Cutting carbs gets really trendy about once a decade, according to Dana Lis, director of performance nutrition at the University of California at Davis. This time around, it’s in the form of the high-fat ketogenic diet, which has no demonstrable performance benefits for athletes. One recent review published in the Journal of Physiology notes that a complete lack of scientific evidence relating a ketogenic diet to performance gains in elite athletes “has not dampened the interest in and application of the keto adaptation regime to potentially optimize performance.” Another 2017 study noted that race walkers actually saw their performance decline when going low-carb. But people still hop on the bandwagon.
Experts (and the research) agree that carbohydrates are still king when it comes to fueling performance. Our muscles require glycogen, which we get from carbs, to power our bodies through miles of running, biking, skiing, or paddling. “We need carbohydrates, especially to fuel hard efforts,” says Lori Nedescu, a registered dietitian and professional cyclist. As long as you know what type you need, and when you ought to eat them, they can do a lot for you. Here’s how to get the most out of carbs, whether you’re working out or vegging out.
What’s in a Carb?
Not all carbohydrates are created equal, but they each serve an important purpose in your diet. “Simple carbs are the easier-to-digest, more processed carbohydrates, and complex carbohydrates are more fibrous and harder to break down,” says Lis. “Fiber is critical for general health: it slows down the absorption of sugar, can steady blood-sugar levels, and it’s super important for gut health.” A doughnut or other sugary snack has plenty of simple carbs, while a slice of whole-wheat bread or a bowl of brown rice will offer more fiber and complex carbs.
Lis’s best advice when it comes to carbohydrates? Use simple carbs to refill energy-providing muscle-glycogen stores that are drained during training, and use complex carbs to pack in necessary fiber and micronutrients when you’re not focused on performance.
Prioritize Pre-Workout Fuel
Nedescu recommends fueling up with a meal centered around simple carbohydrates, as well as a bit of fat and protein, around two to three hours before your workout. That might mean oatmeal with fruit and peanut butter, rice with chicken, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If you’re gearing up for a tough workout (over an hour in duration or involving high-intensity training), add a small serving of about 100 calories of carbohydrates 15 minutes before you head out the door. On race day, the same rules apply, but they’re even more important to follow. “You need to top up your fuel stores—that muscle and liver glycogen—so that you’re ready to perform at your best,” Lis says.
Eat While You Train
Nedescu’s recommendation for athletes is to take in anywhere from 120 to 360 calories per hour while exercising, primarily in the form of carbohydrates—but what you actually need depends on your own body and what your gut can handle, as well as the duration of your workout and your workout intensity. “More intensity means more calories and more carbohydrates,” says Lis. “But tolerance also comes into play—a lot of people can’t handle taking in 400 calories in gel form.”
Experiment to find out how many carb-based calories make you feel fast, not full, and which snacks are easy on your gut. For a more leisurely paced endurance workout, Lis encourages athletes with a sweet tooth to indulge in tasty treats like a cookie. For more specific intervals or tougher workouts, opt for something easier to digest, like a gel or sports drink. And don’t use race day to try something new, Lis warns. What you eat midrace should be similar to what you eat in training.
Snack When You Slow Down
You might be familiar with the importance of post-training protein, but carbohydrate stores are just as important to replenish, says Lis. “Your immune system needs carbohydrates,” she adds. Exercise stresses your immune system, and carbs during and after a workout have been shown to counteract that impact. A snack with a combination of carbs and protein will do the trick. “Prioritize that serving of 20 grams of protein first, then add some carbohydrates—around 0.5 to 0.7 grams per pound of body weight is a good goal,” she says.
Don’t Forget Recovery Meals
“Usually, the evening is a good time to lower carbohydrates and prioritize those more complex carbohydrates and vegetables, along with protein and fat,” says Lis, adding, “A lot of athletes end up binging at night if they try to restrict carbs or calories throughout the day.” If you’ve fueled well for your training, it should be easier to “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a villager and dinner like a pauper,” she says, meaning: a heavy breakfast to fuel your training, a moderate lunch to boost energy stores after your workout, and a more vegetable-focused, leaner dinner to end the day. To build that healthy dinner, start with a vegetable-packed plate, add protein and healthy fats, and top with a small serving of carbohydrates to round out the meal.
What About Carbo-Loading?
You can boost your energy by topping off your carb stores 24 to 36 hours before a big effort, but that doesn’t mean you need to eat an entire package of pasta. Instead, adjust the balance of your macros within meals. Begin to prioritize carbohydrates while slightly lowering fat, protein, and fiber. Too much fat and fiber may cause GI distress, and dropping calories from fat and protein allows you to increase your carb intake without overeating and feeling uncomfortably full on race day. Most importantly, make sure that carbs are the center of your meal. “My teammates know that during a stage race, we institute a salad ban,” says Nedescu. For easy-to-digest calories, Nedescu will eat rice with eggs and some maple syrup, and Lis recommends making a carb-heavy fruit smoothie to sip throughout the day prerace.