In a world where nutrition controversy abounds, marketing is king, and the whisper of a low-carbohydrate intake can incite great animosity, it can be a little tricky to figure out what will actually get you results you desire.
Have no fear!
As long as you’re willing to do the hard work, this article will provide the best nutrition strategies to take it to the next level.
#1: Enhance performance by strategically using carbs and protein for endurance and high-intensity sports.
Sports nutritionists have long relied on the supremacy of carbohydrates for optimizing athletic performance. In #2, another vein of thought will presented, but the benefits of carb supplementation for the majority of athletes are presented here.
The body stores carbs in the body as liver (about 100 g) and muscle (350 to 700 grams) glycogen. When an athlete eats a relatively high-carb diet, they will preferentially burn carbs for fuel during exercise, making glycogen an essential fuel source. Because the body has limited glycogen stores, performance is limited during endurance and high-intensity athletics.
Supplementing with carbs can enhance endurance performance in certain situations:
• For endurance exercise lasting more than 2 hours, carbs are indicated.
• A large review found the greatest benefit of a 6.5 percent increase in performance from taking between 0.9 g/kg/hour of exercise of carbs with 0.2 g/kg/hour of protein.
• For high-intensity sports, small amounts of carbs or a carb mouth rinse are indicated (for longer than an hour, try 60 g/hour).
• For recovery during multi-day competition, as much as 1.2 g/kg/h of carbs is recommended. Adding protein will reduce the carb dose needed and enhance uptake. Depending on diet, a range of ratios from 2:1 to 4:1 carbs to protein is beneficial.
• Carbs aren’t recommended for high-intensity workouts lasting less than 30 minutes.
• Solid, liquid, and gel carbs are equally effective. A dual form of carbs from glucose and fructose is recommended to refill muscle and liver glycogen stores.
#2: Don’t be a slave to carbohydrates. The case for metabolic flexibility.
Research into low-carb and ketogenic diets suggests an alternative to relying on carb supplementation to enhance performance. Results have been mixed, which is likely due to the fact that true adaptation to low-carb diets takes place over a year or more and requires specific training protocols to shift the body’s dependency from glycolytic to burning fat.
The theory of low-carb diets for performance is based on the “train low, compete high” protocol in which athletes train on a low-carb diet to allow their bodies to adapt to be able to readily burn fat, which is called metabolic flexibility.
Glycogen only makes up 5 percent of our fuel stores, but fat stores more than double that, providing you with a nearly limitless energy source for exercise. The benefits of increased metabolic flexibility include the following:
• The ability to spare glycogen and burn fat during the earlier stages of an endurance event so that glycogen can be used in the later stages once fatigue sets in.
• A lower the respiratory quotient, which correlates with the body’s ability to burn carbs. If done in a proper cyclical fashion with carb re-feeds, testosterone may be elevated because there is a close correlation between a lower respiratory quotient and higher testosterone.
• Endurance athletes report enhanced concentration and ability to train longer for a higher intensity with low-carb diets.
• Pure strength sport athletes may benefit from low-carb diets, however, athletes in power sports that have an endurance component such as MMA and most field sports won’t.
The diverse effects of low-carb diets on performance can be seen with a series of recent studies. In one, trained college students who ate a low-carb diet for 7 days (5.4 percent carbs, 35.1 percent protein, and 53.6 percent fat) had slightly better performance on strength and power tests compared to a regular diet. Vertical jump, bench press, squat, and a 30-second cycling sprint were tested.
Similar results were seen in elite male gymnasts on a month-long ketogenic diet who maintained performance on strength and short-duration power tests. Squat jump, vertical jump, chin-ups, push-ups, and bar dip performance was identical with the low-carb and normal diet.
However, these strength tests don’t mimic the real-life metabolic requirements of gymnastics as can be seen in another study of elite female gymnasts. It was found that giving them a carb solution after an exhaustive circuit resulted in fewer falls during balance beam exercises than a placebo.
This suggests that for longer duration and repetitive exercise, particularly with a precision component, carbohydrates are indicated because they make extra glucose available to the brain for better neuromuscular performance.
Therefore, carbs can be your friend, just don’t be a slave to them. Get metabolically flexible so you’re body can burn fat when needed. If you try a low-carb diet and you’re performance drops, then eat carbs!
3: Workout nutrition can help you overcome brain incoherence, or the point when the brain runs out of glucose and tells you, “I’m done!”
