What Is Carb Cycling, And Is It Right For Me?

Carb cycling is a term you often hear a lot about, especially when you start going to the gym or following fitness folk on Instagram. A quick online search unearths a whole host of questions – What exactly is it? What is the purpose of it? Is it for me? Is it worth it?

Firstly, what are carbs?

Carbohydrates (carbs) are the body’s main source of energy, needed for brain and organ function, as well as physical activity. They also play a role in the structure and function of cells, tissues and organs

Without carbohydrates, your body struggles to function properly and you often end up feeling run-down and fatigued. 

Carbohydrates consumed are metabolised into glucose. Excess glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen and can be quickly converted back into glucose if required. 

Glycogen stores within the body are limited and depletion has been found to negatively impact exercise performance, namely through feelings of fatigue and exhaustion. 

What is carb cycling?

Carb cycling refers to altering your carbohydrate intake on a daily, weekly or monthly basis depending on when they are most useful to you. 

The process largely comes down to better managing your body’s main energy reserves.

There are two forms of energy reserves for your body:

  1. Glycogen
  • serves as short-term storage 
  • distributed throughout the body in our muscles and the liver
  • used when the body needs a quick boost – provides the body with immediate energy
  • excess glucose is stored inside your fat cells for long-term storage 
  1. Fat 
  • stored in the form of triglycerides in adipose or fat tissue
  • used by the body for energy when glycogen reserves are depleted, in the form of ketones

How is carb cycling typically carried out?

There are many different carb cycling protocols, but most have you alternate between at least two of three types of days: high, low and ‘no’ carb (extremely low) days. Although if you are very active, it would be suggested that you should avoid the latter!

It can also be categorised into macro and micro cycles: 

  1. Macro cycles: this refers to carb cycling over relatively long periods, spanning weeks or months.
  1. Micro cycles: this relates to carb cycling over a pretty short period of time, spanning days in the week or even within each 24 hour period.

Those considering it often plan to align their high carb days with more intense sessions and the lower carb days with rest days.

People who carb cycle usually end up calorie cycling, too. This means they eat fewer calories on their “low-carb days” and more calories on their “high-carb days.

As a result, it can involve a great deal of planning ahead, to ensure your schedule and intake are aligned. Therefore, it’s worth noting that it’s an advanced diet strategy. 

Is carb cycling good for fat loss?

To lose fat you need to create a calorie deficit (eating less than you burn). Undereating for a prolonged period of time can make you feel fatigued and low on energy. However, as carbohydrates are the main fuel our muscles use during exercise, eating them a few hours before your training can help you make the most of your workout. The harder you are able to push yourself, the better your results in terms of body recomposition. 

During days that you don’t train, carbohydrate intake is reduced (reducing overall calorie intake), to enable further fat loss. 

Moreover, when you diet for prolonged periods of time, your body will eventually adapt to the reduced-calorie diet, which means fat loss will plateau. In an effort to avoid plateaus, as well as having to avoid further lowering calories or increasing energy intake, some try to alter their carbohydrate intake (and by default, calories) to keep their body’s from adapting to a specific amount of calories.

Lastly, carb cycling may help you stick to a low carb diet. Low carbohydrate diets can be a challenge to keep up with, especially if it differs greatly from your usual diet. Adding some higher carbohydrate days systematically into your diet can help reduce cravings. However, there can be a great deal of individual variance here. Furthermore, if you are new to dieting it may complicate things too much and actually reduce adherence. 

Is carb cycling good for sporting performance?

We can only store limited amounts of carbohydrates in our muscles. Once these stores are depleted, you will slow down – this is often referred to as ‘hitting the wall’. 

Some endurance athletes cycle their carbohydrate intake in an attempt to optimise these stores. They maintain a low carbohydrate intake and manipulate this around training sessions. The idea is that the muscle super-compensates after depletion, once you then increase the intake again. The more carbohydrate you are able to store, the better your performance. 

Similarly, for athletes with a high training volume (for example if they train twice per day), it can be beneficial to have a carbohydrate-rich meal after training, to ensure carbohydrate stores in their muscles are optimised again, in time for the next session. 

Would we recommend it?

In most instances, it is not really necessary. However, it can depend on the context. If you train intensely a lot and/or for long periods of time and want to optimise your performance and/or have a fat loss goal, it might just work for you. 

That being said, it takes a lot of planning, and you need to be pretty regimented with your training and intake, in order to benefit. The benefits of doing it do not necessarily outweigh the amount of effort you need to put into it!

Can we offer it at FFF?

At this stage, it is not something that we are able to accommodate. However, as a growing company, we are always looking for ways to develop our offering, based on emerging research, so it could be something that we consider in future. 

On the whole, carb cycling is an interesting concept that can be useful under certain circumstances. However, if you are a recreational athlete, it will likely be best to focus on your intake as a whole, rather than overcomplicating things unnecessarily, as this may work against you and reduce your adherence. Therefore, in my opinion, it likely isn’t worth the large amount of additional planning it would require!

Are you not sure what eating pattern would be best for you? Fresh Fitness Food provides personalised meal plans delivered straight to your door, ensuring not only that you have the nutrients you need to manage your stress levels, but also that you have the time usually spent shopping, cooking and washing up, to engage in your favourite stress-reducing activity. To discuss which nutrition plan is right for you, book a call with our in-house nutrition team here.

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Published by Georgia Chilton

In her teenage years, a love of food and rowing led Georgia into this field as she wanted to know how to optimise performance through nutrition. With a BSc in Nutrition and an MSc in Sports and Exercise Nutrition, she has the skill set to help you track towards your goals and maximise your potential.

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