Carbs: The Misunderstood Macro

Proteins, carbs, and fats are all macronutrients, or macros for short. But for some reason only one of them gets picked on. Everybody loves protein because of it’s muscle building properties and recently fats are the golden child in recent fad diets. All the cool kids are doing it. But for some reason carbs continue to be misunderstood.

It’s believed by many that if you have too many carbs it will make you fat. The same can be said for protein and fats as well. Too much of anything can become a bad thing.

Basics of Carbs

A carbohydrate comes from a plant base and can be categorized into sugars, starches, and fibers. Carbs contain 4 calories of energy that the body can use. The body converts all carbs into glucose if they are not already in that form.

In the body carbs are either traveling through the body as blood glucose or stored as glycogen. Glycogen is stored in our muscle tissue and the liver. Any left over carbs can also be stored as fat but if you are training hard this rarely occurs.

Blood Glucose and Glycogen

Blood glucose fuels every cell in our bodies but especially the nervous system. The nervous system is much more efficient when blood glucose is more readily available. This can explain why we are better human beings when we ingest carbs. Our mood is better, our reactions are better, and our overall functioning is better.

Blood glucose is converted by muscle to glycogen for storage. The preferred energy source for muscle is glycogen as it is much easier for the muscle cells to access as well as use for energy.

When do we use carbs??

Carbs are the primary source of energy pretty much any time you exercise. Anything between a max effort 2 to 3 rep set and a slow, leisurely walk uses carbs for energy. The max effort work uses ATP in the alactic anaerobic energy system and the slow, leisurely walk uses fat as it’s energy source.

As intensity builds from a slow walk to say a jog the percentage in which energy is obtained from fats to carbs increases. The higher the intensity of the sustained exercise the more carbs are used.

Carbs are the preferred source of energy during HIIT or high-intensity conditioning sessions that many people enjoy doing these days. *cough* CROSSFIT *cough*.

Glycogen is essential to most training programs. If glycogen storage is not replenished after a workout, future workouts will suffer. To properly restore glycogen, some form of carbs must be ingested to help in the recovery process.

The Benefits of Carbs

Higher Intensity

Carbs are essential for providing energy for higher intensity workouts. The more intense a workout becomes, the more carbs and their derivatives become the preferred form of energy.

Recovery Between Sets

Later sets in your workout will suffer on a low carb diet and this has to do with a lack of recovery between sets. Higher glycogen and blood glucose levels will allow you to recover quicker during your rest periods. The quicker you can recover the more work you can do within a shorter period of time.

Recovery Between Workouts

Low-carb diets after a workout can hinder recovery for the next workout. The worse recovery becomes after a workout, the more performance will suffer.

Better recovery after a hard workout allows you to go just as hard in the next workout. After the workout there is a window where the body is looking for macronutrients to help in the rebuilding of the body.

Maintain Intensity

During long workouts, performance can begin to decrease as energy stores are depleted. Specifically, the lower muscle glycogen falls the more performance suffers.

Also, as blood glucose levels drop so does neurological efficiency. Intensity depends on your neurological system being efficient in sending the signals to the working muscles.


Catabolism is the breaking down of tissue. Catabolism can occur during workouts of high-intensity as the body is looking for energy from any source, including muscle tissue.

Having high enough glycogen and blood glucose levels can buffer against the body trying to use precious muscle tissue for energy.

Carbs may also have an anabolic, or muscle-building, role. So not only can they preserve muscle tissue but they may also help in the building of more muscle for even greater strength potential.

Intake Recommendations

So now that you have been persuaded on the greatness of carbs, lets talk about how many you may need.

The requirements are closely related to your activity level, both in your everyday life(work and lifestyle) but also in your training. The more active you are the more carbohydrates you need. The more and harder you train the higher the requirement will be.

  • If you have a sedentary job and don’t train very hard or at all, you may only need at most 1 gram of carbs per pound of body weight.
  • For those with moderate activity at their job and workout from 1 to 2 hours a day, you may require 1 to 2 grams per pound of body weight.
  • If you train multiple times a day for 2 hours or more(separate cardio and strength sessions), 2 to 3 grams per pound of body weight will be sufficient.
  • Endurance athletes or fitness athletes may require more than 3 grams per pound of body weight.
  • “Off days” do not require much carbs. .5-1 gram per pound of bodyweight will be sufficient. This falls in line with what a lot of people call carb cycling.

When Should You Have Carbs?

When you have carbs during the day can have an effect on your training. Here are a couple guidelines to follow when considering the timing of carb intake.

  • Preworkout carbs can bolster your performance in the workout to follow.
  • Fast-digesting carbs (sports drinks being one source) immediately prior to and during your  workout can have a greater effect on energy levels within your workout.
  • 4 to 6 hours post-workout is the perfect time to ingest carbs to help replenish gylcogen faster. In fact it has a greater effect within this window than spreading the same amount throughout the rest of the day.
  • As you move further away from the “workout window” your carbs should be of a lower glycemic or slower-digesting carb content.
  • Most of your carb intake should be immediately before, during and immediately after your workouts.

Fat Loss Implications

If you read Why Low-Calorie Diets Suck, you learned that weight loss hinges primarily on a calorie deficit. Can cuttting carbs create a calorie deficit?? Sure, but your performance in your workouts will suffer and your precious muscle mass may be at risk.

Start off by cutting on your fat intake slowly to create a calorie deficit. Once you have reached .3g per pound of body weight of fat intake, then you should consider looking at a cut in carbs. Until this, stop starving yourself of the energy that will help your performance and recovery.