Why eating carbs after training is not all it cracked up to be, and what to do instead
Carbs. Portrayed as the bad guy in many diet books, and avoided by dieters the world over. You’re told that carbs on a diet can be acceptable, but only under special circumstances.
This article will attempt to teach you why eating carbs after training is not all it cracked up to be.
A tale of two clients
The fear of carbs throughout the day has affected two previous clients in different ways. The result was the same both times though. Less sustainability and long-term adherence.
Let’s call the first client Jamie. Jamie was lean, muscular, and strong. Jamie had also got into the habit of eating high GI carbs immediately after training. The theory being that this would help with protein synthesis. Eating protein without 100g of dextrose in a shake after training would result in less muscle built over time. Whole foods were also shunned. The idea was to get the glucose in the bloodstream to perform its magic. The sooner after training, the better.
We’ll name my other client Emma. Emma was in her early 30’s. She was looking to get back into the kind of shape she was in as a non-exercising, carefree, cocktail-swilling 19-year-old. She had followed the Lean In 15 program before working with me and had seen some decent results. She was also a fan of high carb snacks. She made a ritual of eating tasty pancakes, and other “naughty” foods after her HIT training. She bought into the mantra that “things that you might think are unhealthy but if you eat them at the right time – after a workout – are actually good for you… You can eat them after you train as like a refuel”.
Jamie’s problems began when he reduced calories to get lean. Fitting in a 100g of carbs after training meant he had to cut carbs hard at every other meal. This left him with small meals containing only protein and a moderate amount of fat. As he cut calories again to keep things on track, he found the meals he ate to be wholly unsatisfying. The high-carb shake slipped down in a couple of seconds, and hunger was not far behind it. Eventually, he ended up fasting for most of the day, having only some BCAA’s before training and then his shake. There was room for one more small meal with some lower GI carbs later. He was starving, and staying on track was proving almost impossible.
Emma liked to meet up with her friends for a coffee on a Saturday morning. They usually ate normal coffee shop fare. But because of the higher carb content of the food, she would skip her lie-in to make sure she was in the gym by 8 am. After doing her normal HIT routine, she’d have to dash to meet her mates. The couple of pieces of toast she was going to eat wouldn’t be post workout anymore if she took her time. She’d seen some progress and would do anything to stick to her plan.
What’s wrong with this picture? Let’s take a look to see if science can give you your lie-in back, and save you from a world of powdered carbs.
Want to make sure you’re tracking the carbs in your diet accurately? Avoid mistakes by getting my free ebook and email course on how to track macros like a pro.
Carbs and protein synthesis
This one is still tough for bros and non-bros alike the world over. You may have invested a lot of money shoving liquid carbs down your throat as soon as you’ve finished training. It can be a bitter shake to swallow when I tell you you’ve likely been wasting your time.
Yet, the science is pretty clear on this. Once you’ve had a modest amount of protein, carbs will not increase protein synthesis further. Even an “insulin spike” to push nutrients into your muscles doesn’t amount to extra growth. You’ve already done all you can to optimise things at that particular time point if you’ve eaten enough protein.
“But what about recovery?!!! I’m improving my ability to exercise by getting carbs in when my muscles are the most sensitive to them, aren’t I?”
Are you training the same muscles again in a few hours? A load of carbs as soon as you’ve finished training is important if the performance of the next training session is a factor. But you aren’t doing that.
Running on a treadmill for 20 minutes does not make you Paula Radcliffe. Even if it feels hard. With a normal diet, replacing the carbs stored in your muscles is not a factor you need to consider. If you’re doing a normal bodybuilding type training session then you’ll likely deplete muscle glycogen by less than 40%. It’s not going to be too hard to put that back within the usual time frame before training again.
What you’re really afraid of
The real fear most people have is eating carbs away from your training will mean you’re more likely to store fat. The idea being that the insulin that’s now floating about in your bloodstream will put the brakes on fat loss. The fact is it doesn’t matter. Your body will always prioritise what it burns or stores depending on what you’re eating or what type of exercise you’re currently doing. But these acute effects have no bearing. Energy balance, long term, always determines whether you lose or gain weight.
Putting the new found knowledge to work
I love the idea of myth busting. Jumping to the rescue with a load of facts to ‘save” someone fits with my knight in shining armour syndrome. It’s my common knee-jerk reaction to working with new people. But you don’t pop out of a telephone box wearing your pants outside of your tights, educating all and sundry. You need to build trust, and both Jamie and Emma resisted at first.
Getting rid of the high carb shake meant that Jamie’s favourite breakfast of oats and whey was back on the cards. He even still had room for a massive plate of potatoes later in the day.
Emma learned to pay attention to the total amount of calories she consumed. She could still achieve weight loss and eat pancakes or French toast at whatever time she fancied. She didn’t have to interval train herself to the point of hallucinating first.
Why we believe what we believe
When someone with 6 pack abs and Michael Bolton hair tells you that eating “naughty” foods after your workout is good, it achieves two things:
- It dangles the carrot of a high carb treat that you know you can’t eat at any other time.
- It gives you a great reason to go to the gym.
- It reinforces both behaviours.
As I’ve said until I’m blue in the face, a great story is way more powerful than the boring old truth. Four books, and an online program later, you preach the post-workout carbs gospel at work. You meet any attack on your new found guru with a cult-like defence of the protocol you stick to.
Such beliefs take time to eradicate. If you’ve tried things in the past without any results, you’re even more likely to cling on. Even if you are starving all day, or won’t eat out with your friends anymore. You know you’re on the right track as long as you can stick to it. Suffering is part and parcel of the process.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Carb timing in nutshell
- Eating carbs after training won’t help with muscle protein synthesis if you’ve already consumed a moderate amount of protein.
- Unless you’re a high-level athlete training the same muscle groups twice a day, carb timing will not make any difference to recovery.
- You can eat any kind of carbs you like at any time of the day as long as you take energy balance into account.
Take home message
As long as you pay attention to your intake, you can eat the biggest, highest carb meals when you most want them. Feel free to eat higher carb treats whenever you fancy them if it helps you enjoy your diet and stay on track.
Want a way to fit pizza and dessert into your diet each week while still losing fat? Download the Ultimate Flexible Fasting System to lose fat easier than ever before.