This week, I would like to review an aspect of dieting and nutrition that seems to have trended on and off over the past 25 years or so and that is carbohydrate cycling. Recently, I was talking with a seasoned triathlete who was excited to do another season of carbohydrate cycling as a way to maximize his fueling and at the same time, hit and maintain his racing weight.
The idea that he was able to get his fueling requirements met and at the same time achieve weight loss piqued my interest. I had always thought low carbohydrate intake was a dieting method and actually limited fueling for exercise, so I was immediately interested to learn more.
Let’s start with what is carbohydrate cycling. Carbohydrate cycling is low carbohydrate intake, but designed to allow intermittent periods of high or moderate carbohydrate consumption. For most endurance athletes, they know limited or low carbohydrate intake is counter-intuitive on a day-to-day basis for long periods due to the fact that it could result in depleting their overall energy and strength that their body and brain needs for peak daily function.
The practice of carbohydrate cycling is based on giving your body the fuel it needs to feed and increase your metabolism during exercise, then restrict carbohydrate intake for the balance of the cycle to promote fat loss. This is accomplished by following a strict rotation between high to moderate carbohydrate intake during exercising or training days, then low to no carbohydrate intake during rest and recovery days.
There are many ways to set up your carbohydrate rotation and depending on who you talk to, you will get a different answer as to which one is the most effective.
There are a few common points that must be followed to achieve even minimal results:
1. Eating 5 to 7 small meals a day. Keeping your body in a light, but constant fed state is very important. Note: eating the correct type and balance of protein/complex carbohydrates is absolutely key for this to be effective.
2. Protein intake needs to be consistent and follow your body weight requirements. How much protein does the average person need each day to stay healthy? According to the USDA, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adults for protein is from 17 percent to 21 percent from your daily caloric intake. Now how does that break down in grams per day? If an adult requires 0.36 grams of quality protein per pound of body weight per day, take your weight in pounds divided by 2.2 = weight in Kilograms. Weight in Kilograms x either 0.36 if your sedentary or .80 moderately active or as high as 1.8 if you’re very athletic = protein grams. Example would look like this: 178 LBS / 2.2 = 81 (Rounded Up) 81 X 1.8 = 145.8 grams of protein per day.
3. It is always important to eat the correct types of complex carbohydrates. When it comes to carb cycling, it is pretty much a requirement to choose the right carbs to eat. Now some people think high carbohydrate intake means eat whatever you want. Unfortunately, to get real results it is never that easy. You should stick to complex carbohydrates like green leafy veggies, kale for example. Choose oatmeal over breads and berries over high fat fruits like avocados and bananas.
The obvious question is how does carbohydrate cycling work to fuel an endurance athlete, lose weight and supply adequate nutrition for recovery?
To understand carbohydrate cycling, we need to get a basic understanding of cause and effect as it pertains to carbohydrates and their role in fueling the body and their effects on weight loss.
When you limit carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates, it lowers insulin levels. It has been understood for some time that having lower insulin levels increases the release of fatty acids which in turn increases fat burning.
Therefore, if you are dieting and you want to burn fat to lose weight, you would restrict your level of carbohydrates to an absolute minimum.
But at the same time, if you are an endurance athlete, you know you have got to fuel to meet the demands of your training and exercise. The two ideas just do not seem to work together.
Here is where it comes together, “Insulin” which is very important when it comes to energy and recovery. Insulin handles the transfer of glucose from the blood into your cells, so it all comes down to timing and why many athletes do carbohydrate cycling.
The most critical time to have plenty of complex carbohydrates is before and after exercise or training, which makes sense for peak performance and peak recovery. One question with many varied answers is how long before exercise or training should you cycle your carbohydrate loading?
Everyone’s bodies and fueling needs are different, so it is important to test what works best. It is pretty well understood that eating right before a workout does little since the body needs time to process those carbohydrates into usable energy.
The real success of carbohydrates cycling comes down to timing so your system can use carbohydrates for fuel when your body needs it, then moving to a low or no carbohydrate state during your down time so that excess carbohydrates do not end up converted into fat, thus allowing you to lose weight.
I think it is important to note that this approach does not work for everyone. There are other factors like fat intake and the balance of calories from protein that play a big part in the success of carbohydrate cycling.
If you choose carb cycling you will need to adjust the timing and types of foods to best suit your bodies needs. One book out that I found informative was “Carb Cycling” by Franco Carlotto, which could be helpful for those of you who would like to give it try.