High carb vs. low carb is a seemingly endless debate on my Instagram feed, with everyone ready to defend their position to the death. But the truth is, neither is right or wrong. Your carb intake will be very individual, depending on your own goals and training routine.
But thanks to continued research on carbohydrates and their role in fitness, there’s really no denying the integral role carbs play in muscle growth and performance.
It appears that the tides are slowly turning as more and more people begin to understand the importance of carbs and start loving rather than fearing carbohydrates. To which I say, “YASSS!”
Carbs are the fuel to our fire, our body’s favorite source of energy. Carbohydrates are stored in the muscle cells as glycogen, which is what provides the quick energy needed for exercise.
Additionally, carbs are a protein sparing nutrient, meaning as long as you have carbs available, your body won’t start breaking down muscle tissue for energy. Obviously, this makes carbs a very important part of your diet if you want to maintain or build muscle.
If you were to give your body the choice to run off carbs or fats, it will choose carbs nearly every single time. This is where bunching your carbs around your training sessions becomes important.
If you want to perform at your best and recover well, dialing in your timing of carbohydrate consumption can play a major role after you’ve nailed down the basics of a healthful lifestyle like sleeping at least 7 hours, eating protein and veggies throughout the day, and managing stress.
The three main categories of nutrient timing we’re going to cover in this blog are:
Carbs can be consumed in one, two, or all three of these windows, depending on your training and personal goals.
When consuming carbs in any of the above timing windows, drinkable carbs come in handy. And I don’t mean chugging that Gatorade with nearly a whole day’s worth of sugar in it….
Instead, I suggest sipping Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin, or HBCD for short.
HBCD is a very fast digesting pure carbohydrate source (thanks to its unique branched structure) that allows for quick absorption of nutrients and, therefore, speedy recovery.
Since HBCD is quick digesting it won’t cause stomach upset and can get to your muscles faster to promote sustained energy and better recovery. HBCD has an extraordinarily fast gastric emptying rate and provides a gradual release of energy without spiking blood sugar, unlike many other “quick carb” supplements on the market like dextrose or waxy maize.
Studies have shown HBCD to attenuate the stress response from training and also reduce inflammation (1).
This means that using HBCD around your training sessions can help you return to that parasympathetic (rest & digest) state more quickly after training and prepare you to go heavier in tomorrow’s workout.
HBCD can be used in many ways depending on what your specific goals are. Let’s dive into the three main nutrient timing windows and how to best consume carbs around your training.
Pre-workout carbohydrates includes anything eaten in the timeframe of about two hours to 30 minutes before your training session.
The primary purpose of your pre-workout meal is to fuel your training. Consuming carbohydrates pre-workout to top off your glycogen stores will allow for high intensity output and will also support better muscle contractions, due to higher levels of glucose in the bloodstream. The leaner you are and/or harder you’re performing in your sport or training, the more crucial this becomes. When we have a lot of weight to lose, we have more readily available nutrients – which makes things like daily total intake much more of a priority. But as you go further and further into your fat loss journey, this becomes more crucial for great workouts.
Who Needs Pre-Workout Carbs:
Anyone who wants that “pump” in their workout and/or anyone pushing high intensity performance (i.e. CrossFit, OTF, etc.)
Follow the below guidelines for how to structure your pre-workout nutrition:
→ One to two hours before your workout eat a meal with protein and carbs, little to no fat. Fats slow digestion and you don’t want to feel overly full when you have to pick up the barbell. The further out from your workout you are, the more acceptable fats are in this meal. *Note: If you’re someone who experiences hyperglycemia easily, you’d want 5-10g of fats in this pre workout meal to avoid that from occurring during training.
→ Be conscious of meal size. Having a meal that is too large pre-workout will not be digested quickly and can lead to discomfort or nausea. On the other hand, eating a meal that is too small will leave you insufficiently fueled for you workout.
→ Choose quick, easily digestible carbs like rice, cream of rice, and potatoes. I wouldn’t recommend drinking your food pre-workout because liquids are digested within 30 – 60 minutes. If you are going to have a carbohydrate drink, it’s best to use it as intra-workout fuel (covered next), not as a pre-workout meal. If your pre workout meal is placed beyond the 2 hour window, in the 3-4 hour range, more fibrous sources (not too fibrous) such as oats, along with a little fats (5-10g) is recommended.
Consuming carbohydrates during your workout – typically via liquid carbs like HBCD
Stored glycogen is your body’s fuel for most workouts (those lasting less than an hour), but adding in intra-workout carbohydrates can be useful to support performance for longer, more intense workouts or endurance activities.
Who Needs Intra-Workout Carbs:
People who are lean and want to gain muscle mass, athletes exercising for longer than 60 minutes, or those exercising with high volume and intensity (i.e. high volume bodybuilders or CrossFitters).
Intra-workout carbs are not always necessary and use is typically dependent on duration and intensity of exercise. For example, intra-workout carbs would be very useful during workouts longer than 60 minutes or a CrossFit competition with multiple events.
The intra-workout carbs can help provide additional energy and urge your body to continue using the carbohydrates as fuel instead of storing and conserving energy and becoming fatigued.
If your main goal is to build muscle, consuming liquid carbs intra-workout will help blunt the cortisol response during training and prevent any catabolic processes (2). By decreasing the muscle damage, you will be able to recover faster and workout harder tomorrow.
