Monday, 9 November 2009

Discussion Question: Carbs and Training Frequency

Since the 2008 Crossfit Games many competitive CrossFitters have started training multiple metabolic conditioning workouts per day (despite the misgivings that many barbell-strength-focused theoreticians have with this methodology.) This trend has accelerated since the 2009 Games.

Some athletes respond well to increased workout frequency, while others crash and burn. How do we best adapt ourselves to a higher frequency of training? What role does nutrition play?

Today’s discussion question, therefore, is: what is the relationship between carbohydrate intake and metabolic conditioning performance in CrossFitters?

Aaron Moburg-Jones first raised this issue in the comments section of my Facebook status. He suggested that the ability to process carbohydrates may influence an athlete’s ability to train frequently.

Shane Skowron agreed with Aaron, saying that:

“Well if you do more volume, you need more carbs… Carbs fuel glycolytic system and glycolytic system is involved in almost every Crossfit workout with a few exceptions.

Jay Ashman disagreed with Shane’s point, citing the example of Matt Lalonde from Robb Wolf’s website.

The discussion continued past this point, but it’s not my intent to summarize the debate here.

Instead, I wish to involve the broader CrossFit community in a discussion of the relationship between carbohydrate intake and training frequency.

What has been your experience with the relationship between nutrition and training frequency, either as a coach or as an athlete?


Jay Ashman said...

I agree 100% that in a normal CF environment, and even in one that you have a couple wod's planned per day, lower carbs work well, they have for me and they have for others as well.

However... the flip side is this. when you are training for a grueling contest like the Games where you are sometimes doing 3-4 workouts a day to prepare your body for the task at hand, you really should raise your carbs to a level to support refilling the glycogen stores faster.

Its been proven time and time again that fat-as-glycogen replenishing does not happen as efficiently or as fast as carbs-as-glycogen.

That means that in order to participate in a multi-event contest you must not do lower carbs in preparing for it.

Not to mention the fact that since you will be training 3-4 times a day you will need the extra calories to recover as well, and eating smart carbs can't hurt that process. ;)

Russ Greene said...

Interesting, Jay.

I think your point on context is important.

I know Robb Wolf recommends higher carbs on contest day, but I don't think he likes that so much for training.

I know of a few 09 games competitors who do higher carb year round.

Nutrition isn't my number one area of expertise though so I'm going to wait to hear what other people have to say.

Alisha said...

ok well since the games i have gone back to more carbs,before i was way more zone.Im not saying that zone is bad,its not for me.When i use to fight(boxing)i would eat tons of carbs,during training camp i would workout 3days a day.And it didnt hurt my performance.So i feel for my body i get the best results with more carbs,while others may disagree,thats fine.Its like THE VIDEO ABOUT programing on games site,when we get to cali we find out what method works best.If i were to run a sub 19 5k and deadlift 455lbs could u really say that what i do dont work??or in mikko's case(2009 champ)he eats alot more bad things then he should some would say,but he did win.So do what is best for u,that comes with time to learn yourself
this is charlie toomuch not my account lol

Jay Ashman said...

and I know of a few athletes who eat like shit and look like studs... I think genetics plays a huge role in the absorption and utilization of macronutrients, and should really be explored further.

And I am not sure exactly how Robb feels about low carb for training. Paleo, by nature, is a lower carb diet so we can assume he isn't a fan of eating a lot of carbs for it.

Context IS important, training for fitness is 100% different than training for an event.

Russ Greene said...

"If i were to run a sub 19 5k and deadlift 455lbs could u really say that what i do dont work?"

If I were to look for a sentence to sum up the EYF creed, this one from Charlie could be it. And for those who don't know, this isn't hypothetical, he really can deadlift 455 and run a sub 19 5k.

If it works, it works.

Whitney said...

I agree with Alisha that you have to find things that work for you. It also depends, I think, on WHAT you are eating for. Is it as a part of total fitness? To lose weight? To compete in a strenuous event? I feel that all of us are so different on a physical and genetic level that what works for me may not work for you (I mean the universal you in this case). There are things that my body may not be able to handle that yours can. I haven't increased my carb intake on days that I train and I find that things are working out pretty well for me.

