate needs into several meals and snacks throughout the day as in your eating plan.

Always have portable choices such as fruit, yoghurt, sports bars and dried fruit on hand.

Carbohydrate-rich foods are sometimes classified according to the speed at which they are absorbed from the blood. This is referred to as the glycaemic index (GI). High GI carbohydrate-rich foods are absorbed more quickly (e.g. sports drinks, bars, bread and jam) and are therefore good choices after a match or game.

If you have little appetite and/or suffer from stomach discomfort (e.g. before a match), compact , easily digestible carbohydrate foods should be eaten. E.g. sweetened low fibre breakfast cereals, white bread with honey/jam, sugar. Carbohydrate powders (e.g. Refuel, Runners Fuel) can be added to foods and drinks to boost your carbohydrate intake. Liquid meal supplements (e.g. Nestle BuildUp, Ensure) can also be used.

Decrease your carbohydrate intake when your training decreases i.e. in the off-season or when injured to prevent unnecessary weight gain.

Sports drinks can help you meet your daily carbohydrate needs, but you should not rely on these drinks as your main source of carbohydrate as this will reduce your vitamin, mineral and fibre intake.

Source: Practical Nutrition for Rugby by Dieticians Shelley Meltzer and Cecily Fuller, courtesy SA Rugby.

(Health24, August 2011)

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