Athletes….You Need Your Carbs!

By Fred Daniels


In the last 10 years or so, carbohydrates or “carbs” have been identified as the enemy in the battle against weight loss. If you look at weight or fat loss products sold online, or in your local supplement store, it is no secret that “Keto” products have become the new trend. Most restaurants and even some fast food places have flirted with the idea of “Low Carb” options on their menu. The process of Ketosis or “keto” simply put is when the body is deprived of carbs (It’s preferred energy source) in order to force it to burn fat instead.

 This is not necessarily beneficial for people who regularly participate in intense exercise. Especially not athletes. The truth is ATHLETES NEED CARBS. In fact, not only should you be monitoring your carbohydrate consumption, but you should also be conscious of your carb timing. There is a time and place for carbs before, during and after your workout.

Carbs as Fuel

Along with hydration, carb fueling is one of the two most important factors in athletic performance. Carbs are stored for energy in two different types of glycogens, muscle glycogen and liver glycogen. Muscle glycogen, which is turned into glucose and used by muscle fibers as fuel, can typically be depleted in a 2-hour workout or event. Liver glycogen, which is converted to glucose and sent into the blood stream to regulate blood sugar, can typically be burned in a 15 hour fast (Clark, 2015).

In Anaerobic exercises, short and high in intensity, such as a 10-rep bench press or 50-yard wind sprints, the body is fueled by ATP (which consist of metabolized carbs) and Creatine Phosphate. In Aerobic exercises, longer low intensity, such as a 1-mile jog, or a 1-hour hike, the body is fueled with muscle glycogen (once again metabolized carbs) and fatty acids. The keto method deprives the body of glycogen and only uses the fat for energy.

The higher the intensity of the exercise or activity, the more carbohydrate is depleted. The typical performance athlete competes or trains typically at least above 65% of his or her Vo2 Max (Clark, 2015). If blood glucose can’t be restored and stabilized adequately by liver glycogen, then performance of that athlete will suffer. Simply put, an athlete can not perform at their optimal level without carbohydrates in their system. However, if consumed strategically carb fueling can push an athlete through fatigue.

Carbs for Recovery

These carbs depleted during exercise must be replaced. The body still needs energy to go about the day. When fuel is not replaced with carbohydrates, and glucose cannot be produced, the body uses protein as fuel by breaking down protein stores, or muscle, into amino acids to create energy. This process is called gluconeogenesis.

As I stated in a previous article, ( poor attention to the recovery process will decrease athletic gains. You will lose muscle and performance ability by not taking care of the recovery process. Imagine lifting weights for a month but becoming smaller and weaker. This happens with performance athletes who do not consume the right amount of carbs for their training and events.

Carb Timing

Now we established that carbs are good, lets go ahead and state too much of anything is a bad thing, and there is a time and place for everything. There is a time for carbs pre workout, mid workout, and post workout.


When you show up to a workout, or event you want to be in a fed state. Meaning you are not hungry, but there is no undigested food in your stomach, which may leave you feeling sluggish. There are different ways to achieve this depending on your schedule and lifestyle. A meal that consist of about 200-300 calories from carbs can be consumed, processed, and ready to be used as fuel in 3-4 hours. If you wake up Saturday morning at 7 and finish breakfast at 8am, by noon your body should be optimally charged.

Some of us workout first thing in the morning. If you wake up on an empty stomach and are headed to the gym you can consume a carb with a high glycemic index (GI) and still be fueled for your workout. Carbs with high GI ratings like potatoes, are absorbed and turned into glucose at a fast rate. Here list of foods broken down by GI.

Glycemic Index Chart - Glycemic Index Food List | Low glycemic ...

Tip: Supercompensation is a method where an athlete loads up on carbohydrates for a one-week period in order to have maximum energy on game day. Take a steady amount of carbs for days 1-3 then increase it by 50% days 4-6. Dominate on gameday.

Intra-workout/ Competition

If you played youth sports you probably remember Gatorade and orange slices at half time. This is Intra workout carb maintenance. As we discussed the longer you work out, or compete the more energy stores you deplete, the less effort you can put out. Maintaining your carbs allows you to keep your energy up perform late in your game/event.

Tip: Drinking a carb rich sport drink during an hour-long workout can help maintain your energy level.

 Post Workout Carbs

Do not waste your workout! For years and years gyms, trainers, and influencers have been stressing the importance of the post workout protein. I cannot stress enough the most important post workout macronutrient is carbohydrate. In fact, to optimize recovery, any post workout meal/supplement should have a 4:1 carb to protein ratio. For maximum recovery eat or drink a high GI carb at least 30-45 minutes after your workout, at this time, muscle cells are more receptive to insulin.  As far as how many carbs you need, plan your post workout meal based on the activity level of the rest of your day.

Tip: After long games drink a high GI carb immediately after to give your body the fix it needs and then enjoy a heavy carb post meal (Pizza)

Bottom Line

The truth is the Keto diet can be a remarkably effective way to lose weight. The problem is that all that weight will not necessarily be fat, and depending the demands of your day, you might not have the energy to get through it. For athletes, carbs are essential, they give us fuel, they keep us going, and they build us back up. You cannot afford to cut them out. Instead manage them strategically and dominate the competition!


Clark, L. S. (2015). Nasm Essentials of Sports Performing Training. Burlington: Jones and Barlet learning.

2 Comments on “Athletes….You Need Your Carbs!

  1. That was a great article. I finally understand carbs: what they are and why people talk about cutting them out. I’m glad to know I can keep having carbs without any guilt. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: 5 Easy ways to speed up Muscle recovery | Team D1 Sports Performance

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