These sports nutrition concepts, once reserved for elite athletes or bodybuilders, are now mainstream. Although you may not use them every day, they can be a great help when you are trying to achieve a particular fitness goal. Is this the latest trendy nutrition strategy? Carb cycling. This article will tell you everything you need to know about carb cycling, and how to determine if it is right for you.
What Is Carb Cycling?
“Carb cycling is not a term that can be defined, but you adjust your carb intake according to your needs over the course of the week, month or year,” Edwina Clark R.D., Yummly’s head nutrition and wellness, says. She adds that each person’s needs will dictate the amount and timing of carbs they consume.
“Carb cycling is often used among bodybuilders/physique competitors and high-performing athletes,” notes Lauren Manganiello, R.D., a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. The popularity of ketogenic diets, especially for athletes, has made carb cycling more popular among ordinary athletes.
Carb cycling is generally based on a person’s training program. Manganiello explains that carb cycling is based on a person’s training schedule. Manganiello explains, “On days where they train more intensely, they will consume more carbohydrates.” Manganiello explains, “Low-carb days would occur when their training is more intense.” There are often several high-carb and medium-carb days that cycle through the week.
Why follow a carb-cycling plan? Clark explains that carb cycling works because your body uses fat for primary fuel. This can help with weight management, fat loss, and increasing carb storage when carbs have to be reintroduced.
It is believed that by being more strategic about how and when you eat carbs (your preferred fuel source for exercise), your workouts will be more efficient and you will achieve better results in terms both of performance and body composition.
Who Should Try Carb Cycling?
Clark says that carb cycling is beneficial for two groups: endurance athletes, and people who eat low-carb diets. Clark says that for endurance athletes, such as those swimming, running, cycling, and cycling, preliminary evidence suggests that changing carbohydrate levels throughout the year – specifically lowering carbs in high-volume, pre-season training – may be beneficial for increasing muscle glycogen storage and performance when carbs reintroduced.
It is possible to lower your carb intake prior to your main training season, such as when you are preparing for a marathon, triathlon, or other endurance events. This will allow your body to more efficiently use carbs once you have reached your peak performance.
Carb cycling is a great option for those who are more concerned with weight loss or control. Clark says that for some people, consuming a low-carb diet can help with weight maintenance and health. This is probably why keto is so popular. Research shows that carbohydrates are the main fuel source for high-intensity exercise.
Therefore, it is important to consume carbs before and during a workout in order to maximize the benefits. A low carbohydrate intake can reduce the power output when doing high-intensity exercises. Carb cycling may be an option if you are on a low-carb diet and still want to do HIIT or weightlifting.
Carb cycling is very popular among keto-like, high-fat, low-carb diets. However, you don’t need to eat a high-fat diet in order to reap the benefits of carb cycling. Shoshana Pritzker R.D., a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist, says you can cycle your carbs with any type of diet.
It might be better not to carb cycle while on keto, particularly if you are new to the diet. Pritzker says that a steady increase in carbs can cause ketosis. Pritzker suggests that you limit your high-carb days to one or two per week if you are going to be using carb cycling along with a ketogenic diet. Since ketosis is about getting your body to burn fat for fuel, it is not possible to keep your body in ketosis all the time. It might also make it difficult to determine if the eating habits are right for you.
Is Carb Cycling Possible?
This all sounds great in theory. But what can science say about it? It’s not much. Clark says that research on carb cycling to improve endurance is still in its infancy and that there is not much data about the long-term effects of switching between high and low-carb intake. Clark also says that there are no data on the possible fat-loss benefits of carb cycling.
Experts recommend that you only try it for short periods of duration because of unknown long-term effects. It requires a lot of planning, preparation, tracking, and tracking to succeed. Manganiello says that it can be hard to sustain in the long-term. “Physique competitors or athletes typically only use it during the ‘prep phase’ for competitions, which usually lasts a few months or weeks.”
It can be draining mentally and give you more energy for training days. Manganiello says that you should not become obsessed with counting calories, macros, or any other type of diet. This can lead to a negative mindset and an unhealthy relationship with food. Carb cycling can also lead to individuals consuming the same foods, limiting their choice.
How to Cycle Carbs
Here’s how you can get started if you think carb cycling may be for you. It’s obvious that you will need to keep track of your macros with an app or food diary. Next, calculate how many grams of carbohydrates you should eat each day. Experts say this is a highly personal decision. Manganiello says that there are many factors that influence the number of carbs you should eat. These include body weight, age, and intensity of your workouts. He also suggests listening to your body’s hunger cues.
There are some guidelines that you can follow to help you start your carb-cycling journey. Manganiello says that people often consume 60 percent of their calories from complex carbohydrates on a high-carbohydrate day. “On low-carbohydrate day, people will swap out some of their carbs for healthy fats.”
You can also use your low-carb days as a base to calculate your high- and medium-carb days. Pritzker says that 50g of carbs per day is the minimum required to achieve ketosis. Pritzker suggests starting on this low-carb day. “Maximize your carb intake to 200 grams per day by working your way up,” Pritzker says.
This is how your week could look if you are wondering how to carb cycle:
- Day 1: 50g carbs
- Day 2: 100g carbs
- Day 3: 150g carbs
- Day 4: 200g carbs
- Day 5: 125g carbs
Day 4 would be the most intense day of training (heavy weightlifting or HIIT or a long run) and day 1 would have light cardio, mobility work, or rest days. You’d then cycle back to day 1. There are a few options when it comes to what you should do with the remaining calories.
Pritzker says that you can maintain your daily protein and fat intake while reducing the number of carbohydrates you consume. Try pairing high-carb days with hard workout days. This will give you the energy boost you need to work out. Another option? To compensate for the change in calories, carbs should increase and fat intake should decrease. This is a good option for people who want to lose weight and body fat.
Final Carb Cycling Tips
Fiber is important. It is important to prioritize high-fiber carbs when eating low-carbs. Clark says that fiber is an important nutrient and that it should be a priority in any low-carb diet. Whole-grain carbs are rich sources of important nutrients. Clark says that fiber supports satiety and cholesterol control as well as your microbiome.
It is important to be high-quality. You shouldn’t eat pizza or french fries on high-carb days. Clark says whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and whole-grain bread/pasta can be healthier than refined options like sugar, cookies, cakes, and soft drinks.
If in doubt, speak with an expert. Clark says that the carbs required for high- and low-carb days will vary depending on your calorie requirements, type and intensity of exercise, and your goal. A registered dietitian can provide personalized recommendations. This will ensure that your body is getting the right fuel to get the best results.