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Exercise and Glycogen Storage
The human body, in general, is a complicated thing and how the body performs certain tasks even more complicated. Yet, it's important to understand how your body works, if you want to make the most of certain activities, like exercising. One thing that you should definitely understand about exercising is the relationship between exercise and glycogen.
What is glycogen?
You may not even have heard of glycogen before. Basically, it's a stored up type of sugar. Think of it as a sort of a sugar form of a component of a battery that's just waiting around to be used to charge your body. To understand where it comes from, we have to talk about something a bit more familiar sounding, carbohydrates.
Carbs and Glycogen:
When we eat carbs, our bodies break them down into glucose, which is a type of sugar that most of us are familiar with. The thing is, our bodies can only use so much glucose at a time, though. So, what happens to the leftovers? Well, they're converted into glycogen, which is then stored in our liver and in our muscles for when it's needed.
How is glucose converted to glycogen and then converted back to glucose? Well, that's a complicated process. It begins with glucose molecules forming a sort of chain and becoming glycogen deposits in your body's muscles.
When a cell breaks the glycogen back into glucose, it also makes two byproducts, ATP and lactic acid. ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate and it's basically the charge of the earlier mentioned glucose battery material. ATP is stored energy that automatically erupts into a charge of energy. It's basically the body's way of powering itself.
Since the chemical reactions that take place during the process of glycogen conversion don't require oxygen, they allow your body to be more efficient. Your heart and lungs don't need to keep up with things. However, there is a down side. That's the lactic acid build up. It causes the muscle fatigue that people often feel after workouts.
Why is glycogen important for exercise?
Well, glycogen does play a key role in exercise. The process of glycogen breaking into glucose and ATP, as you can see, powers the body. Without that energy, we wouldn't get very far. So, it makes sense that athletes want to have a decent supply of it before they compete.
How much glycogen do I have and how much do I need?
Well, each person is a little different. Usually, though, you have about enough glycogen to fuel your body for a workout that lasts from one to two hours. Of course, it depends a lot on your over all health, as well as how intensely you're exercising. So, that's just a rough estimate.
Do I need to specifically eat carbs before, during or after a workout?
Typically, no, you don't need to worry. Our bodies have enough glycogen to fuel us naturally and will restock that glycogen over time. The exception is if you're a competitive athlete or someone who works out vigorously on a daily basis. However, even though you don't need to eat carbs during average workouts, eating a few before and after your exercise routine certainly won't hurt you and might improve your performance a bit.
What You Need To Know About Carbs:
Although you don't need to specifically eat a ton of carbs right before you exercise to maintain glycogen levels, you do need to eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of carbs on a regular basis. There are good carbohydrates and bad ones out there, though, so you need to understand the difference.
Refined, processed carbohydrates are bad. You won't be able to store glycogen or exercise nearly as efficiently by eating such foods which, unfortunately, many people eat all the time. One way to distinguish the good from the bad is that good carbs tend to have a lot more fiber. Fiber helps to prevent carbs from being converted to simple sugars the second they enter your body. Another thing you can look for in a good carb is packaging that says that the product is made with whole grains.
How fast can glycogen supplies be replaced?
In a normal person and under normal conditions, glycogen replenishes more or less on its own. It takes a while, though. Generally, it takes about a full day. That's part of why many fitness experts recommend spreading workouts and training throughout the week, to give your body time to recover.
Can glycogen be stockpiled or quickly refilled?
There is a process by which professional athletes try to recharge their glycogen supply faster than usual. It's called carb loading. Athletes deplete their glycogen supply for a few days and then load up on carbs for a few days leading up to a big event. That's carb loading.
The Principles of Carb Loading:
The idea of carb loading is for athletes to supercharge their body right before they compete. In theory, it's a good idea. In practice, though, it has some problems. The come in the form of uncomfortable and sometimes serious potential side effects. Some of those side effects can include diarrhea, chest pain, depression and general tiredness. So, carb loading is definitely not for everyone and should definitely not be done without medical supervision.
Making the Most of Weekly Exercise:
The bottom line here is that good carbs are important. They provide energy to our bodies, after all. Without them, there'd be no glycogen at all. However, if you're just doing a regular exercise routine, you don't need to employ such serious methods as carb loading. All you have to do is eat a balanced diet each day. By balanced, I mean a diet that contains an ever-changing and wide variety of foods. If you can achieve that balance, you can make the most of your weekly workout routines and not worry about your glycogen levels.
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