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Do You Need Carbs Before Training? It Depends.

Carbohydrates get a bad rap in the fitness industry, especially when it comes to fat loss. 

It gets to the point where people try to completely avoid them. 

“I just need to eat fewer carbs” “carbs make you fat”

But they are super important when it comes to training performance. 

This is why when you go low carb you will notice lower energy levels and your training performance will suffer. 

One other thing is that people mistake what foods are considered carbohydrates. 

You hear things like:

But if you look at the macronutrients in those foods it’s a combination of fats and carbs. That is the magical formula that your brain craves. 

Foods that are higher in just carbohydrates are much more satiating than foods high in fats AND carbs. 

Foods that are higher in just carbs:

Now, some carbs will fill you up more than others. For example, oats are likely to keep you feeling more full than something like bread or bagels (mainly due to the water and fiber content). 

With that out of the way. Let’s dive into carbs a bit more. 

Carbohydrate overview

The reality is carbohydrates play an essential role in muscle growth and overall bodily function. 

Most of the energy you use during weight training comes from carbohydrates. 

The storage form of carbohydrates in the body is glycogen, and low glycogen stores have been shown to reduce the number of repetitions in 3 sets of squats at 80% of 1RM. 

Carbs from whole-food sources will improve your performance in the gym, give you more energy, and speed up your recovery from training. Plus, carbs are your body’s preferred fuel source. To build the leanest, strongest version of yourself, proper fuel is a must.

They also do a great job of sparing protein so you ensure that protein is being used for building/repairing and not for energy. 

Higher glycogen stores help the body stay in an anabolic state. 

A new study by King et al. looked at whether or not eating carbohydrates before training was beneficial to training performance. 

Hint: They were, but there were times when they were more useful than others. 

In this post, I want to go over times when carbs before training might be more beneficial, and times, when you’re just feeling full, will be enough. 

Times when you will want to have carbs before your training to improve your performance: 

If you haven’t eaten for 8+ hours.  

You will see an improvement in your performance with carbs before a workout if it’s been 8+ hours since you had last eaten. 

Otherwise, you would be going into the workout in a fasted state, and that will likely hurt your training performance. 

If you have already had a meal sometime that day, then you are less likely to benefit from eating carbohydrates before your workout. However, there are other factors at play. 

Longer workouts. 

If your workouts are longer than 45 minutes, then you would likely benefit from carbohydrates before your workout. 

This comes down to the fact that any workout longer than 45 minutes will likely have a fair amount of training volume that will benefit from carbohydrate intake beforehand. 

Higher in volume. 

If your workouts are higher volume, then you would likely benefit from carbohydrates before your workout. I would consider higher volume more than 4-6 sets per muscle group in one session. 

How much volume should you do? Read HERE.

If your workouts aren’t very high volume (fewer reps, fewer sets) then you wouldn’t benefit as much from carbohydrates beforehand. 

Uses larger muscle groups

If your training session uses larger muscle groups then you likely want to have carbohydrates before your workout. 

For example, for legs, that would be a time that you could benefit from carbohydrates beforehand. 

One day recently I had phone calls and then some meetings later in the day, which meant I only had a short window to get my workout in. 

In the past, I would’ve stressed about this because I couldn’t get a good pre-workout meal in and may have opted to train later in the day because I thought performance would’ve taken a hit. 
BUT I was training upper body, it was a shorter workout, AND I had eaten breakfast that day so I opted for 2 greek yogurts so I could get some protein and carbs in just to get some food in my system and to help me feel satiated. 

How intense the workout is

If you have a workout that is very demanding and intense, then you would benefit from carbohydrates beforehand as well. 

Times when you just need to feel satiated.

If you fall outside of these categories, then you just need to feel satiated going into your workouts. 

For example, if you have a workout that is short, isn’t very high volume, and you have eaten within 8 hours, you won’t benefit as much from carbohydrates before training. 

In this case, just being satiated is enough.

Now, you can still have carbs before training, but realize it won’t improve your performance as much in the previous scenarios. 

This knowledge can be useful in times when you are busier and having a large meal before training isn’t feasible. 

And it can also be helpful to know when you might want to eat a little more before your workouts. 

You should still focus on making sure you are getting enough total daily carbohydrates for your goal(s).

Carbohydrate #’s per day. 

With online clients, if they want to build muscle and increase performance, we make sure they eat an adequate amount of carbohydrates.

You do this by multiplying your body weight by:

But again remember that your carbohydrate numbers need to be in line with the calorie and macro allotments you have for the day.

How to figure out your macros HERE.

If you need more guidance and support with your training or nutrition then check out our 1:1 online coaching program HERE.

References: 

King, A., Helms, E., Zinn, C., & Jukic, I. (2022). The Ergogenic Effects of Acute Carbohydrate Feeding on Resistance Exercise Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 10.1007/s40279-022-01716-w. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-022-01716-w

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