How Sugar Impacts Athletic Performance

How Sugar Impacts Athletic Performance

For a long time, sugar has been a source of delight and a subject of concern in our diets. For athletes and fitness enthusiasts sugar is often something to be balanced just right. While sugar provides a quick burst of energy, its effects on the body longer term are complex and multifaceted. In this article, we will dive into the relationship between sugar and energy levels, its effects on endurance and recovery, and how athletes can make informed choices to optimize their performance and overall health. 

Sugar as an Energy Source

Sugar, in the form of glucose, is the primary energy source for our bodies. Carbohydrates we consume are broken down into glucose, providing a readily available energy source for our muscles, especially during physical activity. For short bursts of intense exercise or high-intensity activities, sugar can offer a quick surge of energy to power through a workout. 

The flip side? While sugar can provide immediate energy it leads to something often referred to as blood sugar spikes and crashes. Consuming sugary foods or drinks may cause a rapid rise in the amount of sugar in the blood. Then our bodies catch up absorbing the sugar as insulin does its job and that burst of energy suddenly drops. This sudden drop leaves us feeling fatigued and can lead to a decrease in performance during physical activity.  

Endurance and Sugar Intake

Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, provide a more stable source of energy and help maintain blood sugar levels throughout prolonged activity. When compared to simple carbs, complex carbs take longer for the digestive system to break down into glucose, softening the sugar spikes and crashes and providing a consistent source of fuel for the muscles. This is helpful for endurance activities such as long-distance running, cycling, or prolonged workouts, as the body relies on a continuous flow of fuel. 

Here are some ideas of complex carbs to add to your meals: brown rice, quinoa, oats, lentils, chickpeas, apples, berries, sweet potatoes, and the list goes on!

Recovery and Sugar Intake

When it comes to recovery, sugar doesn’t come to mind as quickly as protein does, but sugar is vital post-workout for a few reasons. It’s important to consume some simple carbs after a workout to restore depleted muscle glucose. In addition to replenishing stores, studies suggest that consuming a combination of simple carbohydrates and protein post-workout can enhance protein synthesis- the process of building and repairing muscle. 

Rather than turning to sugary drinks post workout consider the quality of the carbohydrate source. Think about pairing crackers or bread with peanut butter or hummus. There are also many well balanced protein and post-workout bars on the market that can help optimize recovery.

Hydration and Sugar

Sugar is often found in sports drinks and beverages marketed towards athletes for hydration and electrolyte replenishment. The sugar in these drinks might also give you a boost you need during your workout but they are not the best source for hydration. The excess sugar and salt can actually lead to an increase in fluid loss and dehydration.  Sports drinks have their advantages but for optimal athletic performance be sure to drink water as well. 

The Trick to a Sugar Balance

Everybody is different. Literally speaking, every “body” is going to process and feel the effects of sugar differently. Finding the balance that gives you the energy you want for your workouts, without feeling sluggish during or after, is going to take some paying attention. Take into consideration these few tips and then start to recognize how you feel as you make changes to your pre and post workout meals.

In the realm of athletic performance, the role of sugar is both a source of energy and a potential obstacle towards optimal results. Understanding the impact sugar has on energy levels, endurance, and recovery empowers you to make educated nutritional choices. Sugar can provide quick bursts of energy for shorter, high intensity workouts and it can provide sustaining energy for longer endurance workouts. By learning the facts and paying attention to your body you can use sugar to your advantage and find the balance that optimizes your energy, performance and well-being.

Written by:
Erin Quense 
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
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