Carbohydrate for Building Muscles

"I know runners should eat carbohydrate to fuel their muscles. But what about weightlifters? Shouldn't I eat a lot of protein to build up my muscles?" Perhaps, like Steve, a 34-year-old salesman who lifts weights to bulk up, you are confused about what to eat for energy, strength, and top performance-carbohydrate or protein. This is what I recommend:

  • Eat carbohydrate-rich breakfasts, such as oatmeal, rather than eggs.
  • Focus your lunches and dinners on whole-grain breads, potatoes, brown rice, fruits, and vegetables. Wholesome forms of carbohydrate should cover two-thirds of your plate.
  • Eat fish, chicken, lean meats, low-fat cheeses, and other forms of protein as an accompaniment to lunch and dinner, not as the focus. Alternatively, you could eat carbohydrate-rich plant sources of protein such as beans and rice, lentil soup, chili, hummus, and other vegetarian choices.

Carbohydrate is fundamental for both runners and bodybuilders, because unlike protein or fat, carbohydrate is needed to fuel muscle-building exercise. Adequate protein is also important, but you should dedicate only one-third of your dinner plate to protein-rich foods. To optimally perform the strength training for building muscles, bodybuilders need a carbohydrate-rich diet. Research suggests that three sets of biceps curls (8 to 10 repetitions per set) reduce muscle glycogen by 35 percent (Martin, Armstrong, and Rodriquez 2005). With repeated days of low carbohydrate and high repetitions, the muscles of bodybuilders can soon become depleted.

Gianni, a 28-year-old runner and banker, faithfully carbohydrate loaded his muscles for three days before his first Boston Marathon. On the evening before the marathon, he ate dinner at 5:00 and then went to bed at 8:30 to assure himself a good night's rest. But, as often happens with anxious athletes, he tossed and turned all night (which burned a significant amount of calories). Gianni got up early the next morning and chose not to eat breakfast, even though the marathon didn't start until 10:30. By that time, he had depleted his limited liver glycogen stores. He lost his mental drive about 8 miles (13 km) into the race and quit at 12 miles (19 km). His muscles were well fueled, but energy was unavailable to his brain, so he lacked the mental stamina to endure the marathon.

Gianni could have prevented this needless fatigue by eating some oatmeal, cereal, or other form of carbohydrate at breakfast to refuel his liver glycogen stores. Athletic success depends on both well-fueled muscles and a well-fueled mind.

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