Granted... I can't run a sub 19 5k... yet.

Gabe Rosen said...

With the disclaimer that I am a CrossFit beginner, I generally believe carbs are overrated. I will up my carb intake a bit for a long bike ride or backpacking, but in my regular workouts, I find that the fewer carbs I consume in the 24 hours prior the better I feel. Of course, if I do feel like more carbs, I always do better with something colorful and nutritious like yams or beets, versus the dread pasta.

It's interesting that many people seem to recommend the Zone while basically eating Paleo. If you're consuming 2000 calories a day (probably too little, but to keep the math easy) 40% carbs would put you at 200 grams a day, which seems actually hard to reach if you're avoiding grains and legumes and not consuming many high-sugar fruits.

I think you have to know what you can get away with as well. I am not one to use "metabolism" as an excuse for my fitness shortfalls, but I know that it doesn't take much carb imbalance for me to start packing on pounds, versus some of my more invincible friends. I try to keep them to maybe 100 grams a day, and half that if I don't get a workout in.

anywherefit said...

I have two comments that relate to this discussion. The first pertains to general performance/carb concerns. Honestly, I have noticed insignificant differences when I eat grains and when I don't. What I do notice is that I look bigger when I eat them, and more cut when I don't. I'd say I feel more energy when I don't, but it's not a huge difference either way. The most important factor for me is number of calories. If I eat a lot, I'll perform well. If I miss a meal or two, I'll feel dead. For the past 3 weeks, I've been eating stricter paleo than I ever have, so perhaps I will have to amend these comments if I go deadlift 500 lbs next week.

My second comment is in regards to nutrition and multiple WOD days. Whatever my diet has been going into a contest or a multiple workout day, that is what it shall remain. I don't think significantly your altering diet in the days before a workout is a good idea unless you really know what you're doing and know your body won't react adversely (think massive fiber influx and dehydration).

That being said, post workout alteration is a must. I felt like shit during the Mid Atlantic Qualifier last April, and by the end of the weekend i was visibly deflated and drained. During the Games in Aromas, contrarily, I felt pretty decent the whole way through, even though I had competed in twice as many events during the same time span (not to mention the events were muuuch more taxing). Granted, this was probably partially a result of the ice baths and recovery tents that we had in Aromas, but I think it had more to do with the radical change I made in the timing and quantity of nutrition during the event.
Post WOD in Virginia Beach, I would eat a banana and a protein shake when I meandered back to our chairs. In Aromas I bee-lined to the tent after every workout and made a shake that included protein, creatine, and cytomax (essentially gatorade, but better and a ton of carbs). I also ate a banana and a sweet potato after every WOD.
I've continued to follow this type of post workout carb bounce since and have avoided feeling drained on multi-workout days. Spiking the insulin after workouts is no new idea, as it serves to drive nutrients into the muscles when they really need it, but it is something worth mentioning again since it just plain works.

Tsypkin said...

Good stuff here. One point I'd like to address, and one I'd like to bring up.

First, regarding individualization of nutrition: I agree that there is bound to be some difference from person-to-person in terms of need for caloric intake, insulin response, etc. However, I have yet to see anything which would indicate that there are truly drastic differences. I've never had anyone thrive on either super high or super low carbs. An example:

One of my athletes, Kari, started out with me doing about 20% protein. I had her start Zoning, and she stuck with that for quite a while, seeing very positive results. Recently she tried doing cyclic low carb. Most days she was eating 54g of carbohydrates. About twice a week she would eat 120g of carbohydrates, because if she didn't she felt like she couldn't think clearly. This worked fairly well for about 2 weeks, but after that she started bonking. She felt constantly overtrained and sick, even though she was sleeping 9 hours a night and her training volume and intensity were not extreme. I told her to go back to more Zone-like proportions: 13 blocks protein, 10 carbs, 22 fat (those numbers may not be exact, I'll have to check with her.) Almost immediately her performances improved and she felt better.

