For a long time, carbohydrates, the macronutrients found in a lot of tasty, starchy foods, had a poor reputation in health circles, but the truth is, carbs aren't the devil; in fact, they're necessary for fuel and a happy body. Carbs give us energy, making them an ideal macronutrient to focus on if you're in the midst of an exercise program. But there can be some confusion about when you should eat carbs when working out for maximum benefits. Science is pretty inconclusive on the "best" way to do things, in part because human bodies are different and there are a lot of different ways to exercise — but you do need to fuel your exercise in some way.
According to Dr. Robert Zembroski, a clinical nutritionist and author of the Rebuild series, if you're not sure about when to schedule carbs into your day around your workout, you're not alone. "There is endless confusion on carbohydrates and how to use them based on a workout schedule" he tells Bustle. "As each person is different, their nutrition needs are also different. However, healthful workout nutrition should accomplish several performance goals: sustained energy, preserved muscle mass, and speedy recovery after the workout." And carbs can help you reach those goals.
Carbs have three metabolic destinations in the body once eaten: immediate energy; stored energy in the form of glycogen; and stored energy as fat," Dr. Zembroski says. Glycogen is a stored form of glucose and carbohydrate in the body, and we don't actually store very much of it at one time, but it's very important to our energy and how we exercise.
Carbs provide three different sources of energy and nutrients for the body: sugars, starches, and fibers. The first two are broken down for immediate energy, while the third goes through a longer process in the digestive system that produces energy in the long run. And all three are crucial for the workings of a functional body. So when should you eat them to maximize your workout?
Some people advocate for fasted workouts, where you exercise on an empty stomach, but Dr. Zembroski notes that carbs can actually help you tap into your glycogen stores if you eat them before a workout, particularly one involving a lot of endurance or cardio. "To build lean muscle, fuel yourself with roughly 40-50 grams of carbs (1/4-1/2 cup of steel cut oats) 1-1.5 hours before the workout," he says. "By doing so, you have immediate fuel and energy, as you retain your glycogen stores and increase muscle growth and retention." This helps you to remain energized, use your glycogen stores to push yourself forward without fading. So, even if you're a work-out-first-thing-in-the-morning person, it can be helpful to fuel up before hitting the treadmill.
Just remember: "bad" and "good" carbs aren't necessarily a thing, but there are many varieties of carbohydrate-heavy foods, from white bread and potatoes to bananas and peas, and each has its own benefits. Do your research, talk to a nutritionist or your GP, and make sure you fuel up before a workout if possible, to make sure you're energized through your final reps.