What are they? How can they help me?
Carbohydrates are the major, “high-octane fuel sources” for exercise. Along with fat and protein, carbohydrates are essential macronutrients that give you energy. Some carbohydrates are stored in your muscles as glycogen, or chains of glucose molecules. Glycogen provides quick, efficient energy, especially for high-intensity exercise (explosive, powerful movements).
There are two main types of carbohydrates: fast-digesting, and slow-digesting. Fast-digesting carbohydrates include table sugar (sucrose) and maltodextrin (a simple glucose chain). Examples of slow-digesting carbohydrates are the starches in foods like brown rice, bananas, and isomaltulose.
When do I use them?
Carbohydrates comprise the majority of your diet, and should be consumed at most meals. For pre-workout purposes, carbohydrates ensure you have adequate glycogen stores for the workout. For workouts longer than 1 hour, you may benefit from consuming fast- and slow-digesting carbohydrates to provide a steady supply of carbohydrates to your blood stream, which helps spare your muscle glycogen.
How much do I need?
The carbohydrate needs of athletes vary greatly, depending on the sport they participate in. Endurance athletes may require up to 3.6 to 4.5 g carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day, while other athletes may need only 1.8 to 2.3 g carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day. A sports dietitian can be helpful in determining how much carbohydrate you require each day. Post-workout, experts recommend 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight for every hour of exercise, to achieve a maximal rate of recovery (84 grams for an average 154-pound male, and 65 grams for an average 120-pound female).
More helpful information
Carbohydrates come in many different forms, and as your diet becomes more advanced in ways that help you reach peak performance, there are other aspects of carbohydrates worth considering: glycemic index and combinations of carbohydrates that maximize the rate of carbohydrate uptake.