She didn't perform well on carbs being either very high or very low. It's worth mentioning that when Kari started with me and until somewhat recently she ate some brown rice, now she's Paleo.

The point I'd like to bring up: Stress levels. If stress levels didn't exist, it would be pretty easy to figure out every person's exact macronutrient ratio and intake needs and stick to them precisely. However, considering what stress does to our bodies hormonally, many people will do better with a slightly less "optimal" plan that stresses them out less. For example: I have done strict Zone Paleo and seen good results in the short term. But all the weighing and measuring gets to me after a while: I start to lose motivation, both for diet and training, and I slip. I miss workouts, and start cheating. Now, I've been doing CrossFit for edging on 4 years. I'm pretty good at eyeballing. I eat (mostly) Paleo, get plenty of protein, and keep an eye on my carbs and fat. Once in a while I measure to keep myself calibrated. Despite getting more food than I really need this way (definitely more protein and fat, and probably a little more carbohydrate), my performances are better for LONGER periods, I have much less trouble slipping on my nutrition, and I find it easier to focus on the things I have to get done each day, of which there are usually plenty.

mfromano said...

This guy sums up my observations pretty well:

Very in line with what Jay has to say...train fasted/with very low carb/high fat, and come competition time, add a moderate amount of carbs and profit.

fairy said...

A few things to add to Jacob's post regarding my experiences ('Kari') with Carbs.

First I want to say that this IS a an individual thing. Some people are just way more sensitive to carbs / insulin response than others. But whatever you're going to try, give it at least 3-4wks. There will be a 'detox' phase where your body needs to adjust. You'll feel worse at first.

After about 10 yrs of playing around with every macro-nutrient split under the sun, what works best for me (performance, recovery, leanness, higher energy levels, mental function, and just feeling good in general) is a 'lower carb' intake and a pretty strict Paleo intake. For me, this means about 90g Carb per day (coming from nothing but veggies and fruits, maybe 1 serving of yams or squash per day), 100g Protein (occas I bump this up a little if I'm starving), and 50-60g Fat per day (I also bump this up occasionally when I've trained longer/harder for a day here and there).

Here's how I got to this point - hopefully I'll save some people some time experimenting on things that I thought didn't work.

I come from a bodybuilding diet background - IE. HIGH carbs, HIGH protein, LOW fat. I really believed in 55% carbs / 45% Protein / 10% Fat.
And I used to eat grains at every meal. Even if it eventually was only brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal or yams. But I also had started having issues with water retention. (Once I cut out grains, this went away - and it was still there after I cut out it was coming from grains in general).

It took about a year for Jacob to convince me to ditch my beloved Grains. And I'd long-since given up Gluten and Dairy. (** please note that ANY gluten will junk you up for the week - so Gluten at a cheat meal is not a good idea).

I even decided to try a cyclical low-carb (KETO) diet. This did NOT work for me. I think it's a hormonal thing - and I'm super sensitive to carbs. so on my higher-carb days (Satur / sunday), my body got so messed up that it didn't recover for like 4 days. I was doing less than 30g carbs Mon-Friday...and about 300g on weekends. Yeah, by thursday I was lean as shit. But Saturday and Sunday was just a carb crash and Monday - Wedn was miserable coming out of that and moving into low-carb days. Not worth it. I did this for 3 months. Overall, I didn't lose any bodyfat, didnt gain any muscle, and my performance blew.

And man I could not function mentally. Seriously, I got lost driving home one day from a spot that I'd driven home from 3-4X a week for over a year. I could barely remember if I was coming or going, and all I wanted to do was lay in bed all day.

Once I switched to Paleo and gave up grains, after about 10 days I noticed I felt great and started seeing performance improvements and felt leaner; plus I could still think clearly.

So for me, the sweet spot is just under 100g Carb per day.

Now I just do 1 fruit per day, maybe 1 yam (only after a workout) and the rest of the carbs are green veggies.

Your body will replenish muscle glycogen in about 24hrs on it's own (the liver will release glucose to make up for what you're not getting in the diet). So you don't really NEED the PWO yams. but on a multiple-WOD day, I highly recommend it or you will bonk.

