During prolonged exercise (>90 min), like marathon, Ironman, cross-country skiing, road cycling or open water swimming, the effects of supplementary carbohydrates on performance are mainly metabolic rather than central and include:
- the provision of an additional muscle fuel source when glycogen stores become depleted;
- muscle glycogen sparing;
- the prevention of low blood glucose concentrations.
How many carbohydrates should an athlete take?
Prolonged exercise: which carbohydrates should an athlete take?
Until 2004 it was believed that carbohydrates ingested during exercise (also prolonged exercise) could be oxidized at a rate no higher than 1 g/min, that is, 60 g/h, independent of the type of carbohydrate.
Exogenous carbohydrate oxidation is limited by their intestinal absorption and the ingestion of more than around 60 g/min of a single type of carbohydrate will not increase carbohydrate oxidation rate but it is likely to be associated with gastrointestinal discomfort (see later).
At intestinal level, the passage of glucose (and galactose) is mediated by a sodium dependent transporter called SGLT1. This transporter becomes saturated at a carbohydrate intake about 60 g/h and this (and/or glucose disposal by the liver that regulates its transport into the bloodstream) limits the oxidation rate to 1g/min or 60 g/h. For this reason, also when glucose is ingested at very high rate (>60 g/h), exogenous carbohydrate oxidation rates higher 1.0-1.1 g/min are not observed.
Fructose uses a different sodium independent transporter called GLUT5. Compared with glucose, fructose has, like galactose, a lower oxidation rate, probably due to its lower rate of intestinal absorption and the need to be converted into glucose in the liver, again like galactose, before it can be oxidized.
However, if the athlete ingests different types of carbohydrates, which use different intestinal transporters, exogenous carbohydrate oxidation rate can increase significantly.
It seems that the best mixture is maltodextrins and fructose.
Note: the high rates of carbohydrate ingestion may be associated with delayed gastric emptying and fluid absorption; this can be minimized by ingesting combinations of multiple transportable carbohydrates that enhance fluid delivery compared with a single carbohydrate. This also causes relatively little gastrointestinal distress.
- increase total carbohydrate absorption;
- increase exogenous carbohydrate oxidation;
- improve performance.