What you need to know about carb cycling

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Used by athletes to condition their body for competition, build weight and get in shape, sports nutritionist Gabrielle Maston explains how carb cycling works.

Carb cycling is an advanced nutrition strategy that requires careful planning. It involves reducing carbs to 50-100g alongside a reduction in calories on certain days of the week. It’s thought to improve your body’s fat burning and improve insulin sensitivity. Different athletes use carb cycling for different reasons — so depending on your sport of choice, here’s how you can go about it.

Endurance athletes

For endurance sports, carb cycling is typically used in the off-season to condition an athlete’s body to burn fat as fuel instead of carbs. The most common carb cycling method involves having little to no carbs the night before and the morning prior to a long duration training session. The idea behind this is to mimic how the body would feel during a long duration race.

For example, a cyclist might have a steak with veggies for dinner and eggs with avocado for breakfast — no carbs. In doing this, they head into their training session that day carb depleted.

This training session shouldn’t be one where performance is vital. If you restrict carbs before a long ride or run you’ll feel tired and your performance won’t be at its peak.

The aim of training in a carb depleted state is to push your body into upregulating fat burning enzymes. It also prepares you for how the body feels at the end of races, when your body’s carbs stores are running low but you still need to continue to perform to finish the race.

Carbs are essential for recovery, so after your training session make sure to add wholegrain carbs back into your diet. Try some tuna on wholegrain crackers or a salad sandwich on Helga’s Lower Carb bread.

Bodybuilders and figure athletes

Physique-based sports such as bodybuilding and figure competitions require athletes to drop significant levels of body fat in a short period of time, prior to competition day.
To achieve this, athletes reduce their carb intake for 2-3 days alongside their calorie intake to reduce body fat. It’s recommended that the low carb days are reserved for rest days, or days when training isn’t intense or cardio based.

Carbs have a protein sparing effect, so you still need to include enough carbs for muscle recovery after heavy weight and cardio training sessions. It will also give you enough energy to front up to the gym the following day.

Weight loss

Carb cycling is not a long-term solution to weight loss. However, if you’ve hit a weight loss plateau you could use carb cycling to get your body revved up for weight loss again.

Choose three consecutive days a week where you lower your carb intake to 50g per day and reduce your caloric intake to 1,200 calories for women and 1,500 calories for men for one month. This is a low-energy diet and it will induce ketosis, a state of fat burning. After 3 days, return to your normal eating regimen, bringing your calorie intake to 1,500 for women and 1,800 for men.

Be aware that reducing your energy intake too low can sometimes cause binge eating.
If you find yourself overeating after doing one round of carb cycling, stop immediately — this isn’t the plan for you!