Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (the others being protein and fat) that are vital to athletic performance. Although they are often shunned in the world of fitness, any serious athlete or lifter knows carbs are a crucial part of the diet. Regularly providing your body carbohydrates spurs a number of physical and biological benefits—from refilling glycogen stores (stockpiled energy) to promoting a favorable environment for maintaining (and building) muscle. However, the source, amount, timing, your body’s sensitivity to and ability to metabolize carbs, all factor into the equation.
The truth is, carbs aren’t all good or all bad. Some promote health and performance while others—when consumed in large quantities—can wreak havoc on your physique and increase your risk for disease. Knowing which sources are best and when to consume them can help set you on the path to achieving your goals. Apply these carb timing strategies to your diet to optimize every aspect of your physique.
The Science of Carbohydrate Timing
Before diving into the most and least optimal times to consume carbs, it’s important to have a basic understanding how the body utilizes and stores carbs. After ingestion, carbs are broken down into glucose, the most accessible and basic form of energy. Glucose, also known as blood sugar, is then transported around the body to all working cells and muscles.
Once muscles and cells get topped up, the body must decide what happens to the remaining glucose. If it remains in the blood too long, it can wreak serious havoc on cells. For this reason, much of the glucose is converted into fatty acids through a process known as lipogenesis. Fatty acids are then shuttled into adipocytes (fat cells) and stored as body fat.
If you consume too many carbs in one sitting and they’re not immediately used for energy, the excess glucose will be converted to and stored as fat. But a high carb meal doesn’t always have mean packing on unwanted pounds. Eating high amounts of carbs can also boost performance and muscle growth. This is where strategic timing comes into play.
Clocking Your Carbs
To maximize your body’s ability to utilize carbs, you need to get them in when the body can actually use them. Follow these carb rules to make the most of your intake.
While many know the importance of getting carbs in following a workout, consuming them before your workout can also be beneficial. During training, your body utilizes glucose extremely efficiently and at a high rate; therefore, a boost of carbs beforehand will spur extra energy, helping up the intensity of your workouts. Eat a meal at least one hour before your workout. However, the goal is to boost energy, not insulin, so opt for slower-digesting carb sources such as oatmeal and combine with lean protein. Aim for about 0.25g per pound of bodyweight. About 30 minutes before you hit the weights, take 1 serving of a pre-workout to ensure your body has the nutrients it needs to power through your workouts.
Glucose generally relies on insulin to be shuttled into the muscles. This is accomplished through what are known as GLUT4 transporters, which facilitate the transport of glucose over the cell membrane once stimulated by insulin. However, research has confirmed that glucose can be transported into the muscles via non-insulin dependent pathways during exercise. In other words, working muscles cut out the middleman, insulin, and GLUT4 transporters move glucose into the muscle for utilization. The result is enhanced absorption and usage of glucose as well as less potential for storage as fat. This effect is even greater during high-intensity or longer duration workouts.
Consuming carbs post-workout has been shown to aid in glycogen re-synthesis (refueling your muscles for the next workout); reducing levels of cortisol; enhancing anabolic hormones; increasing protein synthesis; and boosting recovery, to name just a few.
Much like with pre-workout nutrition, you can benefit from enhanced absorption of glucose through non-insulin dependent pathways. Interestingly, researchers have found this window of enhanced absorption lasts for around 4-6 hours post workout, so you can easily benefit from a carb-based meal post-workout as well as a couple meals after that. Immediately post-workout, you’ll want to top up with 1 serving of protein to restock your body with anabolic protein fuel. About an hour later, get a meal in that contains slower digesting carbs and lean protein. Reach for carb sources such as sweet potato, oatmeal, or brown rice. Aim for about 0.25g per pound of bodyweight.
Step it Up with Supps
Along with timing your carbs right, there are several supplements you can take to boost better carb utilization. These supplements work to increase cell receptor sensitivity and insulin function, allowing you to digest carbs more efficiently than if you were to consume them alone. Berberine, chromium, cinnamon, and fenugreek, are a few of the supplements to look for. Try adding just one or two of these to your supplement regimen at a time, to start.
HIIT for Better Carb Utilization
You can spur better carbohydrate utilization simply by performing certain exercises prior to consuming your carbs. Doing just 5-10 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) before downing your carbs will do the trick. These short, sharp bursts of exercise have been shown bolster better carb utilization in a similar manner to longer duration workouts. Even better, HIIT routines can be done just about anywhere.
Try this sample HIIT routine: Warm up with a light jog for 2-3 minutes. Then, perform 30 seconds of sprints followed by 30 seconds of rest, for a total of 10 sets. This routine can be done on a treadmill or at your local track. You can also apply the same workout scheme to the bike, elliptical machine, or rower machine.