And I do Yams over Fruit PWO because fruit refills liver glycogen over muscle glycogen.

On a side note, I took in over 180g protein a day for like 10 yrs. I weight about 125lbs. Since cutting back to 90-100g, I haven't lost any muscle. and I think that the high protein intake was taxing my adrenals and causing an increase in cortisol levels. (possibly also contributing to the water retention I was having) Just something to watch out for...

I highly recommend everyone try this for 4 weeks: give up Gluten, Dairy and Sugar. Put your splits at about 25-30%C / 30-35%P / 40%F.
I bet you won't go back!

Russ Greene said...


I didn't find that article very convincing. No one has argued that carbohydrates are "essential" or "necessary." The question is, what level of carbohydrate intake is best for high levels of fitness, especially now that top athletes are regularly performing several demanding workouts per day. Sure, you can survive and train off of very low carb levels, but is that diet optimal for improving work capacity? I haven't seen much evidence to support that claim.

Kari, Charlie (aka alisha), and Blair (anywherefitness, #7 at the 09 Games) have all noted impressive performance improvements while disregarding Dr. Harris's advice to train in a fasted state and eating substantial quantities of carbohydrates in training (not just pre-competition.)

Shane said...

Yeah, that article that Romano posted is kind of a joke. Okay, it's true you don't need carbs to exercise. You also don't need to sleep more than 5 hours a day to exercise either but that doesn't mean it's good to do so.

Just a quick review of the metabolic pathways shows that for glycolytic pathway you absolutely need carbs. Oxidative stuff is not the only kind of exercise. Try running a 400m sprint on a day without carbs, and then compare it to a day with carbs. You'll notice the latter is going to be faster.

Even Robb Wolf has said it here:
"The bottom line? No glycogen, no glycolytic activity!"

Jay Ashman said...


in that same article you posted:

"I’d say greater than 50% of folks I work with run better on few than recommended carbs. This is just something you need to play with. Do you perform better on fewer carbs? Feel better? Better hunger control? Leaner? I can’t figure this stuff out for you in an easy way, you just need to tinker and see what works."

Nobody is saying that a ketogenic diet is the best thing to do for everyone or even for competition, but not everyone needs to eat "zone" level carbs, some do well with lowered carbs

Tsypkin said...

I think for any meaningful discussion to continue we need to quantify a few things.

Zone prescribes 40% of daily intake from carbohydrates.

Shane and Jay: What percentage of daily intake from carbs are you each recommending? What does each of you consider "lowered carbs?"

Jay Ashman said...

Zone is 40%. Anabolic Diet teaches 20g or less per day with two carb loading days, Atkins is 20g or less per day until your body goes into ketosis and your breath smells like shit...

to be honest, I think anything from 25% to 40% of your daily intake as carbs is sufficient depending on your individual needs. Anything less than that for an athlete isn't good.

If you are an average person training to be in shape, by all means stick to the low end, but if you are training for something that requires a high output of energy and a multi-event day, staying too low will cause issues.

When I say lowered carbs I generally refer to the standard way we eat as compared to Paleo or Zone. By definition Zone is a lowered carb diet because generally we were told that 50%+ of our daily calories need to come from carbs but that has since been proven to be a joke.

Shane said...

I agree. When I'm talking low-carb levels I mean like less than 15% daily intake. I think 25-40% is adequate for most situations.

However if you ramp up the volume I expect that your entire caloric intake should increase, which would necessitate an increase in carb intake as well.

For example on days where I'm doing heavy volume, I can go up to 4000 and 4500 calories, but my carb/fat/ratios stay pretty much the same. It's just that instead of 250g of carb I'm eating almost 350g.

mfromano said...

Yeah, kind of a bad answer to the question. Robb Wolf talks a bit about trade-offs in fitness/longevity, and I think this is more what the article is addressing. Would working out in a fasted state and keeping insulin as low as possible be beneficial over the long term? Probably. However, I do agree that (generally) in the short term, an athlete's performance would be better on a higher amount of carbohydrates, probably closer to Zone approximations. What amount this is I have absolutely no idea.

mfromano said...

*exact amount.