Carbs Part 2: The Strength Trainee’s Guide To Carb Timing

In our first article on carbs we spoke about what they are, why they’re important, gave some general guidelines on how much you should be getting, and where you to get them from. If you haven’t read it yet, we recommend you take a gander so you can implement this article to its fullest potential because now we’re going to get a little bit more specific about how we think about carbs and the role they play surrounding training.  Understanding the positive effect carbs have on performance will allow you to train harder, recover better, and improve performance when it really matters most.

Let’s dive in, shall we!

Optimizing your carbohydrate intake during the Peri-Workout Window is a crucial part of maximizing every last bit of your potential performance.

This nutrition window involves three key time periods:

  1. Pre-workout.

  2. Intra-workout.

  3. Post-workout.

Pre-workout:

Pre-workout carbs serve the purpose of elevating blood glucose levels enough to support hard training. Think of it like filling up your gas tank before a 4 hour car ride. Would you start the car with a near empty tank? You could but your car will run out of gas half way through the ride or you’ll have to stop soon to fill it up!


How many carbs should I take in before training?

Generally speaking, 20-30% of total daily carbohydrate intake seems to work for most people. In other words, simply multiply your carbs for the day by .2-.3. The exact dosing is very individual; some will feel better sticking to the lower end of the spectrum, some will feel better eating a little bit more. Experiment within these parameters to determine where on the spectrum YOU perform best!

When should I eat them??

If eating solid food, you need take into account the digestion and absorption rates of what you’re eating. Things like brown rice and quinoa take more time to digest and absorb compared to cereals and sugary candies. We also rarely eat one type of food in isolation, and instead eat meals that are a mix of all of the macronutrients. This slows the rise in blood sugar you’d typically get from eating a source of carbs on its own, which is something to be aware of.

For solid foods, 1-2 hours before a training session begins is usually a good time to FINISH the meal. We’ve all been in a situation where we’ve eaten too close to a training session and either feel like crap because our blood sugar didn’t rise yet, or that our belt is going to expel the contents of our stomach onto the shiny wooden platform. The amount you eat will likely be the deciding factor in how much time you’ll need prior to training, with the type of food being a secondary factor.

For foods like sugary cereals, rice krispy treats or sugary candies, anywhere from 15 min-1 hour is plenty. These foods digest rapidly and almost immediately elevate blood sugar. If they’ve eaten too far out from the start of a training session, your blood sugar levels will have likely already dropped.


Quick side note: With ANY type of food, if you’re nauseous during training you either ate too much, ate too close to the workout (usually both), or are working out at an extremely high intensity and should take a break. Throwing up during a training session doesn’t make you tougher nor does it make you a better athlete. It usually just decreases the amount of work you can do in the session, and ends up wasting your time, food and money.

One last consideration for pre-workout carbs is the amount of fiber they come along with. Fiber slows digestion and doesn’t contribute to energy intake so it’s best to keep it as low as possible before training. We recommend keeping it below 6g, but even less is better. This may mean having white rice instead of brown rice, choosing not to eat the skin on your potatoes, or having lower fiber veggies if eating a whole meal. If you’re relying on sugary snacks and candies, fiber won’t be much of a concern for you because they don’t contain very much of it anyway.  Don’t run off an eat Fiber One or Akashi before training. Trust me. Just don’t do it!

Aren’t sweets and candies unhealthy?

For optimal health, it’s definitely better to eat wholesome foods most of the time. However, if calorie balance is in check, eating sweets is not detrimental to your health and the benefits they’ll have when eaten at the right times usually outweigh any of the potential negatives. Also, for athletes who eat upwards of 250 g of carbs per day, achieving their daily allowance through only whole foods can be difficult and may pose issues of their own, like GI upset due to the large amounts of fiber that typically comes with them.


All of this talk about health leads me to my next side note:

Optimal performance does not equal optimal health.

And vice versa. If your goal is to perform at the top of your sport, or to the absolute best of your abilities, you’re more than likely going to need to sacrifice a little bit of the things that are best known for improving health. Eating candy and sugary sweets can be a lifesaver in competition or during a grueling training session, and if you’re training frequently enough, you may end up eating more sugar than what’s considered to be healthy. Without them, though, your performance could suffer. This is why taking care of yourself in as many ways as you can is important as an athlete; sleep, protein, quality-based meals outside the peri-workout window, proper programming, sound technique and periodic off seasons should be high on the priority list.


Intra-Workout:


Once you step into the gym you’ve now entered the intra-workout phase of the peri-workout window. If you’ve ever been to a powerlifting meet you’ve probably seen competitors eat sugary foods like Skittles, Swedish Fish, Rice Krispy Treats, and so on in between lifts.  The reason they’re doing this is to keep their blood sugar up over the course of the 4-6 hour competition. Many bodybuilders and field sport athletes will drink a carbohydrate drink (think Gatorade) while they’re in the middle of a session or game for the same reason.

For workouts lasting an hour or less, it usually isn’t necessary to take an intra-workout supplement if you’ve timed your pre-workout meal correctly. The food you ate prior is still being absorbed into the bloodstream and providing energy, along with stored muscle and liver glycogen and fatty acids.

For workouts lasting two hours or longer, or if you ate more than 2.5 hours prior to your training, taking 20-40g of carbohydrates, along with 10-15g of EAAs or BCAAs can help with muscular endurance and fighting off acute fatigue. Essentially, taking in carbs along with EAAs or BCAAs will  allow you to train harder for longer, which should lead to greater performance outcomes over a training cycle.


EAAs? BCAAs?? What does these letters mean?

