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Fitness & Performance

Carbohydrates and Exercise: Why You Need Carbs If You’re Active

Dana Ryan, PhD, MBA, M.A. – Director, Sport Performance and Education September 30, 2023

Balanced nutrition is important for exercise, but carbohydrates are especially key for maintaining peak performance during physical activity. In fact, carbohydrates are the most important source of fuel in an athlete’s diet! Yet, there’s still a common misconception that all carbs are bad, even though there are many healthy carbs to choose from. Here are the top four reasons why you shouldn’t cut carbs.

1. Carbohydrates fuel the brain and muscles. 

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our brains and bodies to function properly; they fuel our central nervous system and muscles. Think of it as the gasoline you put in your car: Our bodies store carbs in our muscles as glycogen, which is then converted to glucose when you need it. This is how carbs help delay fatigue, sustaining you through prolonged workouts or competitive sports. 

2. Carbohydrates prevent muscle breakdown. 

Adequate carbohydrate intake can prevent muscle breakdown from glycogen depletion by freeing protein to do its main job: repair and rebuild muscle tissue. If we limit carbs, protein will be used for energy rather than building lean muscle. 

In my work with professional athletes, I often recommend a high-carb diet for those who need a lot of endurance and stamina to sustain the daily demands of training and exercise. Of course, needs vary based on the individual and the type of exercise or sports they engage in. 

Individuals on a general fitness program can usually meet their needs by consuming a balanced diet of 45–55% of calories from carbohydrates. That is about 3–5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, per day. 

3. Carbohydrates before a workout will boost your performance. 

If you have ever felt sluggish or low on energy during a workout, you probably didn’t fuel up with sufficient carbs. Choosing snacks that are high in carbs and easy to digest, such as bananas, English muffins with jam, or granola bars before exercise helps maintain optimal levels of blood glucose for our muscles. Foods high in fibre and fat can cause gastrointestinal distress and should be avoided close to exercise.

4. Carbohydrates accelerate recovery. 

Consuming carbohydrates after exercise helps replenish the energy used during strenuous exercise. This is especially true for activity longer than one hour, and requires extra attention to carb refueling. 

Muscles need protein and carbohydrates to properly recover and become stronger. A post-exercise recovery shake with a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein is the perfect way to refuel – try blending Herbalife24 Rebuild Strength with a banana and 10 ounces of milk to optimize your recovery!

Whether you’re an athlete, fitness enthusiast, or just someone who’s trying to lose a few kilograms, carbohydrates are an important part of an optimal diet for consistent performance and recovery. Instead of cutting carbs completely, choose the right carbs before and after your workouts. You’ll be pleasantly surprised that once you change your relationship with carbs, you will perform and feel better!