Carbohydrates are an amazing fuel source for our muscles to contract and do their work. Especially for those of us who train hard and need to recover between sessions, carbohydrate timing can be used to help us maximize our food to reach performance and aesthetic goals.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to eat immediately before a workout because, while your muscles are trying to contract and work, your stomach would also be trying to digest the food. These competing demands are a challenge for optimal performance. And, also, eating too close to a workout may cause some GI stress while you are working out. 

Ideally, you should fuel your body about 1 to 3 hours pre-workout, depending on how your body tolerates food. Experiment and see what time frame works best for your body. The further away you eat from your workout, the more protein and fats you can include in the meal as this will take longer to digest. If you eat within an hour of working out, try aiming for a meal higher in easily digestible carbohydrates, so the food gets digested quickly and is ready to be used as a fuel source right away. 

Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles, which is then turned into glucose which plays a role in muscle contractions and acts as “fuel” for your body and workouts. So topping off your glycogen stores in your muscles with a pre-workout snack or meal higher in carbohydrates will allow you to work out a little harder and feel more energized in general. 

Easily digestible pre-workout snack ideas include bananas, baby food packets, applesauce, dried fruit, Fuel for Fire packets, fruit, rice cakes with jam, or a high-carbohydrate drink mixture such as Vitargo. These snacks are ideally eaten about an hour or closer to your workout for fast-acting carbohydrates that are easily digestible and will more easily be used as fuel as opposed to being stored in fat cells.

If you are eating a bit further away from your workout you can add in some protein or fat to allow the food to digest a bit slower. Try adding a bit of peanut butter to a banana or rice cake, sip on some protein powder with a side of fruit, or eat an RXBAR that combines dried fruit and egg protein for something fast on the run. 

Carbohydrates are also important during the post-workout recovery window.

Your body uses stored energy (glycogen) in your muscles to power through your workout, and after that workout, you need to replenish the nutrients lost predominately with protein and CARBS! 

As soon as possible post-workout, get carbs and protein immediately into your body, especially after harder training sessions. While the protein is used to help repair the damaged muscle tissues from training, carbohydrates are equally important and gives your muscles the ability to replenish the glycogen they just lost through training. 

The body releases insulin after eating carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates such as white potatoes, white bread and fruits cause a bigger insulin spike than do complex carbohydrates such as oats, wheat bread, and vegetables. As few as 50 grams of carbohydrates can spike insulin. Insulin triggers the body to store those carbs as fuel (glycogen) as opposed to in fat cells… so post workout is an important time to get those carbs back into your fuel stores that are empty. This means the best time to spike your insulin is after a workout, when muscles readily take in nutrients for repair.

Those wanting to lose fat should limit most of their carbohydrate consumption to immediately post-workout. Those looking to gain muscle should eat more carbohydrates all day to take advantage of the anabolic effect of insulin (meaning it stimulates growth). And those looking to both build muscle and lose fat with nutrient timing should settle somewhere in between, consuming copious carbohydrates post-workout to repair and refuel the body. 

Try eating some fruit, rice, or sweet potatoes to your post workout recovery drink or meal to allow your body to refuel your empty glycogen stores. Think of it like filling up your tank of gas after a long road trip! 

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