Train Hard, Recover Harder: Optimizing Carb Intake for Performance

Brad Dieter
Written By: Brad Dieter
February 5th, 2016
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Nutrition
15.9K Reads
Train Hard, Recover Harder: Optimizing Carb Intake for Performance
How's that low-carb diet working as you try to get jacked? Learn how carb intake can optimize performance, improve recovery, and speed up results.

Something strange has happened in the fitness world in the past several years: huge swaths of people have started training harder (awesome) and cutting out carbohydrates (not awesome).

It may seem like a good idea in theory, but in the real world, significantly reducing carbohydrates can seriously impact your training and thus your quest for getting jacked.

As people know, we need to train hard and recover harder to optimize our gains. I am going to put this as simply as possible: carbohydrates are important for top end performance and recovery.

The Role of Carbohydrates during Exercise

We need to spell a few things out first, namely how carbohydrates are actually used during exercise so we can get a picture of why dietary carbs are needed to optimize your training.

Let’s go back to before some of you were born (1993). In a research study, a group of scientists were actually able to show what your body uses to fuel exercise at varying degrees of intensity.

Now I hate clichés as a principle but, “a picture paints a thousand words” and since my word count is limited, I’ve decided to include the best figure possible to show what your body uses for fuel during exercise1.

Study showing the importance of carbs for high intensity training

As we increase exercise intensity we increase glucose uptake and oxidation, and that oxidation far exceeds uptake, indicating that muscle stores of glycogen are being utilized.

At moderate intensities (65%) there is an increased need for muscle glycogen and muscle triglycerides (that is, fat).

At higher levels of intensities (85%) there is an even greater need for energy, and this is met almost solely by an increased uptake of glucose from the blood and from muscle glycogen1.

To put this in a simple hierarchy: as exercise intensity increases, your body utilizes substrates in the following order: plasma fatty acids, muscle triglycerides, plasma glucose, and then muscle glycogen.

This essentially means that in order to train at high intensities, your body requires some form of carbohydrate, either from consuming it or from your muscle stores.

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Optimize Training with Carbohydrates

Of all the supplements in all the lands, carbohydrates are the king of ergogenic aids. Consuming carbohydrates before training improves work capacity, perceived exertion, endurance, and even improves recovery.

Consuming carbohydrates approximately 30 minutes before training and continuing to consume it during training has been documented to improve performance2.

Related: Make Your Own Homemade Pre-Workout!

A Meta-analysis, which is a study that looks at a lot of studies and tries to draw conclusions based on a lot of data, found that the performance effects of carbohydrate supplements ranged from clear large improvements to moderate improvements3.

Optimize Recovery with Carbohydrates

Your first thoughts about post-workout recovery likely involves some post-workout cocktail comprised of a CHO source, like dextrose or maltodextrin, and some form of fast digesting protein, like whey protein isolate. But it is overall calories that dictate recovery and the special properties of the food may not make a large difference.

For example, Professor Brent Ruby from the University of Montana (Go Griz) Showed that fast food was just as effective as supplements like gatorade for glycogen recovery and subsequent performance4.

Now there is something to be said about special carbohydrates like vitargo. Vitargo (and other high molecular weight starches like cyclic dextrins) has been shown to improve glycogen resynthesis rates over and improved recovery after a glycogen depleting protocol in well-trained men5,6. They appear to be a little bit better than typical carbohydrate supplements like Gatorade due to their low osmolality.

Optimize your Carbohydrate and Protein Intake

There is a lot of discussion on post-workout nutrition. As with most things there is a ton of “it depends” and a lot of nuance but there are some basic principles we can derive from the research.

Optimize your Performance with post-workout carbs and protein

Professor Ivy and his team were able to demonstrate that consuming a mix of both carbohydrates and protein is much better than just carbohydrates for recovery. The ratio they found to work well was a carb-to-protein ratio of between 3:1 and 4:17.

While our friends and colleagues Brad Schoenfeld, Alan Aragon, and James Krieger showed that the “anabolic” window for gaining muscle may actually not be so strict, there is research to show that consuming your carb and protein closer to finishing your training leads to greater glycogen replenishment than if you wait several hours to get something in8.

Related: Overnight Oats - The Ultimate Post-Workout Nutrition

Permission to Carb Up

To optimize your gains you need to train hard and recover harder. You can’t truly optimize your performance or your recovery without consuming adequate carbohydrates.

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