Phoenix Ignition Fitness Company

The truth about carbohydrate intake and its use

by Ron Kennedy • September 26, 2016
Since the concept of the low-carb diet exploding onto the weight-loss scene, carbohydrates have been demonized, labeled as evil, and avoided like the bubonic plague. Marketing slogans such as “Carb Counters” are common in media, and pop culture has adapted low carb eating and turned it into a trendy merit badge. We have all seen satires of typical air-head blondes sitting around at a coffee shop or patio complaining about food craving from low carb diets. Yet, should you really be cutting back on carbs to achieve weight loss and muscle mass, and how effective is it as a long term strategy?

Regardless if you’re fitness goals are to gain muscle mass, weight loss, or for better athletic performance, to process needed to achieve your goal will require sustained energy. If you are not providing your body with the needed energy, one of two things will happen when you run out of steam in the middle of a workout: You stop early and don’t train for as long as you had planned You finish your workout, but hold back and don’t reach your potential peak.

To sustain energy through exercise, our body uses a product produced called Glycogen. Glycogen is the stored sugar in your liver that is released when you need more energy. If the reserves run too low, your workout session will be about as useful to you as throwing wet wads of paper towels against a brick wall in the hopes of knocking it down. Fitness training requires energy, and one of the main sources of energy is carbohydrates. To make matters worse, one of the most important aspects after a workout is… you guessed it… carbohydrates! After a training session, glycogen needs to be replenished. If isn’t, you will see muscle breakdown, slower muscle recovery, and overall diminished performance.  
When working with our personal training clients, I use and suggest a method we call “modular caloric intake” (MCI). The concept is take in the right foods at the right time to build up proper amounts of glycogen ahead of a workout for sustained energy. This also very effective for weight loss programs, since you modify your calories around your activity levels of the day. A version of “pre-workout carb-loading” was used in a study with cyclists. The performance of cyclists was measured, and results concluded that when consuming carbohydrates one hour before exercise, there was a larger drop in the athlete’s blood sugar, which led to impaired performance. In the same study, carbohydrates were ingested two to three hours before a workout, athletes were able to maintain glycogen storage, giving them enough sustained energy for the entire cycling event. In regards to carb intake after training or an event, when athletes waited longer than 60 minutes to replenish with carbs, they experienced longer muscle recovery times because of depleted glycogen. For enough sustained energy to complete an effective workout and for maximum muscle recovery, consume complex carbs such as brown rice, two to three hours before a workout and a simpler carbohydrate such as glucose within one hour after a workout to reboot energy stores.

There are two basic types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates include simple sugars like glucose, fructose (fruit sugar), and sucrose (table sugar). These simple carbs provide the quickest source of available energy. Think of the kid who starts bouncing off the walls after eating a piece of candy or drinking a soda. For quick recovery of glycogen stores, simple carbs are your preferred source of energy post workout. They can also provide you with quick bursts of energy when you’re flagging during a workout. Complex carbohydrates, like starch, are found in plant-based foods: whole grains and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. Complex carbohydrates provide sustained energy over longer periods of time, and also help replenish glycogen after training.

When and how many carbs to eat is really a matter of science and what your target fitness goals are. What portion size you require depends on your current weight, your goals, and the focus of the training session. If your goal is to get through a long cardiovascular endurance workout for weight loss, you’ll need more glycogen build up in advance. If your goal is strength training or muscle mass condition, you don’t need quite as much in your glycogen storehouse. Likewise, for post-workout carb intake, you need more to replenish after a long endurance workout than after a strength training session. To be more specific, in one study, the recommended pre-workout intake of carbs for endurance is 60 grams per hour for workouts lasting two to three hours, and up to 90 grams per hour for longer endurance events. Anything less than two hours requires less than 60 grams of carbs pre-workout.
As a general rule of thumb, unless you’re a few weeks away from competing in a body building event, or perhaps an event like that requires a very scantly Halloween costume (an article for another time), experiment with your body and start by trying to consume between 0.5 and 1.0 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight before and after workouts, more for endurance, and less for strength training.