Nutrition | POSTED August 31, 2022

Carbe Diem: Your Guide to Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates seem to be a source of confusion in the fitness industry. Some people will shout “carbs are life!” and others will warn you “not to eat any carbs after 6pm.” We’re here to clear things up. Let’s get this straight off the bat, carbohydrates are healthy and part of a health promoting diet. But as it’s said, “You are what you eat”. Well, I want to be full of energy. Fittingly, I should probably eat something nutritious and full of energy! The question arises then, what does that look like and as an adjunct, when is it best to fuel up for a training session? Today we’ll address the following four points in the context of a resistance training session and fuelling up for increasing your potential performance on the day. They are as follows:

  • What are carbohydrates?
  • Dosing your carbohydrates for performance
  • Carbohydrate caveats
  • Some examples

As with all things, inter-individual differences exist. And, as we’ve said before, our daily performance potential can fluctuate based on a number of circumstances. Planning your pre-training nutrition will put your best foot forward. Consider this your guide to carbohydrates and how to improve your pre-strength training nutrition.

Groceries

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of three major nutrients and main ways our body gets energy. As their name suggests, they contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (in the same ratio of water, which is 2:1). Although the norm, this exact chemical formulation is not always the case.

The two primary forms of carbohydrates we consume are:

  1. Sugars – including fructose, glucose and lactose, and
  2. Starches – found in starchy vegetables, grains, rice, breads and cereals.

Carbs enter the bloodstream in the form of glucose and as a response to rising glucose levels in the body, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin shuttles sugar into muscle cells to be accessed for energy. We call this glycogen.

Complex carbohydrates are present in foods such as bread and pasta. Simple carbohydrates are in foods such as table sugar and syrups. Complex carbohydrates contain longer chains of sugar molecules than simple carbohydrates. Both simple and complex carbohydrates can form part of a health promoting diet but we recommend people primarily get most of their carbohydrate intake from complex sources which also happen to be rich in fibre and other minor nutrients (vitamins and minerals).

Vegetables

Dosing your carbohydrates for performance

Now that we know what carbohydrates are and what they do, what’s the big hullabaloo about when we eat them? Let’s introduce you to the concept of nutrient timing. “Nutrient timing incorporates the use of methodical planning and eating of whole foods, fortified foods and dietary supplements [1].”

Resistance training is classified as high intensity and requires primarily two energy sources:

  1. Creatine phosphate, and
  2. Stored glycogen.

So although carbohydrates are used, nowhere near as much is used compared to extended (> 60 min) bouts of moderate or high intensity (> 70% VO2max) activity. The goal is to simply maximise stored glycogen by ingesting the appropriate amounts of carbs relative to training intensity and volume [1]. For resistance training, although high-intensity, we know the duration of the physical activity is low. The efforts themselves may only last 20-45 seconds for a complete set, with at least 1-3 minutes rest and session lengths around 45-90 minutes. Therefore total intake or timing matters less than aerobic endurance activities. A range of about 5-6g/kg of bodyweight per day seems reasonable.

Lastly, fasting does not improve performance [2]. For strength trainees, consuming at least 15 g carbohydrates within 3 hours of a session is a good place to start. Moreover, if the workout contains eleven or more sets per muscle group or there is another high-intensity workout planned that day for the same musculature, higher carbohydrate intakes up to 1.2 g/kg/h may be warranted to maximise glycogen resynthesis in between workouts [3]. Most importantly, “eat enough energy and nutrients to support the body’s energy and nutrient requirements. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to a poor competition outcome, no matter what the athlete does just before the competition [4].”

Jake with some carb sources

Carbohydrate caveats

It’s clear that carbs are necessary for optimising performance. Moreover, we know that they can form part of a health promoting diet. So, are there any concerns we should have when looking at modifying or increasing our carbohydrate intake to improve training?

Our first concern is whether or not you’re trying to change your body composition. In particular, are you looking to lose body fat? Thankfully, carbohydrates may actually help in two distinct ways. First, complex carbohydrates can be satiating due to the fibre content. This means you’ll feel fuller for longer. Also, since carbs have less calories per gram than fats, more can be eaten. For reference, carbs have 4 calories per gram and fat has 9 calories per gram. Both points are useful when trying to meet nutrient needs while also being in a calorie deficit. Secondly we want to encourage individuals to get most of their carbohydrates from complex sources. Simple sugars have their place but often lack nutritional value and can add up quickly regarding calories, whether or not you are looking to lose weight. 

If your calorie budget is tight you can plan ahead how you allocate carbs throughout the week. On training days you can try and consume more carbohydrates, prioritising the eating windows pre and post training to have more calories from carbohydrates. We call this “carb cycling”. You will need to be diligent to ensure you meet your nutrient and energy needs on the days you choose to eat less carbs. This strategy won’t suit everyone but it is an option.

Sourdough Bread

Some examples

Information is all well and good, but let’s get to the practical application here. What are some examples of some easy to prepare foods and meals to consume before training? Here’s a few of our favourite, simple options, adjusted for an average 80kg male:

  • 100g banana has 23g of carbohydrates, and it’s easy to consume before training.
  • 2 slices (~60g) of wholemeal toast has 22.8g of carbohydrates, and is also easy to consume before training.
  • 100g of dry rolled oats has 68g of carbohydrates.
  • 200mL of Daily Juice Co. Pulp-Free Orange Juice has 17.8g of carbohydrates, and is easy to consume pre-training. Although we should be cautious about liquid calories, this might work well as an easy option if you’re training first thing in the morning and don’t stomach food that early.

Conclusion

We hoped today that we answered the question, “what and when should I eat before training?” To summarise, consuming 5-6g/kg of carbs per day is reasonable target and being consistent here matters more than anything else. Foods ranging from something more substantial such as 30-50g of dry rolled oats prepped to your liking or even a simple 80-100g banana can easily meet the target of consuming 15g of carbs within 1-3 hours of your training session. As always, individual experience and gastrointestinal tolerances will inform the specifics of your pre-training fuel. Just remember that the overall quality of your diet and consistency matters more than micro-managing once in a blue-moon. Be consistent, first. If you’d like more specific nutritional guidance, you can contact us here.

References

  1. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Nutrient Timing — New Jersey Research Community
  2. Barbell Medicine Forums – Why Do You Recommend Eating Carbs and Protein Before a Workout in the Morning?
  3. The Effect of Carbohydrate Intake on Strength and Resistance Training Performance: A Systematic Review – PMC
  4. Advanced Sports Nutrition, Second Edition, P.160