If you have ever trained hard or long enough, you have probably run head-on into the awful wall of fatigue during one of your workouts. You know when you hit it, you feel like you have nothing left to give, everything is difficult and you couldn’t possibly do another set, mile or even a sentence.
The question is how do you push through this obstacle? Some people double down on supplements which can work temporarily but that is kind of like putting a plaster over a bullet wound. Better pre-workout nutrition can help but it is too late once your face is tattooed on the wall.
At this point it is best to add some carbs to your intra-workout shake.
Carbohydrates And Fatigue
Why add carbs to a workout? Because they are your muscles primary energy source. The harder and more intensely you train, the more your body relies on carbohydrates for immediate fuel. This is definitely true when performing anaerobic exercises like bodybuilding or powerlifting because you train for short bursts at high intensity.
When training at high intensity, fatigue sets in as you use up your stored carbs (glycogen) in your muscles and circulating blood pressure. If you start a workout with a depleted tank or one that is just partially full, you will git the wall much earlier in your training session.
When you have used a certain amount of muscle glycogen your body stops trying to free energy from glycogen and circulate glucose and focuses on conserving energy. The result is increased fatigue as well as lowered focus, power and strength.
This is where intra-workout carbs come into play. By adding in carbs during a very long or arduous training session, you can shift your body’s focus back to using energy rather than conserving it. Keep in mind that it does not matter if your goal is to build muscle or lose body fat. Either way, you can boost your exercise performance by refueling rather than trying to tough it out.
The Joy Of Carbohydrates
Intra-workout carbs could be the missing link needed to take your performance and body composition to the next level and here are four reasons to start drinking them now.
1) Boosting Your Performance
Once the reps and sets of any given workout start piling up, your body’s ability to fully recover between each set starts to diminish. When this happens, your performance will take a hit and when your ability to perform drops, you won’t be able to lift as much total volume in your workout which can threaten your ability to make gains.
Consuming intra-workout carbohydrates provides a rapidly available fuel source which keeps your energy high for subsequent sets rather than stopping short or needing to reduce the weight, you will be able to continue to work hard.
Having readily available energy will help you with doing more total work which is good for both muscle and strength gains as total volume is what drives growth. Half-assing the back-end of a workout will result in less total volume being done and ultimately limit your potential benefits.
2) Reduce Mental Fatigue
Carbohydrates are not just your muscle’s preferred fuel source, they fuel the brain too. Mental preparation, focus and awareness of technique are crucial for any exercise but particularly for heavy compound movements. Low energy availability can result in foggy focus and a lowered ability to safely complete a lift which is a recipe for failure or injury.
Sipping on carbohydrates throughout a really tough or long workout will help deliver a continuous fuel source to your brain which may help you avoid mistakes which are linked to mental exhaustion.
3) Reverse Catabolic Processes
Carbohydrate ingestion during prolonged exercise can also blunt the increase in cortisol concentration both during exercise and for up to several hours afterwards. By limiting the catabolic processes cortisol can cause and by keeping muscle damage at bay, you’ll recovery quicker and be able to give your next workout everything.
4) Enhance Body Composition
When you consume carbs during training, they are efficiently utilized for both energy and recovery, which leaves little chance for them to be stored as body fat. Just remember that you still need to factor the carbs you consume during training into your total daily intake.
If you do decide to try using carbs during a workout I would not suggest bringing a bowl of pasts to the gym or nibbling a bagel during your lift. During a workout, you actually want liquid carbs so that digestion is easily done and not bothersome.
Just keep it simple with dextrose or your favorite sports-drink powder and sip the liquid throughout your workout to reap the many performance-related benefits. For an extra layer of muscle maintenance, consider adding BCAA’s or whey protein to the mix.
When To Take Intra-Workout Carbs
There is an argument going around which favors sipping on carbohydrates for many different training styles, whether bodybuilding, powerlifting, crossfit or endurance activities. Rather than focusing on a specific style of training, I actually prefer to focus on specific components of a training session itself. Duration, volume and intensity.
There will always be exceptions to this rule of course when it comes to deciding when it is appropriate to consume carbohydrates during training, there two main factors to take into account. The length of your training session and intensity.
Length Of Training: For most cases, you can benefit from intra-workout carbs if you train for longer than an hour. However, a case can also be made for nonstop, high-intensity sessions flirting with the 45-minute mark too.
Most sessions that are less than 45 minutes will be adequately fueled by a pre-workout meal and do not necessitate intra-workout carbohydrates. Consuming carbs during a short session is not detrimental but you may be better off saving those carbs for real food before or after a workout.
Intensity And Volume Of Training: Volume and intensity do not necessarily dictate the need for intra-workout carbohydrates as much as they dictate the amount you should consume.
You will benefit from carbohydrates more during workouts made up of multiple sets of 6 or more reps compared to a workout built upon long rest periods and sets of 3 reps or less. However, whether you bust out a 60 minute high-volume leg day or a 90 minute powerlifting session, you’ll still benefit from carbs. You may just change the amount you consume.
How Many Carbs To Take
Here is a quick guide to help you determine how many grams of carbohydrates you should take based upon the length of your training session:
Length Of Training (Minutes) Amount Of Carbohydrates (Grams)
Less than 45 0
These numbers are just general guidelines. Your size, training style, nutrition and training goals will also play a major role in determining precisely how many carbs you need. Try a few different amounts and determine what works best for you.
Just dumping sugar dissolved in water in your stomach may still not optimize absorption. Adding too much sugar can ruin the digestion process. To make sure you can tolerate the carbs you are consuming, you want your mixture to contain a 6-8% carbohydrate concentration or 15g per 8oz of fluid.
A higher percentage or carb-heavy drink will actually work against you by slowing down digestion which may lead to GI distress and an uncomfortable training session.
15g 8 ounces
30g 16 ounces
45g 24 ounces
60g 32 ounces
Now you can carb up and crush those workout goals, the wall of fatigue will not defeat you.
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