In August, a TikTok trend where users snacked on Rice Krispies Treats before going to the gym made headlines across the web. The promise: Loading up on the processed food boosts athletic performance and results in #fitnessgains, a popular hashtag associated with this trend on the social media platform.
Fitness experts were quick to label the phenomenon — sometimes called carbohydrate (carb) timing or carb loading — as nothing new. And if you’ve ever prepared a heaping plate of pasta before a long cardio session like a race (an approach that long preceded the dawn of the internet), you get the idea.
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That said, the TikTok videos may have raised some interesting questions if you’re looking to optimize your fitness. Namely, can carb timing actually improve your workout? And if so, is there a right and wrong way to eat this macronutrient (the other two being protein and fat)?
The answer is complicated, many sports medicine performance specialists say, and depends on what type of workout you do, how long you go, and how hard you push yourself. Also, it depends on what else you ate and when, relative to the start of your workout, they say.
“If you’re meeting your daily carbohydrate requirements through your diet, then most workouts can be accomplished without the need for pre-workout carbs,” says Nick Tiller, PhD, a researcher at the Institute of Respiratory Medicine and Exercise Physiology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in California and author of The Skeptic’s Guide to Sports Science.
Carb loading before a workout may sometimes make sense when you’re planning to exercise for more than 90 minutes or if you’re doing high-intensity workouts like interval training, Dr. Tiller says.
These are circumstances when it’s possible for the body to burn through its stored carbohydrates — and high-carbohydrate drinks or gels might help prevent fatigue, Tiller says. With shorter, less vigorous workouts, however, the body will probably have enough stored carbohydrates to perform just fine without loading up on carbs beforehand.
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What Are Carbs and Why Are They Needed for Exercise?
Carbohydrates — including sugars, starches, and fiber — are macronutrients that get broken down into glucose (blood sugar) in the digestive tract. Glucose then travels through the bloodstream and moves into cells, where it can be used for energy immediately or stored in our muscles and liver as glycogen, a form of sugar that can be used for fuel in the future.
When you exercise, carbs provide fuel for your workouts.
If you exercise without eating carbs first — and you tend not to have enough of these macronutrients in your diet to have a substantial reserve of glycogen in your muscles —your body breaks down protein in your muscles for fuel instead. Tapping these protein stores can make you fatigue more easily and more prone to dizziness and dehydration during intense workouts.
How Different Carbs Can Affect Your Workout
There are two types of carbs — simple and complex — and they can have different roles in fueling a …….