Sugar often gets a bad rep and is one of the most demonised foods, especially in the fitness world. But it might not be as bad as people make out. Whilst high sugar diets are often associated with various health concerns, sugar is actually an essential part of every athlete’s diet, especially during intense training or competition periods. The trick is getting the type and the timing right and when done so, it can hugely improve performance and recovery and keep athletes feeling satisfied with the foods they eat.
What is Sugar?
The three building blocks of any carbohydrate are the monosaccharides (or simple sugars to you and me); glucose, fructose and galactose. These three sugars are made naturally by plants during photosynthesis  and can be found in many foods individually, or they can combine together in different ways to make up different kinds of sugars or more complex carbohydrates. For example, sucrose, which is the compound that makes up table sugar or the sugar found commonly in lots of sweets and confectionary, is simply one glucose and one fructose molecule combined. Similarly, lactose which is the sugar found in milk is made up of one glucose and one galactose molecule together. In this way, simple sugars make up more complex ones and the more sugars that combine together, the more complex it will be. This is where the term simple and complex carbohydrates come from.
Simple vs. Complex
Simple sugars are those found in foods like fruit, honey, juices and sweets. They can either occur naturally or can be added to products to sweeten them. They’re very easy to break down by the body, meaning the energy they contain is released much quicker. This makes them a great choice when a quick energy boost is needed, such as right before a training session, during half-time or after sport when the energy stores need to be replenished quickly .
Complex carbohydrates are long chains of simple sugars connected. They’re commonly found in more starchy carbs like breads, pasta, rice, oats and vegetables. Because their structure is bigger, they take longer to be broken down by the body, meaning the energy is released slower. This is ideal for fuelling the body 2-3 hours before training or competition and at other times throughout the day when the body is using less energy .
Why Do We Need Sugar?
Carbohydrates, and glucose in particular, are the main source of energy that the body uses for exercise . All sugars are simply a form of carbohydrate and therefore a potential fuel source for the body. In order to be used, the carbohydrates must be broken down into individual glucose molecules. The more complex the carbohydrate is, the longer it will take to break down and the slower the energy will be released. Similarly, the simpler sugars can be broken down much quicker and therefore absorbed quicker.
Once broken down, the glucose will either circulate around the body in the blood or be stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle. The amount of glycogen that can be stored in the body is limited, however, and even lower in youth athletes compared to adults . This means that these stores will run out during long or intense periods of exercise which will cause early fatigue and impact performance.
Sugar to The Rescue
Even the best fuelled athletes will need to boost their energy stores in exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes, especially younger athletes. This is where the simple sugars come in handy. To ensure a quick release of energy and prevent stomach pains, snacks and drinks high in simple sugars should be consumed during half-time breaks or between events.
So, while it’s important to be mindful of how much sugar your young athlete eats, especially the added sugar in foods, this certainly doesn’t mean it should be avoided all together or should be something that is feared by parents. Keep the simple sugars for right before, during or after a training session when energy needs to be boosted quickly. And opt for the complex kinds, which are often higher in other nutrients as well, for all of the other times. Especially for the pre-training meal.
- What is Sugar? (2020) [Online]. 2020. Available at: https://www.sugar.org/sugar/what-is-sugar/. (Accessed: 16 July 2020).
- Jeukendrup, A. (2012) Sports nutrition. Maidenhead: Meyer & Meyer Sport.
- Lanham-New, S. (2011). Sport and exercise nutrition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Hannon, M., Close, G., and Morton, J. (2020) Energy and Macronutrient Considerations for Young Athletes. Strength & Conditioning Journal, Publish Ahead of Print.