Muscle glycogen stores are not depleted with exercise durations of less than an hour, regardless of the intensity, so glucose shouldn’t be a limiting factor. However, research shows supplementing with carbs can still enhance intense, shorter duration performance, as was seen with the female gymnasts on the balance beam in #2.
Scientists believe that the gymnasts experienced fewer falls from the balance beam because they carbs they consumed activated central nervous system drive in the brain for better precision and focus. Carbs allow you to overcome the limiting factor of your brain telling you “I’m done.”
For example, using a carbohydrate mouth rinse in which you take a carb solution into your mouth and then spit it out was found to improve time trial performance by 2.8 percent. No carbs were ingested into the body so blood sugar was not affected.
Scientist think there are receptors in the oral cavity that are able to sense the upcoming availability of glucose and communicate it towards the brain even if additional glucose is not present. This allows for greater central drive from the brain so that you can keep going.
Other studies have found that artificial sweeteners like aspartame do not activate the brain. But, caloric sweeteners do, indicating that our bodies may be smarter than we think! The effect of carb rinses appears to vary based on training status and whether you train fasted or fed.
For example, untrained subjects boosted performance equally when using a carb mouth rinse in the fasted and fed state. Therefore, carb rinses may allow people who are trying to lose fat to train at a higher intensity for longer without needing to actually consume extra carb calories.
#4: Are carbs and protein essential to build muscle? Protein yes, carbs no, but they can improve the T:C ratio and maximize strength gains.
Taking protein or amino acids will give you greater muscle and strength gains over taking nothing or supplementing with carbs alone. Whey protein is a superior protein source and research shows that a dose of 25 grams of whey will optimally enhance protein synthesis post-workout in most trainees.
A larger dose may be warranted depending on age, training status, and how much protein you eat in your diet. If you opt for straight amino acids, a threshold dose of 10 grams of essential amino acids containing at least 4 grams of leucine is indicated.
Research shows carbs are not necessary to maximally trigger protein synthesis. A recent study found there was no difference in muscle protein synthesis or protein balance when 25 grams of whey protein or the same dose of whey with 50 grams of carbs were supplemented after strength training.
Many trainees believe that the extra insulin spike that comes with the carbs will further enhance muscle building, but this is not supported by the research. However, it is possible that taking carbs with protein over the longer term has some additive effect on muscle gains by enhancing the hormonal environment, but the acute protein synthesis response doesn’t show this.
For instance, taking workout carbs can lead to a lower cortisol response to training, thereby enhancing recovery. A recent study found that when untrained men took glucose with whey protein after hypertrophy-style training for 12 weeks they had significantly lower cortisol than a group that took only protein.
In addition, the protein-carb group also gained slightly more maximal strength than the protein group, lending support for using carbs if the goal is strength. A research review concurs, with the greatest strength and muscle gains coming from taking 1.2 to 2 grams/kg of protein and 44 to 50 calories/kg of body weight.
#5: If your primary goal is fat loss, avoid carbs. Dual training goals such as fat loss and gaining muscle may warrant carbs.
If your goal is fat loss, carb supplementation isn’t necessary since we know it’s not needed maximally triggering protein. Opt for one protein shake post-workout. Avoid taking protein multiple times during the day because whey protein in particular elicits a large insulin spike, which is not beneficial for fat loss.
Situations in which carbs can be beneficial include the following:
• If you have dual goals of fat loss and building muscle or strength and are lifting to failure, carbs or a carb mouth rinse may help you train through that message from your brain that tells you “I’m done.”
• If you’re an athlete who is trying to lose fat but also train for performance, carbs may support work capacity and training intensity, while enhancing recovery by lowering cortisol.
• Research suggests that moderate calorie restriction yields better fat loss and performance results than severe calorie restriction in athletes. Therefore, post-workout carbs may be beneficial because the body is primed to replenish glycogen rather than store fat during the post-workout “window.”
For instance, reducing calories by 450 a day (moderate) allowed athletes to lose 31 percent body fat, gain 2.1 percent muscle, and maintain strength. A second group that reduced calories by 900 a day (severe), lost only 21 percent body fat, gained no lean mass, and had poorer performance at the end of the study.
The Bottom Line: You can’t out-train a bad diet, but you also can’t out-diet lack of effort. Performance and body composition results come from solid training protocols, a lot of hard work, and smart nutrition strategies that maximize work capacity, recovery, and hormonal balance.