You need to eat carbs, and you need to eat a lot of them. This is a bold statement, I know. Especially when we’re inundated with articles and information claiming, ranging from “Carbs make you fat” to “Carbs cause cancer.” No, carbs didn’t cause the drought in California, and no, butter is not a carb.
Let’s look at that statement again, and include a stipulation:
You need to eat carbs, and you need to eat a lot of them if you want to perform at a high level. Today we’re going to unpack exactly what that means.
I’ll start with a physiology lesson. Without one, it’s hard to appreciate exactly what’s happening during exercise. I’ll use a car analogy to get started. Your body is somewhat like a Toyota Prius. There’s an electric motor to keep you casually cruising a long throughout the day; that’s when fat is being used for energy. There’s also a gas engine, that helps you with faster bursts of energy, or when you need to speed past that Grandpa in the Cadillac. Those higher-intensity moments are when carbohydrates are being used for energy. Unlike a Prius, your body does an incredibly smooth job of changing from fat for energy (electric) to carbs for energy (gas). That’s right badass, you were the first hybrid engine!
Here’s a visual example of what it looks like:
As exercise intensity increases, we require more carbs to sustain that intensity, since we’re using a lower percentage of fat for fuel. That’s a good thing. You can burn it later. During your workout, focus on higher intensity training. Thing is, you can’t train at a high intensity if you’re not fueling for a high intensity. (TWEET THAT SHIT!)
Let’s look at a story from our own Mr. Wonderful, Geoff Hemingway:
“This reminds me of when I was trying to pass my first KB Snatch Test. I was trying Intermittent Fasting at the time, and I couldn’t pass the test to save my life. Mark Fisher told me I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t train for an intense physical event and do a deprivation experiment at the same time. He was SO RIGHT.”
I’ve emphasized the word “intense” because there are two uses for it. On one hand, “intensity” is very black & white: It’s measured by percentage of oxygen consumed, or %VO2 MAX. On the other hand, it’s based on our own beliefs of how something feels. This could be a few seconds of rushing to catch a train, or when a thriller has you on the edge of your seat.
We’re quick to believe that we’re working at high intensity because something feels hard. Traditional weight lifting, for example, may require a great deal of effort, but in doesn’t require a great deal of oxygen, and therefore isn’t as “intense.” Neither is something such as walking. It certainly requires energy, but the specific energy being used comes from fat, and not from carbs. As a general rule, it is sustained effort at a high level that we’ll call “intense,” and that requires carbs as a necessary fuel source.
NOW LET’S TALK ABOUT YOU.
The amount of carbs that you need is highly dependent on your daily life, your exercise style, and your personal preferences. I don’t want to provide specifics for you adhere to, as it’s ultimately a personal process. Some of these numbers are suggestions to get you started on reflecting on your personal needs.
Do you spend most of your day moving around, or are you frequently in a chair? If your day is at a desk, then you likely don’t need to increase your carbs. You can bring awareness to how many carbs you’re eating by tracking your food intake for several days. At MFF, we suggest using the app MyFitnessPal. Focusing on leafy, colorful vegetables before you move on to starchy ones.
Now let’s talk about your week in exercise. Do you perform 3-5 workouts that require sustained high intensities for more than 60 minutes? If you have multiple workouts in a week that last more than 60 minutes and limit your ability to talk, or if you’re performing multiple high-intensity workouts in a day, you may need vegetables like potatoes or legumes for fueling that activity. However, before we add more starchy carbs to support that exercise, compare your activity intensity for the rest of the week. If you’re in an office or at a desk for most of your waking time, I’d check your caloric intake and carb percentages with MyFitnessPal before you adjust for more.
In the Mood
Have you taken personal inventory on your mental energy and mood with differing ratios of carbs or fat? You may feel like a better you with a higher ratio of carbohydrates in your diet. It may be important to note that this doesn’t mean more calories, but a different macronutrient ratio of those calories. Adjusting accordingly is important!
The ultimate rule for performance training is to never underfuel. (TWEET THAT SHIT!) If you have a physical performance goal that you’re working towards, you must fuel appropriately. Be it the KB Snatch Test like Geoff or a marathon like EStace, it’s important to support that goal with your training and nutrition. If you have an aesthetic goal such as fat loss, the caloric deficit is important, but we need to take inventory of our diet. Too few calories or carbs and we can “bonk”—that feeling of complete and utter fatigue during your workout. Too many calories and/or carbs, and we don’t have an appreciable deficit. So, what’s a Ninja to do?
BALANCE IS BEAUTIFUL.
Performance will usually suffer when you’re in a caloric deficit, while a deficit is necessary for fat loss. That doesn’t mean you have to choose one or the other though. A small caloric deficit, such as 300kcal per day, allows you to sustain your workouts while addressing your fat loss goals. Yes, it’s a degree of double dipping, but it may help you find balance.
You need to eat carbs, and you need to eat a lot of them if you want to perform at a high level. The actual amount depends your daily activities, your exercise style, and your personal preferences. Ultimately, it comes down to what feels the best for you. Finding a balance that lets you perform like a rockstar while reaching your goals requires constant vigilance. We must check in with ourselves, then check in again. It’s an ongoing process leading us to our best selves, and carbs may be the tool needed for the job.