As athletes, we’re always trying to improve and push the limits of our athletic performance. Much of this work can be done by optimizing our nutrition to fuel and recover properly from our training sessions by focusing on carb intake and nutrient timing around workouts.
So should you eat carbohydrates before or after a workout?
To answer this we need to understand how our muscles are fueled and what makes them perform best. Our muscles are fueled by sugar, namely glucose which is converted to glycogen and stored in our muscles and liver for energy. This is what provides our muscles with the energy necessary to perform and function, especially with heavyweights. This is particularly important for CrossFit, otherwise, you can prematurely reach fatigue during a training session. If you feel like you hit a wall during your workouts, get dizzy, or sometimes just have workouts where you don’t feel your best, it may be due to lacking adequate carbohydrates overall during the course of a day, but particularly before your workout.
In order to perform well, we want to fuel our bodies for the workout ahead, and we can do this with carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates are digesting are different rates in the body and will provide varying durations of energy to muscle. Slow digesting carbohydrates, like many complex carbohydrates, will take longer to break down in order to be used for energy, but will provide lasting energy to the body. On the other hand, fast-digesting carbohydrates, such as simple carbohydrates, will digest quickly and provide fast energy, but won’t last for long periods of time.
Complex carbohydrates include foods such as whole grains, rice, oats, vegetables, and lentils. Simple carbohydrates include foods that contain sugar such as white bread or pasta, candy, soda and fruit juices, and most cereals, as well as fruit. This doesn’t necessarily make fruit bad food choices, but it’s important to note that the higher concentration of fructose in fruit is absorbed and digested quickly similar to other simple sugars.
There are benefits to both complex and simple sugars and can be tailored to your training style for the day. You should experiment with finding a carbohydrate source that works best for your training sessions by combining both complex and simple carbohydrates. Men and women tolerate carbohydrates differently, as women are only able to digest about half as much fructose as men, which can lead to digestive upset. For this reason, fruit may not be the best option for women when considering performance fueling.
In general, aim to get between 25-50 grams of carbohydrates prior to beginning exercise. Fruit and other simple sugars will only require 30 minutes to digest and be available for energy use, while complex carbs take between 60-90 minutes to be digested and ready for energy use, depending on your unique digestive system’s motility. Our carbohydrate supplement powder, Glyco-Muscle Fueler is best taken 30 minutes prior to beginning exercise to provide both slow- and fast-digesting carbs to fuel your training session.
Carbohydrates are also important prior to exercise to help promote hydration levels. Water alone is not enough, but water combined with electrolyte minerals and glucose help water absorption through the epithelial cells of the small intestine. It’s important for all athletes to combine plain water, which is not a particularly good source of hydration on its own, with electrolytes such as potassium and sodium with glucose or sucrose. It’s no mistake that popular rehydration drinks contain carbohydrates and sugars, but research shows that the percentage in these types of products is often higher than what is physiologically useful and can cause stomach upset. Popular sports drinks tend to contain 8% sugar but being closer to 4% sugar concentration is optimal for absorption without causing digestive upset.
Proper hydration is important for athletes to ensure they are able to deliver oxygen to cells during exercise, transport nutrients to cells, cushion the bones and joints, improve cell-to-cell communication and maintain normal electrical properties of cells to communicate under times of stress (such as exercise).
It’s equally as important to eat carbohydrates after your workout as well to improve recovery. You might even notice that in the aftermath of training sessions that are particularly intensive of your larger muscles (hamstrings, quads, glutes) that you crave carbs. This is the result of your body’s innate wisdom and an increased need for carbs to refuel fatigued muscles.
After your workout, you may typically experience tired muscles that begin to fatigue and not work optimally through their full range of motion. This is the process of glycogen depletion through physical activity. As the muscle contracts over several repetitions, the stored glycogen is utilized and eventually depletes. This tends to look like muscle failure and lactic acid build-up in the muscles, where a burning sensation occurs.
The scientific evidence shows the need for protein intake post-workout, but also carbohydrate intake for full recovery of muscles and supporting the body’s ability to adapt to stress without falling ill. This helps us recover by both allowing damaged muscle fibers to be repaired, generate new muscle fibers, and replenish energy stores. Adequate and protein and carbs post-workout may lead to less muscle soreness post-workout, as well as improved recovery for your next workout. After your training sessions, consume another 25-50 grams of carbohydrates to encourage glycogen store replenishment in the muscles.
Whether you chose carbohydrate supplements or whole food carbohydrates, carbohydrates are a vital source of energy for athletes of all levels to perform their best during exercise, even when it is low intensity or duration. Our muscles require carbohydrates to be stored in our muscles and pulled from for energy. Ideally, you are able to fuel prior to exercise with carbohydrates with both slow- and fast-digesting carbohydrates to energy immediate energy for use, as well as sustainable energy for long-term performance over the course of a training session. Replenishing glycogen stores that have been used or potentially depleted over the course of exercise is important for recovering well to avoid soreness and fatigue inconsequential training sessions. In addition to this, adequate carbohydrate intake throughout the course of a day is important for ensuring hydration in combination with proper electrolyte and mineral levels.