For the grappler, nutrition is no great mystery. In some way or another, your relationship with food via building, weight cuts, and preparation for competition has been developing since the very first moment you touched the mats. For this article, I won’t go down the weight cutting rabbit-hole, but I want to briefly discuss carbohydrates. Carbs have gotten a bad reputation in the last ten years or so as fad, low-carb diets, paleo, ketogenic etc have gotten a lot more popular. While there’s merit to whatever way you feel most comfortable fueling yourself, I think carbs have been misrepresented as the “bad guy” when, for most competitive athletes, they’re pretty essential.
What is a Carbohydrate?
Simply put, carbs are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and milk products. They’re stored in the body (in muscle, liver, and blood) and broken down to release energy. Because sugars and grains are carbs, oftentimes they’re (wrongfully) associated with weight gain. I don’t necessarily believe there are any “bad” foods (and you shouldn’t either) but there are certainly better choices and smarter training that can account for weight gain and/or loss. Carbs are the only fuel source you can break down and use anaerobically (without oxygen) which means they’re absolutely essential for sports that rely on the phosphagen system (ie any grappling sport) for fuel during competition.
How Does Your Body Use Carbs?
Carbs can either be simple (short chain) or complex (long chain). Simple carbs are comprised of monosaccharides (glucose, galactose, fructose) or disaccharides (maltose, lactose, sucrose). Complex carbs are oligosaccharides (raffinose and stachynose) or polysaccharides (starches and glycogen). Simple carbs are easily broken down by the body and used for energy (or stored), due to their short chain and easily cleave-able bonds, while complex carbs are broken down over time and either used for energy or stored. Storage happens in the blood (8-10g), in the liver (75-100g) or in the muscle (300-400g). All said, when your body’s stores are topped off, you only have about 500-600g of carbohydrates, which a grappler can easily deplete if you’re not replenishing appropriately. And depletion means exhaustion.
Why Are Carbs Important for the Grappler?
Since carbs are the only fuel source that can be used anaerobically, when you’re in the middle of a fight, your body is relying on those glycogen (carbohydrate) stores within your body as the source of energy to finish the fight. If those stores are prematurely depleted due to a lack of adequate replenishment, you’re in trouble. And that trouble often presents itself as fatigue and that fatigue leads to losing fights.
Science Backed Carbohydrate Consumption
In 1993, Ball et al. had cyclists perform a 50 min ride at 80% VO2 Max after an overnight fast and then had them perform a Wingate test with either a placebo or carbohydrate supplement. The findings? Significant improvement of the carbohydrate group in RPE (ratings of perceived exertion), mean power, peak power, and maximum power. The generalized conclusion? Carbohydrates aid in improving performance. In a 2017 research study by James et al. of cyclists again, the simple act of cyclists swishing a 7% carbohydrate solution around in their mouths for 5 seconds led to a significantly faster time trial performance, than cyclists who rinsed with a control solution. What’s that mean? Your brain interprets carbs as fuel and allows your body to improve performance by exerting more energy when it believes it is about to get more fuel in the form of carb. These are just two examples of studies done with a variety of athletes (not just cyclists) over the course of decades of carbohydrate research.
How Do I Use Carbs to Fuel Without Gaining Weight?
What I want you to take away from this is that carbs aren’t the enemy and, in fact, may end up giving you the final boost you need over your opponent. When you’re fueling for a competition, carbohydrates need to take up a significant amount of your diet to make sure your stores are maximally topped off for the best chance at delaying fatigue and improving performance. If you’re at a weekend tournament, they’re even more important to use in between fights to ensure you have appropriately recovered and are fueled and ready for the next match. Stick to simple carbs for supplementation during tournaments, and make sure in the days leading up you’re flush with simple and complex carbs.
Above all, make sure you’re comfortable with your eating routine before you try it in a competitive situation. Eat your big meals 3-5 hrs before a competition (if you can) and supplement between fights, if applicable. Eating is tough for a grappler looking to make weight but relying on and ingesting carbohydrates as a fuel source can delay fatigue and ultimately improve performance.