Speed of Carbs

On Tuesday I had a little conversation with a coworker about carb-loading. (He ran a 2:23 on Monday, finishing 41st in the Boston Marathon and 33rd among men.)

“I crammed so many carbs in the days leading up to the marathon. How do athletes with diabetes, such as yourself, do that?” I was once advised by a sports nutritionist at Joslin not to bother with it; eat well, take your insulin, and you’ll have plenty of energy. Since then I’ve realized that it’s possible but difficult, and I tend not to eat a lot of extra carbs in preparation for an event. With that said, I can definitely tell based on my insulin sensitivity whether my glycogen stores are topped off or not.

I mentioned that one of the few good things about diabetes is that it gives me pretty good insight into what’s happening with the food I eat before, during, and after exercise. When is its energy from food available to my muscles? Which foods spike blood sugar faster? Which ones digest more slowly? How much carbohydrate do you really need per hour to maintain blood sugar and energy?

We’re all different—and your level of insulinization matters—but here’s what I’ve discovered about the speed of carbs. From fastest acting “exercise carbs” to slowest:

  • Glucose tablets
  • Gatorade
  • Clif Shot Blocks / Gu Chomps
  • Banana
  • Clif Shots (gels) / Gu gels
  • Skratch Lab drink mix
  • Hammer gels
  • Honey Stinger waffles
  • Clif Bars

Lately I’ve been eating bananas before exercising, and fueling with one Hammer gel every half-hour while running or cycling. I also bring glucose tablets with me, of course, for that life-saving, just-in-case energy. If I’m going for a long bike, I’ll also bring a pack or two of chewy Clif Shot Blocks, which I’ll eat instead of a gel when my blood sugar drops. (I find that I can’t really eat these while running, so I save them for the bike.)

How about you? Does this sound familiar, or do you have a different take on it?

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One Response to Speed of Carbs

  1. StephenS says:

    Carb loading is hard. I don’t really do it either, though I try to make sure I eat salty carbs at night and in the morning before an endurance-type event. I got dehydrated a couple of years ago, and I’ll do anything to avoid that again.

    Other than that… for my metric century bike ride in a few weeks, I’ll take honey stingers (won’t use them much if at all), and salty/sweet nut bars. One whole bar at each stop. Plus, I try to squeeze a juice box in one of my under-saddle bags, plus glucose tabs. These are in case of emergency. I’m sure this is at least partly crazy, but it works for me.

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