To further enhance your muscle growth during training, sip on EAAs* + HBCD intra-workout. Essential amino acids are very easily digested and, when combined with HBCD, can improve the absorption of amino acids to your skeletal muscle (3). This can trigger muscle protein synthesis and promote lean gains. In fact, some studies literally show cross sectional muscle tissue growth in trainee’s supplementing with this combination.
The effect of EAAs + HBCD will be at its highest efficiency intra-workout when your blood is pumping thanks to your workout.
*Why do we recommend EAAs and not BCAAs?
BCAAs are included in any EAA supplement, but not all EAAs are BCAAs. You need all nine of the essential amino acids to build muscle, which is where some branched chain amino acid supplements fall short, only containing three EAAs. While this might not make much of a difference for everyone, those who are advanced trainees will benefit from getting EAAs into the muscle during their workout with HBCD.
Intra-workout carbs can also be helpful if you choose to workout fasted, first thing in the morning. However, if you are continuously getting your carbohydrates in throughout your meals, your glycogen stores should be full enough to fuel one morning training session, depending on your level of intensity.
Avoid intra-workout carbs if your main goal is fat loss, if you primarily do strength based or lower intensity workouts, OR you’re an explosive athlete who actually needs that cortisol response to perform at the highest level. A good example of this would be olympic lifters; even though a session could very well take 2 hours to complete, they need to stay in the 1-3 rep range and be maximully explosive. Because of that, cortisol may actually help them stay in that sympathetic driven state (one reason Charles Poliquin was not a fan of intra-workout carbs).
Not all workouts require the same amount of glycogen as bodybuilding or CrossFit, and therefore intra-workout carbs are unnecessary. In addition, not all workouts require the same recovery demand as bodybuilding (example again is the Olympic lifters; bodybuilders want to recover and grow, whereas Oly lifters want to produce explosive reps only). Instead, opt for post-workout carbs to aid recovery, blunting the cortisol response AFTER the session, as discussed below.
Carbohydrates consumed after you have finished training
The goal of your post-workout meal is to calm the stress response from training, kick start the recovery process, and avoid a catabolic state. Your body is very insulin sensitive post-workout and is primed to use carbohydrates to replenish glycogen, not storing any as body fat, which is another reason this is a powerful time to consume – not necessarily because you’ll gain more muscle from rushing to carbs, but because it’s less likely your body will partition those calories as fat instead of muscle. It’s not a make or break it benefit, but why not utilize this sensitive time?!
Who Needs Post-Workout Carbs:
Pretty much everyone
In previous years, as briefly mentioned, it was a popular opinion that you had to consume protein and carbs immediately post workout or else sacrifice all muscle growth. With better research methods today, we know that’s not exactly true.
You do need to consume protein and carbohydrates after your training session to prevent a catabolic state, but the post-workout window is larger than previously assumed. Recent studies show muscles to be most sensitive to resynthesis within three hours after training. Therefore, we recommend consuming quick digesting carbs and protein upon completion of training, no later than three hours post-training, to reap the anabolic benefits.
The more stressed out your lifestyle is and/or the more intense your training is, the faster that drink should be consumed – but not because it’s more anabolic for growth, but because it’s more likely to reduce the stress response by spiking insulin faster which inherently blunts the cortisol response.
For the average person, one serving of each (25g protein + 25g carbs) at minimum should be consumed post-workout, two servings for larger athletes. Our recommendations for post-workout carb sources include highly branched cyclic dextrin, ALLiN formulations, or dextrose-based products. We recommend avoiding fats in your post-workout meal to prevent delayed digestion and any GI upset.
If you are done training and have time to eat a solid meal after your workout, consume easily digestible protein and carbohydrates such as chicken, egg whites, rice, and potatoes. Starches are preferred over fruits as a post-workout carb source because of how our bodies digest fructose. Both starches and fruits spike insulin and blunt cortisol, helping to shift into the parasympathetic nervous system, but fruits are predominantly sugars that will be stored in the liver and therefore have less of an effect on muscle glycogen, recovery, and insulin.
A good strategy for many of our serious lifters is to supplement the post workout window with HBCD + Whey, at a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio, immediately post workout, if intra-workout carbs were not consumed. After this, they can take their time getting to their full meal, which at this point can be more balanced across all the macronutrients (protein | carb | fat).
Total carbohydrate consumption will be very individual and depend on your current lifestyle, exercise routine, and future goals. For more specific details on how to fuel your best performance, check out our Ebook HERE or apply for one on one nutrition coaching through this link.
- “Effect of a sports drink based on highly-branched cyclic dextrin on cytokine responses to exhaustive endurance exercise.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25270782
- Mountain Dog Training and Nutrition by John Meadows CSCS, IFFB Pro
- “Independent and combined effects of liquid carbohydrate/essential amino acid ingestion on hormonal and muscular adaptations following resistance training in untrained men.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16456674
This is a blog written by Caroline Ofenstein. Caroline is Certified With Precision Nutrition, NCI, CrossFit, and is also a Boom-Boom Performance Nutrition Coach. Caroline is our go-to source for CrossFit Nutrition AND bridging the gap between Aesthetics and Performance, which is where she has recently pushes a lot of her focus in order to help people understand how they can achieve both performance and the lean physique we all strive for.