Over the last decade through no fault of their own, carbohydrates became the demonized macronutrient according to every nutrition program, enthusiast, student, and influencer. They became the enemy in a war that they didn’t even know they were in. Paleo enthusiasts, low carbohydrate zealots, and carnivore dieters followers link carbohydrates to obesity, inflammation, climate change, COVID, and people who clap when their plane lands. This lead to confusion, especially for fitness enthusiasts and athletes, since prior to their vilification we were told that carbohydrates provided our primary fuel, enhanced our performance, and were a key component in muscle growth and recovery (“anabolic window”, anyone?). In case you haven’t guessed, these carbohydrate cautioners aren’t exactly correct. While lower carbohydrate diets can be a great tool if someone is wanting to lose body fat, the full story is a little more complex.
The Dietary Reference Intake recommends that approximately 45-65% of your calories come from carbohydrates (1). This range allows is designed to accommodate for differences in activity levels. Inactive people need fewer carbohydrates, while elite athletes need more. Glycogen, the stored version of carbohydrates, is the main source of energy for intense exercise and muscle work. So given this, and given all the hate and discontent towards them, just how much should one eat? It depends.
Fueling the Fire
The International Society for Sports Nutrition recommends carbohydrates based on activity levels. For general activity, which would be most fitness enthusiasts, that’s defined as 30-60 minutes of exercise/movement 3 to 4 times a week. At this amount of activity, that equates to about 3 to 5 grams/kg of body weight. Moderate activity to high intensity, which is 2 to 3 hours of activity 5 to 6 times a week, requires 5 to 8 g/kg of bodyweight. High volume, intense exercise, which would be elite athletes, requires 8 to 10 g/kg of body weight per day. (2) The needs vary, and specific amounts depend on the type and duration of activity. In order to determine what is right for you, you have to take an honest look at your activity levels. Do you normally ride a desk, except for your daily training session where you’re banging heavy weights? Sounds like “moderate” to me. Are you doing that PLUS staying active on your feet all day at your job? Now we’re moving more towards the elite athletes.
It’s important to consume carbohydrates before and after exercise or competition. Our bodies are constantly producing energy for breathing, thinking, working, digesting food, and non-exercise activities. Exercise and competition drastically increase the requirement for carbohydrate intake. For better training, it’s important to restore glycogen before activity (3). Or as Power Athlete legend Dr. Fred Hatfield said, eat for what you are about to do, not for what you just did. Having this mentality will lead to a well-fueled training session. The further away from training or competition, the more carbohydrates you should eat; closer to competition you eat less. For instance, if you are 4 hours away, eat 4 g/kg of body weight, while 1 hour away eat 1 g/kg of bodyweight. (4)
What about carbohydrates in exercise or competition? It depends on the type and duration. Training sessions lasting 30 minutes or less, or low-intensity sessions up to an hour, do not need extra carbohydrates. For training sessions and competitions that last beyond that hour, it can be beneficial to consume some peri-activity as well. During those long bouts, it’s possible to empty your glycogen stores….aka, completely running the tank dry (3). Multiple studies have demonstrated that power output can increase when you take in carbohydrates during exercise or competition (5). If this is something you want to implement, I highly…HIGHLY…recommend testing your individual tolerance of carbohydrate sources. You don’t want to wait until game day to find out the sweet potato you hoped to fuel you during the big day makes you feel bloated, or even too sick, to perform at your best.
After training, the mail goals of post-workout nutrition are to replenish glycogen, rebalance hormones, and minimize muscle damage; carbohydrates are a key component in this process, and should be included in any post-workout nutrition plan (5). Some studies have suggest that it can take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours to fully refill your glycogen stores after a particularly intense training session. You want to aid this process as much as you can, to help you get back to homeostasis as quickly as possible.
Carbohydrates are not the Devil that they have been made out to be; rather, they are a key component in the nutrition plan for anyone who takes performance seriously. Active people and athletes require more than sedentary people, but then again they also require more protein and fat (and calories in general). To figure out how much is right for you, it’s important you take an honest look at your activity levels and eat in a way that fuels them accordingly. Greatly reducing your carbohydrates, or even eliminating them from your diet completely, will negatively effect your performance and recovery.
Confused about what, when, and how to eat carbs? Do you need accountability? If you do, Nutrition Coaching is for you. We have a few openings, so take the plunge now to truly empower your performance!
1. Medeiros, D. M., & C., W. R. E. (2019). Advanced human nutrition. Jones & Barlett Learning.
2. Bytomski, J. R. (2017). Fueling for Performance. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 10(1), 47–53. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738117743913
3. Fritzen, A. M., Lundsgaard, A.-M., & Kiens, B. (2019). Dietary Fuels in Athletic Performance. Annual Review of Nutrition, 39(1), 45–73. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-nutr-082018-124337
4. Karpinski, C., & Rosenbloom, C. A. (Eds.). (2017). Sports Nutrition A Handbook for Professionals. Academy of Nurtition and Dietetics.
5. Kerksick, C., Harvey, T., Stout, J., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Kreider, R., Kalman, D., Ziegenfuss, T., Lopez, H., Landis, J., Ivy, J. L., & Antonio, J. (2008). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-5-17
Rob has been in the fitness/strength and conditioning industry for 21+ years. For the last 12 years, he has owned and operated CrossFit West Houston. Through CrossFit, Rob found Power Athlete the methodology course and earning his Block One. Nutrition is a passion which lead him to currently pursuing a Masters program in Nutrition at Lamar University and Power Athlete Nutrition coach.
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