[Note: I originally wrote this blog post in 2014 but since then a few things have changed so what follows is an updated article written in March 2017 reflecting the new thoughts on carb timing in the fitness industry.]
Does Carb Timing Matter?
Not so long ago, many fitness experts, myself included, recommended timing carbs around workouts and having less carbs the rest of the day. The purpose of carb timing was to help you build muscle while staying as lean as possible. This is what I used to teach:
However, nutrition research is constantly changing how we think about things. More recently, research has been debunking the whole “nutrient timing” approach. It probably doesn’t matter as much as we think. For that reason, I’m updating this old blog post that first appeared on my blog in 2014.
If we consider the fat loss formula above – I still believe the right carbs and the right amount matter but I’m less worried about the right timing of them.
The total amount of carbohydrates you eat, and overall calories, is more important than when you eat them.
However, if you understand the purpose of carbs in your diet, you can time them to get better results from your training and to improve sleep and compliance with your diet.
Carb Timing For Training Purposes
Carbs fuel exercise. During an intense weight lifting session, carbs will fuel your muscles and give you the energy to train harder. They are also going to help you recover and build muscle. So if you want to practice “carb timing” eat them before and after a workout.
This is still in line with the older idea of timing nutrients around when your body needs them the most. The tougher your training sessions, the more likely you’ll want some food before and after.
The best way to figure things out is to experiment on yourself. I’ve tried eating less carbs before and after training and I’ve noticed that I need a certain amount otherwise I get hungry and feel weak during my session, and I don’t recover properly after training. I feel extremely tired the rest of the day unless I refuel with some carbs.
What should you eat after training?
You may have heard that you should consume protein with some higher glycemic index carbohydrates such as fruit juice, honey, white rice and bread, in the “post-workout window.” High glycemic carbs are meant to give you a quick release of insulin needed for muscle building and recovery. However, this advice has traditionally been aimed at guys in the gym who are trying to get bigger. Also, more recently research suggests that the post-workout window is longer than we originally thought. There’s no need to be slamming down a protein shake within 30 minutes of training, but if you’ve trained hard you should be thinking about having a shake or food soon because you’ll feel like you need it!
A healthier, more lifestyle friendly strategy is to stick to lower glycemic carbohydrates before and after your workout, probably with a 1 to 2 hour window on either side. Choose from fruit, starchy vegetables, and grains like brown rice or oats. I usually have a banana mixed into my protein shake or, if I train close to lunch time, I’ll have rice or potatoes.
If you train in the morning
If you train before work, you may not have the time and/or the desire to eat before training that early in the morning. If you are just doing some low intensity cardio not eating might be fine. However, most of women I’ve worked with who are weight training before breakfast report feeling hungry and having less energy when they train fasted. Sometimes they also feel more tired later in the day. I usually recommend having a small carbohydrate snack like a banana or a small protein bar on the way to the gym which works well for them. Remember, the harder you can train, the more muscle you will build (and the better your metabolism is going to be and the better you will look and feel!).
If you train in the afternoon
If you train in the afternoon, you’ll still want to make sure you have some fuel in the tank. If your last meal was a salad at noon and you are training at 5 or 6pm then you should probably have a small snack around 4pm. Most women have some sort of afternoon snack anyway so this probably won’t be a huge change. Don’t underestimate the importance of making sure you aren’t starving when you are working out. When you are hungry, nothing feels good. You’ll not only feel terrible mentally but you aren’t going to have the energy to sustain the intensity you need to build muscle.
If you train weights in the afternoon, some carbs at dinner will help you recover and build muscle so don’t be afraid to have them. Your portion size will depend on your overall caloric intake and how much of your carbohydrate budget you’ve used up in the earlier part of your day.
Carb Timing For Sleep And Diet Compliance
This advice will be contrary to what you’ve probably heard but eating carbs at night isn’t going to make you fat. In fact, eating carbs at night can be really beneficial for some women. When I first started weight training, I was afraid if I ate a lot of carbs at night I would get fat – because that’s what the gym bro-science was saying. However, now that I’m a coach and have experimented with all sorts of different macronutrient ratios in my own diet, I’ve realized that carbs are the magic ingredient not only for my training, but for my mood and my sleep. I now save a big portion of my carbs for my evening meal because I’ve found I sleep so much better.
If you’ve ever suffered with insomnia you know how desperate you are for something that will knock you out. Well, turns out carbs can do that for a lot of people. They reduce cortisol and help us kick down at the end of the day.
Another benefit of eating carbs and bigger meals at night is diet compliance. Often the evening is when women report having the most difficulty staying on track with their diet. They don’t feel satisfied after dinner and pick on whatever is in the pantry or fridge. For many women these cravings are real because they haven’t filled their body up with the right foods through the day. Having a bigger balanced evening meal with a sizeable portion of both protein and carbs does wonders for these ladies.
You can eat all the carbs you want at night if they are within your daily caloric and carb intake. If you like eating a big carb dinner but don’t have a big daily carb budget then you are going to have to practice some “carb timing” by eating less carbs through the day and saving more for dinner. Eating more carbs at night probably isn’t going to affect your waistline but lack of sleep will definitely hamper fat loss. So too will binge eating after dinner. Just remember we are talking about good carb sources like rice, legumes, potatoes and vegetables; we aren’t talking about pasta, pizza or takeaways.
What this means for you
Don’t worry if you are still a bit confused. Honestly, carbs are confusing for everyone. That’s why there’s so much debate about them. Even the experts don’t agree. If it’s all too confusing for you, then remember it’s more about the overall daily caloric and carb intake than it is about timing. Figure out how many calories and carbs you need each day and, as long as you follow that and eat good quality food, you’ll get results.
There will always be people who claim that you don’t need carbs. You probably know someone who thinks that low carb Paleo is the answer to everything or someone who has lost weight using a ketogenic diet. These are valid approaches but you have to figure out what works for you. Remember, women are built differently and tend to not do as well on these types of diets as men. It’s also going to depend on how much weight you have to lose. If you are close to your goal weight and lifting weights 4 to 5 times per week, you can probably get away with more carbs than someone who is primarily focused on weight loss.
The reason there’s so much debate about carbs is that everyone has different bodies, genetics and goals. The best person to figure these things out is you. If you aren’t sure where to start work with a good coach who takes a balanced approach to nutrition and understands women’s bodies. You can also download my free nutrition guide which has all my best advice on nutrition in one place.