Why rugby players crave/need sugar
Cravings; we all get them from time to time. Mothers-to-be often crave things like Guinness, rare meat, and even charcoal, while the rest of us might crave savory potato chips, or something sweet to eat.
Cravings are sometimes the result of habits. For example, you might crave a dessert after your dinner, even though you aren’t especially hungry. That’s because you have become used to having a dessert after dinner, and not eating one may leave you feeling deprived.
Other cravings are triggered by specific physiological needs. For example, a craving for savory food may mean your body is running low on sodium, and by craving something salty, it’s subtly telling you how to fix that nutritional deficit.
Mothers craving Guinness and raw meat may be low in iron, and that’s their body’s way to alleviate that deficiency. As for the charcoal craving, that’s a bit harder to explain. Maybe it’s a craving for carbon?! We are, after all, said to be carbon-based lifeforms (thanks Star Trek!)
A lot of ruggers crave sugar which, unless you just have a habitual sweet tooth, could suggest your body needs more carbs.
What is sugar, anyway?
Nutritionally speaking, sugar often gets a bad rap. Sugar, it is said, is a leading cause of obesity, tooth decay, inflammation, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and could even cause heart disease.
Too much sugar can be unhealthy, and it’s interesting to note that, globally, sugar consumption has increased while fat consumption has decreased, and yet rates of heart disease are still on the rise. This suggests that fat isn’t the evil substance that many people believe it to be, and that the real nutritional bad guy is sugar.
However, as well as being something you sprinkle on your cereal or add to your coffee, sugar is also a very broad term used to describe simple carbohydrates.
Unfortunately, your body doesn’t tend to differentiate between the two definitions of sugar, and when you crave something like a candy bar, what your body actually needs is a simple, fast acting source of carbohydrate. Needless to say, a banana would be much better for you than a candy bar. However, when cravings strike, good reason often flies out the window!
Simple vs. complex carbs
Simple carbs are made up from one or two sugar molecules, also called saccharides. The simple sugars include:
Monosaccharides – one molecule of sugar
Disaccharides – two units of sugar
Simple sugars can be refined or unrefined. Examples of refined simple sugars include sweets and confectionary, while fruit is the main source of unrefined simple sugars. You might habitually grab a candy bar when you crave carbs, but fruit will satisfy those cravings just as well.
In contrast, complex carbohydrates are made up from long, complicated chains of sugars calls polysaccharides. Complex carbs are digested and broken down into glucose which, as you now know, is a simple sugar. Examples of complex carbs include rice, bread, pasta, and potatoes. Like simple carbs, complex carbs can be refined and unrefined.
This all means that sugar cravings are usually carb cravings in disguise, and your body asks for sugary food because it knows that’s an easy way to get what it needs.
Glucose, glycogen, and ATP
Rugby is predominately an anaerobic sport. This means Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP for short, is made from glucose without the presence of oxygen. ATP is the energy currency of the human body, and is essentially what your body uses for fuel. Not least of all if you’re doing high-intensity leg workouts or sprint training.
Your body stores glucose in the form of glycogen in your muscles and liver, and there is also glucose in your blood. The glycogen in your muscles is used by the muscles in which it is stored, whereas liver glycogen is a central reservoir that helps keep your blood glucose levels stable.
Intense physical activity will deplete these stores, and as your glycogen levels and blood glucose levels fall, your body starts crying out for glucose, triggering that sugar craving most of us have experienced from time to time.
For this reason, most rugby players need more carbohydrate than sedentary people. Too little carbohydrate, and therefore glucose, can leave you feeling tired, weak, and quick to fatigue.
You may also find that your mood and concentration levels will take a dive if you are running low on glucose. As well as fueling your muscles, glucose is your brain’s preferred source of energy. Many people experience moodiness and are short-tempered when their blood glucose levels start to fall. There is even a name for this: hangry (anger caused by hunger). Being hangry is often accompanied by strong sugar cravings.
While insufficient dietary carbohydrates can trigger cravings, as well as lower your sporting and mental performance, your body does have access to an alternative source of energy: ketones. That’s a good thing as, otherwise, humankind would have died off eons ago and at the first sign of a carbohydrate deficiency.
Ketones are derived from the breakdown of fats and protein when there is not enough glucose available. You can learn more about ketones and the ketogenic diet in the free to download Keto4Rugby nutrition plan.
Beating sugar cravings with carbs
The duration and intensity of physical activity is very dependent on your glycogen stores. As glycogen stores are used up, your muscles won’t have the fuel they need to perform at their best. That means you need to try and start your bout of activity will fully-stocked glycogen stores. Because of this, most ruggers should consume plenty of carbs during meals and as snacks. Most of these carbs should be complex in nature.
Complex carbs digest relatively slowly, which ensures your blood glucose will levels remain stable for hours at a time. Stable blood glucose levels mean fewer sugar cravings. The more fibrous the complex carb, the more slowly it will digest. That means things like wild rice, baked sweet potatoes in their skins, and wholegrain pasta are in, and refined carbs like white bread, white rice, French fries, and white pasta are out.
You can also avoid sugar cravings, and the associated decline in performance, by carb loading. Carb loading involves eating more carbs than usual in the lead up to an important event e.g. a rugby match or very demanding training session.
In the old days, carb loading was preceded by carb depletion, the theory being that being carb depleted would force your body to synthesize and store more glycogen than normal. However, this was a hit-or-miss process that left some athletes feeling bloated, and unable to restock their glycogen stores quickly enough.
Instead, and to avoid making a mess of carb loading, ruggers should just increase their carb intake during the days leading up to the event, while decreasing physical activity. The result? Increased glycogen stores and more energy. This way, your pre-workout can act as a boost to your energy store rather than getting you up to par.
Post-activity carbs and cravings
After intense activity, your glycogen stores will be depleted, the severity depending on the duration and intensity of what you have been doing. Blood glucose levels will also be low. With all this going on, it’s no wonder that most ruggers experience post-training sugar cravings.
Proper post-activity nutrition can ensure the rapid restocking of your glycogen stores, and help stop sugar cravings before really start.
Immediately after training or playing, your main nutritional priority should be fast-acting carbs. These can be simple carbs or refined complex carbs as both are digested rapidly, leading to the fast synthesis of glycogen. You can read more about this subject in the article nutrition tips for post-rugby recovery.
To summarize that article, immediately after exercise, your body is very sensitive to the action of insulin. Insulin is responsible for shunting nutrients into your cells – especially your muscles. Carbs consumed immediately after exercise are preferentially driven into your muscles and liver, which speeds up recovery. The best carbs at this time are fast acting, refined complex carbs and simple carbs. In short, after training or playing, you need carbs, and you need them quick!
If you have regular sugar craving, it’s a safe bet that you aren’t eating enough carbs. Or, at least, you aren’t eating them at the right time. Make sure you eat plenty of complex carbs with your meals, and also consume carbs before and after training and playing rugby. If your blood glucose levels are stable and your glycogen levels are high, sugar cravings should be infrequent and less severe. You can supplement your sugar intake with a BCAA-based intra-workout as well.