Intra Workout Carbs for Athletes

May 16, 2024

When you're pushing intensity during a session, the last thing you want to have happen is to hit the proverbial wall. Often, when you hit the wall, it's already too late; your session is probably toast. But, if this has happened to you, then you're probably looking for a way to prevent this in the future to get the most that you can out of the time you have. 

The Link Between Carbohydrates and Fatigue

Carbohydrates, or carbs for short, are 1 of 3 main macronutrients used in our bodies, protein & fat being the other 2. Carbs are broken down into glucose and provide fuel to working muscles. If we're performing high-intensity, anaerobic movements to improve power, strength, or muscle, it's a good idea to make sure our bodies have immediately available fuel. If we burn through the circulating glucose we have and deplete our glycogen stores; then it's likely that we'll become so fatigued that continuing our session is no longer a viable option. 

As the intensity and duration of training increase, our need for carbohydrates increases. Choosing to stick it out by not providing your body enough energy is usually not a very good idea because the quality of your session will decrease, leading to potentially wasted time in the gym. 

Carbs Can Help Improve Physical and Mental Performance

If you can't finish the programmed amount of volume (sets & reps) in your program, then you'll be less likely to make strength or hypertrophy gains. By consuming carbohydrates during any session anticipated to be 60 minutes or longer, you'll be less likely to suffer from decreased performance. 

In short, carbs can improve your recovery between sets, allowing you to feel more energized and ready to do the work. Plus, carbohydrates can blunt the effects of cortisol, a catabolic hormone that is released when muscles are damaged, helping to prevent unnecessary breakdown. 

In addition to your working muscles, your brain also relies on glucose for energy. So, including carbohydrates mid-workout can help you retain focus, execute your session with your head in the game, helping you deliver your best technique. 

What Intra Workout Carbohydrates Are Best?

Ideally, liquid-based carbohydrates are more easily tolerated during movement. Plus, most liquid-based carbohydrates contain very little or no fiber, which we don't really want during exercise because it slows down the digestion of nutrients. 

Here are some examples of intra workout carbohydrates that may be helpful:

  • Regular liquid sports drinks (not the low or zero-sugar variety; you need the sugar that is available in the regular versions of these beverages
  • Powdered-based, regular, sports drinks that you can mix with water (same thing here, save the low or zero sugar options for another time)
  • Cyclic dextrin (tasteless carbohydrate powder) in water or mixed in another liquid that contains no or very little fiber
  • Energy gels (can also use blocks or chews)

When Should You Consume Intra Workout Carbs?

The length and intensity of your session will probably dictate at what point you should take your intra workout carbs. For example, if you anticipate that your session will be approximately 60 minutes long, consuming 20-30g of carbs about halfway through is probably a good approach. 

Whereas if you know that your session will last 120 minutes, you may choose to take intra-workout carbs twice during your session. For example, halfway through the first hour and then again halfway through the second hour. Generally, for every 60 minutes of exercise, you may want to consume about 30g of carbs per hour. However, you could consume more than that, even upwards of 60-70g depending on the intensity of your sessions. 

Gastric emptying and gastric tolerance will be the main variables that you need to be mindful of. If you consume 60g without ever using intra workout carbs before, that may be a recipe for an upset stomach. It's probably a better approach to start with a liquid carbohydrate that you've had before, with closer to 20-30g to start. If your body tolerates this, then you could probably slowly increase the amount for longer-duration sessions. 

Pro Tip: Don't use an intra workout carbohydrate product you've never used before on the day of your game, race, meet, event, etc. 

Do You Have to Count Intra Workout Carbs Towards Your Daily Carb Totals?

Yep, all food & drinks consumed count towards your daily caloric intake. It is important to point out that likely the carbs you consume during your session will be used quickly, but that means that other nutrients in your body will be used less during other times in your day when you're not working out.

However, if you're calculating your estimated total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) correctly, then the energy consumed during your training session will be included in the amount of energy your body needs to maintain function (basal metabolic rate) and keep up with your activity level. For more information on calculating TDEE, check out this blog post on calculating calorie needs.

A best practice approach includes looking at your total carbs for the day and allocating the amount you need, as discussed above, during your session. Then, strategically consume the remainder of your carbs before or after your training session for the day. Something that may be helpful is to "pretrack" what you plan on having for the day, factoring in the carbs you plan to consume during your training session. 

Training Programs Available

Our Hybrid Athlete Team, available on the Train Heroic app, is a great place to get support with your training & nutrition, no matter what your goals are. Backed by our over 10 years of training & nutrition experience, we can help you reach your goals and become even more athletic. You can get more info or join our Hybrid Athlete Team here.

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