The Power of Carbs

Yet another study has affirmed the power of carbohydrates as an aid for athletic performance. However, the results may not apply to all levels of athletes.

A few days ago I was reading the bioenergetics section of the NSCA’s Strength and Conditioning Manual. I read this sentence and highlighted it, “The role of carbohydrate in athletic performance cannot be overstated.” Today’s study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research would agree. Researchers tested six athletes in an exercise session of leg extensions. All athletes participated in the session twice – once while consuming copious amounts of carbohydrates, and once without.

During the carbohydrate session, each athlete consumed a loading dose well before the exercise session. This dose was one gram of carb per kilogram of bodyweight. This equates to 50-70g of carbs for an average woman and about 75-100g of carbs for an average man. For the women, that’s equivalent to at least a 32oz bottle of Gatorade. Some of the men might require almost two bottles. Directly before the exercise session, each athlete consumed a much weaker dose of carbs and continued to consume that weaker dose throughout the session. Alternatively, during the placebo condition, each athlete drank artificially sweetened water.

When the grueling gauntlet of leg extensions was over, researchers found that all six athletes had produced significantly more work during the carbohydrate session. The carbohydrates had kept their blood glucose levels higher than the placebo, presumably making glycogen more available to their muscles for energy production. In other studies, carbohydrate supplementation during exercise has also been shown to elevate growth hormone production up to six hours post exercise. All the data point to the fact that athletes need carbohydrates for optimum performance and recovery.

But many dedicated athletes view carbohydrates as the nutritional boogeyman. These athletes are usually well-informed on nutrition, and have used a limited carbohydrate diet to improve their body composition. I know this because I used to be one of these people.

Without consuming carbohydrates before and after exercise, your performance is going to suffer, putting on muscle mass will seem impossible, and you may start to feel adrenal fatigue from chronically elevated cortisol levels. If you’re performing a very high volume of training, you may need to pound carbs at most of your meals. A pre- and post-workout shake may not be enough.

But if you only train recreationally for two or three hours per week, then a limited carbohydrate diet is probably going to align better with your goals. Be honest with yourself about your goals and your volume of training. If you’re training high volume or trying to put on mass, you simply won’t get there without carbohydrate supplementation.


1. Benjamin Wax et al. Effects of Supplemental Carbohydrate Ingestion During Superimposed Electromyostimulation Exercise in Elite Weightlifters. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Nov 2013. Vol 27. Issue 11. p3084–3090. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31828c26ec

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