The Science Behind Carbohydrates

Complex carbs

Every successful athlete knows that the kitchen is the home of performance. This article looks at how you can use carbohydrates to train harder, recover quicker, build more muscle, and get stronger. We’ll also be looking at exactly how much carbohydrate you need every day, as well as the best times to eat.

First things first: What is a carbohydrate?

Put simply, carbohydrates, or “carbs” for short, are one of the three main macronutrients that we consume as part of our diets.

Carbs can be split into two sub-categories, simple and complex. Simple carbs or simple sugars are fast-digesting, whereas complex carbs are slower-digesting.

Examples of simple carbohydrates are things like fruit, jam, chocolate, sweets, sports drinks, etc.

Complex carbohydrates include potatoes, rice, and pasta.

What are carbs used for?

The best way to describe the role of carbohydrates is as “fuel.” Carbs are used as a readily available source of energy, not only for daily tasks but for athletic performance and movement. Typically, the higher the intensity of the activity, the more that activity relies on carbohydrates as a source of energy.

The reason for this is that high-intensity activities require readily available sources of energy, which is where glycogen comes in. Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored primarily within your muscles, making it easily available as a source of energy. High-intensity exercise uses up this stored glycogen so that you can push yourself harder.

However, your body doesn’t have any effective method of making more glycogen; the only realistic way of replenishing these stores is to consume carbohydrates. This means that if you want to perform high-intensity exercises such as weight training, running, swimming, rowing, etc. on a regular, recurring basis, then you need to be eating carbohydrates in order to replenish your glycogen stores.

Top tip: This is why diets such as keto (low- or no-carb) are terrible for sports or gym performance.

Another benefit? Signalling muscle growth

You may be interested to know that having full stores of muscle glycogen is one of the strongest anabolic (muscle-building) signals that you can give your body. Put simply, if your body knows that it has ready access to energy, it is more likely to allow some of that energy to be used for muscle-building.

Yet another benefit? Better central nervous system performance

Your central nervous system (CNS) is basically your body’s information superhighway; any time you want to move, your CNS makes it happen.

Now, your CNS works best with higher blood glucose levels, and guess what gives you higher blood glucose levels? Yep, carbohydrates.

One of the first ways you’ll know if you’re not getting enough blood glucose for your CNS is if you start feeling dizzy or badly coordinated during your training. So, if you want to feel coordinated, organised, and mentally clear ready to kick ass in the gym, then you’ll want to make sure you have good blood glucose levels.

So, what’s the drawback?

Reading about how awesome carbs are might tempt you to go out and buy as much as possible ready to start stuffing your face. More carbs equal more gainz, right? Well, sort of.

But there’s a warning.

Carbs, like any other food source, contain calories, and the total number of calories consumed per day dictates your bodyweight. See where this is going? If you eat so many carbs that you constantly exceed your required daily calorie intake, then you’re going to get fat.

Now, this doesn’t mean that carbs make you fat; it just means that too much of any food group will lead to weight gain.

How much carbohydrate do we need per day?

Short answer: Between 1g and 3g of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day.

But wait! That’s a huge difference!

You’re right; it is. Since we now know that carbs fuel our training, it makes sense that the harder and more frequently we train, the more carbs we need to eat in order to support our performance. So, if you’re hitting it hard in the gym four or five times a week, expect to need quite a lot of carbs. If you’re only training moderately once or twice per week, then you probably don’t need quite as much.

You also need to factor in how active you are in daily life and at work. If you do a really physical job where you’re moving things around all day, then you’re going to need more carbs than an office worker who spends most of their day sitting down.

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Does that all make sense?

So, if you have a super-active job, plus you’re hitting it really hard in the gym four or more times per week, then the chances are you’re going to need 2.5g to 3g of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day.

On the other hand, if you have a really inactive job, and only train lightly once or twice per week, then you’ll probably need more like 1g to 1.5g of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day.

I can’t give you an exact number, so use these figures as a starting point and adjust your intake depending on how you feel and what the weighing scales say.

Timing your carbohydrate intake

Here are a couple of quick tips you can use.

1. Try to consume your high-glycaemic (simple-sugar) carbs within a three-hour window of your workout. I recommend both before and after.

2. Leave your low-glycaemic (complex) carbs for outside of your workout window. They take longer to digest, so are best used for recovery between sessions.

Anyone else feeling hungry?

Hopefully I’ve given you some good quality information that you can use to improve your training and maximize your performance. Now get in the kitchen!

How many grams of carbs will you need per day?