If you’re running a marathon or cycling for several hours, you need to ingest some carbohydrates during the session to maintain your performance. If you’re sprinting for 100 metres, on the other hand, you can leave the buffet belt at home. Where things get murky is the middle ground, for sessions lasting about an hour: several decades of research have produced lots of conflicting results. A study in the April issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences, by researchers from Loughborough University in Britain, offers some new insight.
The basics: 10 trained runners did two trials in which they ran as far as they could in one hour (they used a neat treadmill that automatically speeds up if you move towards the front of the belt, and slows down if you lag towards the rear, so it was a freely paced trial). In both cases, they ate a high-carbohydrate meal three hours before the run. They drank either a sports drink containing 6.4% carbohydrates or a placebo before and during the run. The results: no difference whatsoever in performance, blood glucose, lactate, respiration, carbohydrate burning, perceived exertion, or anything else they measured.
What’s interesting is that the same group published a similar paper last year, where the only difference is that the runners were fasted before the trial instead of having a meal three hours prior. In that case, the sports drink group significantly outperformed the placebo group.
So it seems pretty clear: you only need supplemental carbs for a one-hour exercise bout if you haven’t topped up your carb supplies beforehand. There are two ways your body stores glycogen: in your muscles (which is then used exclusively by your muscles), and in your liver (which feeds glucose into your bloodstream to fuel your heart and brain and keep blood sugar levels stable). When you sleep overnight, your muscle glycogen stays relatively stable, but your liver glycogen drops by more than 50 percent (because your brain and heart are still running all night). So the researchers believe that, if you don’t have a pre-exercise meal, the sports drink is needed to make up for your depleted liver glycogen stores.
Practically speaking, this means you don’t need to worry about carbs during short exercise bouts in the afternoon or evening, since you’ll have had a meal or two. In the morning, though, you need to make sure your liver glycogen is restocked, even for a short one-hour run. You can do that by getting up early enough to eat beforehand — or, apparently, by consuming some carbs immediately before and during your session.
One other interesting note from the paper. They discuss the performance boost that comes from “rinsing and spitting” with a sports drink, which some researchers have suggested could explain why sports drinks sometimes help with short exercise sessions even when muscle glycogen stores are full. Interestingly, a couple of recent papers suggest that the same conditions also apply in this case: you get benefit from rinse-and-spit if you’ve fasted beforehand, but no benefit if you had a pre-exercise meal. That suggests that your brain is monitoring levels of carbohydrate throughout your body, and only responds positively to the carb stimulus if your body actually needs it:
Although speculative, the idea of central monitoring of whole-body carbohydrate status, which in turn influences the self-selection of exercise intensity, is worthy of further investigation.