If you’ve been working out for any period of time, or even spent time as an armchair fan of fitness reading about training and nutrition, you’ve probably come across the term, “carb cycling.”
But what exactly does carb cycling mean? And how does it work?
If you think carb cycling is what powered Tour de France riders to cover 3,540 kilometers (2,200 miles), last month, you’re partly right. Cyclists do consume a lot of carbs when they’re in the saddle, mashing pedals, changing gears, and gunning for the yellow jersey.
But that’s not exactly what carb cycling is when you’re training to shred fat, build muscle, or complete your own transformation.
And if you think carbs are meant to be avoided at all costs, that’s another misconception. It’s a good idea to avoid or limit refined carbohydrates (e.g., sugary drinks and snacks; cereals, breads, and pasta, potato chips made from refined grains).
But I get it. Some of these comfort foods taste good. One of my personal favorites: Chocolate covered Tim Tam biscuits. If you don’t know what this is, imagine an Oreo cookie with chocolate cream filling, coated in chocolate. High in calories and carbohydrates, low in nutritional value.
No, it isn’t healthy and doesn’t really have any nutritional value. But I think being able to enjoy the foods you love (within reason), and still get results is really important. And that’s reflected in the customized training and nutrition plans I create.
3 common carbohydrate mistakes
Eating carbohydrates can actually help enhance performance and support muscle growth. But only if you eat the right carbs and follow a couple of specific rules. Your body uses carbohydrates to produce energy, but make some of these mistakes and the carbs you eat will hinder your progress instead of help you:
- Eating the wrong carbs. Junk food in all its various forms causes rapid spikes in blood sugar levels from refined carbohydrates. If you’re an endurance athlete, you might be able to burn a ton of carbs from hours of training. But even then, refined carbs are typically high in fat or lead to fat storage. And that’s not going to help you get lean, build muscle or lose weight.
- Eating carbs close to bedtime. When you go to sleep, you’re basically fasting for 6-8 hours. Your body will burn fat as energy if carbs aren’t available. But if you top off your night with a bunch of junk food and go to bed, you’ll be sabotaging your efforts to get lean or build muscle. Your body will use some of those excess carbs for energy, and the rest gets stored as fat.
- Eating too many carbs. If your macronutrient ratios (carbohydrates, protein, fat) are carb-heavy, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not going to see amazing results in the mirror. Getting your macronutrient ratio right and eating the right amount of carbs for your goal and your body type can have a huge impact on body composition.
Tap Into the Power of Carb Cycling
It took me some time to recognize how my body responds to carb cycling. But once I figured it out, I realized it’s a highly effective way to get shredded if you do it right. Whenever I’m in a cutting phase, I’ll use carb cycling as a way to speed the process to get closer to my goal.
There’s more than one way to devise a carb cycling plan, but I typically recommend planning a couple of high-carb days, followed by low-carb days. This approach will give you the energy you need from carboyhydrates, without completely destroying your diet and fitness goals.
A couple high-carb days, followed by a couple of low-carb days can have a huge impact on overall health and physique by training your body to burn more fat as energy.
For clients I think will benefit from carb cycling, I include all the details they need for high-carb and low-carb nutrition as part of their customized plan.
How many carbs should you consume for carb cycling?
It depends.Your body type, metabolism, duration and intensity of your workouts (strength training and cardio), all have an impact on how your body metabolizes carbohydrates.
My general recommendation: 200 grams of carbohydrates max, on a high-carb day. That’s equivalent to 800 calories, or about 40 percent of calories for a 2,000-calories-a-day-diet.
On low carb days, going all the way down to about 50 grams of carbohydrates a day is a good goal. That’s only about 200 calories from carbs, or just 10 percent of calories on 2,000 calories a day.
On high-carb days, you have a little more wiggle room to sample those favorite junk foods in small portions. But on low-carb days, you really have to dial it in and stick to clean eating.
When you cycle through a couple of high-carb days, then low carb days, your body adapts and burns more fat, for a while. When you notice that to start to taper off, planning a cheat day with plenty of carbs is a good way to reset your metabolism to get back into fat burning mode.
Carb cycling for fat loss
I’ve effectively used carb cycling to burn fat and get shredded for years now. I’ve put myself through enough cycles now to know it works. And it’s why I typically include carb cycling recommendations in the customized plans I create for clients.
It takes some practice to learn how to adjust your diet on high-carb and low-carb days. But it’s work it. Carb cycling can speed fat loss, tip the scale in the right direction, and show you results in the mirror.
Questions about carb cycling? Follow me on Instagram and ask me about carb cycling during my next live Q&A.
- Robinson, J. (2016). What you need to know about carb cycling. American Council on Exercise: https://www.acefitness.org/acefit/healthy-living-article/60/5872/what-you-need-to-know-about-carb-cycling/
- Kresta, J., et al. (2010). Effects of diet cycling on weight loss, fat loss and resting energy expenditure in women. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2951044/
- Westman, E., et al. (2007). Low-carbohydrate nutrition and metabolism. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. From: ajcn.nutrition.org/content/86/2/276.full.