Amino acids, generally speaking, are the building blocks of protein. Nine of the twenty-one (some people believe there are actually twenty-two but that’s still up for debate) amino acids are referred to as Essential Amino Acids (EAAs), meaning they must be taken in through food and drink and cannot be created out of the other non-essential amino acids. Within that, three of the EAAs are the Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. To make a long story short, EAAs play an important role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis as well as preventing muscle protein breakdown both during and after a workout. They’ve also been shown to help with certain muscular endurance markers, making them a beneficial supplement for longer training sessions.

Okay, back to carbs!

Some athletes prefer to eat, rather than drink, sugar/carbs during their workouts whereas other prefer to drink them. PRS founder and coach, Rori loves Rice Krispie Treats (it’s an obsession, really, LOL) where as I usually drink Gatorade, or dextrose powder, mixed with a little bit of protein. Other PRS athletes enjoy swedish fish or gummy bears. It really comes down to personal preference. Whatever the case may be, intra-workout carbs should be high glycemic, meaning they spike blood sugar very quickly. Sweet potatoes and brown rice are NOT the best options during a workout.

Intra-workout carbs may not be practical for everybody. Not everyone has a lot of carbs to throw around each day, especially athletes who are cutting, or trainees who are on lower calorie/lower carb diets. Instead, skipping the intra-workout carbs and saving them for solid meals may be the better option for you. This way you’ll get to sit down and enjoy all of your carbs to the fullest! Still though, low energy in training is something we want to combat and if intra-workout carbs aren’t a viable option for you, taking in a zero-carb flavored drink like Powerade Zero, BCAAs, or simply flavored water can help boost performance in the short term. The effect may not be as long or widespread as taking in carbs, but when you’re deep in a calorie deficit and hit a wall during training, any little bit helps! And of course, if your preference is to have them during a workout even if you’re eating low carb or low calorie, more power to you! Personal preference is always an important consideration.


Post-Workout
:

The final piece of the puzzle for the peri-workout window is what you eat post-workout. For years, people have insisted on slamming a post workout shake immediately after their last set is over, claiming that there’s a magical, 30 minute “anabolic window” that maximize potential gains. Lucky for you, they’re wrong. Sort of.

There most certainly is an anabolic window post workout, but it lasts quite a long time. Two of the most important processes, protein synthesis and glycogen resynthesis, are both elevated for upwards of 36 hrs after training, so the idea of having to get all of your nutrition in right after a workout is impractical and unnecessary. Still though, there are benefits to eating a quality meal after training and is something we recommend. Not eating after a training session all together is not ideal.

What is glycogen and why is it important?

We touched upon this in our first carbohydrate article, which can be found here. To reiterate, think of glycogen storage as a fuel tank that provides the energy needed to lift heavy weights or run some sprints. Pretty much every sport, including the strength sports, will deplete the body of glycogen, and athletes who never replenish it typically report feeling sluggish, perform worse in subsequent training sessions, and recover at a slower rate than those who do. Eating carbs post-workout, or after an event, will fill the tank and insure that you’re as prepared as possible for your next training session!

Post workout meals should consist of 20-40% of your daily carb allowance, depending on how many meals you typically eat after training is finished for the day. If you train at night and only eat one meal post-workout, stick to the higher end of the spectrum. If you train earlier in the day and have more of your meals after training, stick to the lower range.

There’s a lot of talk about carbs in this article but I don’t want you to forget about protein so here is your little reminder: Both pre and post-workout meals should contain about 40-50g of protein for men and 30-40g for women. If you want to learn more about protein consumption, check out this article.

Fats and fiber post-workout don’t raise any alarms like they do pre-workout because we are no longer worried about GI upset or sluggishness during training. So, simply eat a reasonable amount that fits in your target macros for the day.


What if I work out twice in one day?

This is where things get a little more complicated. The most important time to eat carbs for an athlete doing two-a-days is the meal in-between their training sessions. A possible solution for somebody who trains once in the morning and once in the evening would be to:

  • Eat a high carb meal the night before (30% of total daily carb allowance).

  • Train in the morning either fasted or after eating a small meal with up to 20% of total daily carbs.

  • Eat two meals between training sessions, each with 20-30% of total carb allowance.

  • Eat one meal post workout with 20-30% of total carb allowance.

This is only one example, and your individual schedule/lifestyle needs to be taken into account, but the idea will always remain the same; eat the majority of your carbs in between the two training sessions so that glycogen is replenished before going into the second training session.


Other considerations:

Carbohydrates can also be beneficial in some unique ways when eaten in higher amounts post-workout. Exercise causes a spike in the hormone cortisol, which is your body’s main stress hormone. This is a normal reaction to training and may potentially be a necessary part of the growth and repair process that takes place after resistance training. With that being said, chronically elevated cortisol levels can impede recovery by interrupting sleep, slowing down muscle protein synthesis, and elevating resting heart rate.


How can carbs help with this
?

Eating carbs spikes insulin, which has an inverse relationship to cortisol; the higher insulin rises the more cortisol goes down. This is one of the reasons why many people feel tired after eating a big bowl of pasta! If you’re an athlete and struggling with sleeping, try shifting more of your carbohydrates to later in the day. You may find it helpful!

But I thought carbs at night make you fat?

Ummmmm no. Gains in fat mass happen when there’s a caloric surplus consistently happening day to day. The time of day you eat carbs has nothing to do with storing it as fat. Rest easy knowing that if you prefer saving your carbs for night time, you will not automatically get fat. Just make sure they’re being tracked as part of your total carbs for the day. For an in depth discussion about why your body weight might be up but you’re not actually fatter, read this!

In short, approaching carb timing systematically, thinking in terms of pre, intra, and post-workout periods, will help you to take full advantage of the peri-workout window. Not only will this help improve performance, it’ll also allow for better recovery, which will further improve performance. It’s like a cycle! One that, as an athlete, you’re going to want to be on top of.