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Workout Carbs

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As an aside to our normal Nutrition Primer series, we are going to delve into “Workout Carbs”. Many of us have been using a sugar source with our workout shake, but there certainly are better options than others out there when we look at it from a health perspective. Let’s go into the WHO-WHAT-WHY-WHEN-HOW on workout carbohydrates.

workout carbs

WHO

Not everyone needs to be taking a workout carbohydrate.  If you’re 30+% body fat, stop reading and know this isn’t for you yet. Stick with protein if you’re going to supplement at all and let your body use your natural energy stores- AKA body fat. Who else probably doesn’t benefit from a carbohydrate supplement? Low intensity steady state cardio (IE 45 minute treadmill or recumbent bike workouts) don’t need the extra energy provided by workout carbohydrates.

So who SHOULD use workout carbohydrates? Fairly in shape and active CrossFitters, weight lifters, power lifters, body builders, endurance athletes (includes marathon training and OCR), and team sport athletes. In short, people who are relatively lean, work out an hour or longer at a time, and trying to gain/maintain muscle. Remember, if you have a lot of body fat to lose, skip workout carbohydrates!

WHAT

Sugar is sugar, right? Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean our body reacts to all sugars the same way. All carbohydrates are sugar as far as our body is concerned, but due to their structure our bodies treat them differently. There are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates, and within them there are more classifications. I’m going to keep this fairly high level, but be aware there is a huge difference from the sugars in an apple to the sugars in a potato to the sugars in high fructose corn syrup. Ideally, we want something our body can break down FAST, meaning that it’s high on the glycemic index, to get the full benefits from the insulin spike. Two of the best sources are from dextrose (a simple carbohydrate) and maltodextrin (a complex carbohydrate). Both of these rate very highly on the GI (from 85-110 per 50g serving) compared to fructose, the sugars you get from fruit, that only rates at 23 for a 50g serving. Table sugar rates about 65 for a 50g serving.

All that info aside, know that most supplements labeled as recovery carbohydrates are going to be made of a either dextrose, maltodextrin, or some highly effective variation. Supplements that are NOT labeled for the fitness industry, such as Tang, Country Time Lemonade, even Gatorade powder are mostly going to be made up of sugar- the same sugar that only rates about 65. Aside from that, just about every one of these supplements has a variety of different ingredients in it to appease our taste buds. Read: chemical shit storm. If you’re the type of person eats clean but has a hard time fighting off the urge for sweets and other glutenous products, check out your workout shake. Recently I’ve moved over to an unsweetened carbohydrate source. If nothing else, try to find products sweetened with Stevia or a sugar alcohol like Xylitol. Steer clear of Aspartame, Saccharin, and Sucralose when possible.

Take away– use dextrose or maltodextrin supplements labeled for workout recovery. Avoid chemical sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose. 

WHY

To give a super brief bit of a background, why on earth would we want to use a sugar supplement anyway?! Several reasons:

  1. Insulin spike to help absorb protein quicker
  2. Quickly restore glycogen in liver and muscles
    **Both of these two help significantly with recovery and muscle building!**
  3. Spread carbohydrate intake out

WHEN

As you can likely assume, you consume workout carbohydrates when you workout..! (Can I get a “duh?!”). You can attack the drink a few ways- mixed with protein or as separate drinks, and drink during/post workout or all after the workout. If you’re a CrossFitter, chances are you’re not going to take sips of your shake between rounds of an 8 minute AMRAP. However, if you’re a weight lifter, maybe you snag a few sips of your shake between major sets/exercises. Ideally, you can drink a bit (6-10oz) of your shake every 10-20 minutes.

HOW

Johnny is a 200lb, lean mean athletic machine who works out for 2 hours, hitting a heavy power lift, 3 dynamic skill movements, and a 12 minute Metcon, looking to gain muscle mass. Jennine is a 170lb slightly over weight mom who is one hell of a power lifter who trains for 60 minutes, and wants to drop to a lower weight class to be more competitive. Both of the above athletes need different amounts of carbohydrates to protein, however there are some ratios and guidelines that we can use that are fairly consistent.

  1. 2:1– two grams of carbohydrates per 1 gram of protein- lighter/moderate workouts, lasting an average of 1 hour. Maintain muscle/lose body fat.
  2. 3:1– three grams of carbohydrates per 1 gram of protein- moderate/heavy workouts, lasting an average of 90+ minutes. Maintain/gain muscle/lose body fat.
  3. 4:1– four grams of carbohydrates per 1 gram of protein- heavy/intense workouts, lasting 2 hours or more. Maintain/gain muscle.

Obviously there is still a lot of room for interpretation there, but the best way to “know” what’s right for you is to try it. Maybe you end up being a 2.5:1 ratio. Maybe Monday you squat and 20 minute Metcon and need a 3:1 ratio, but Friday you do some accessory work and a 10 min EMOM and only need a 1.5:1 ratio. You’ll figure out what works best for you after you start TRYING it, and tracking it.

How will you know it’s working?

  • Your recovery should improve
    • THIS is the MOST important! If you’re super bloated the day after, you probably had too much. If you are more sore than normal after carbohydrate fueled workouts, you probably didn’t have enough.
  • You should be on track for you goals
    • If you’re cutting, your weight should be at a net negative after the week by no more than 1-2lbs
    • If you’re maintaining, your weight should be stable
    • If you’re massing, your weight should increase at a net positive after the week by no more than 1-2lbs