Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Carbs are not your enemy. But, compared to fat and proteins, carbs—in their endless snackable forms—can be the hardest macronutrient to resist. “Carbs don’t carry a strong appetite-satisfying effect,” says Paul Kriegler, R.D., a Minnesota-based certified sports nutritionist and personal trainer with Life Time Fitness health clubs. So even if you crush a bag of Goldfish while bingeing Selling Sunset, you might still be hungry and crave more. For that reason (and others), dialing back on pasta, cookies, and bread has become a popular diet move.
Whether you’re following a carb-restricting diet like keto (which limits carb intake to 5-10 percent of your total calories) or just cutting some of that extraneous starchy snacking, adjusting your workouts is vital. Consuming fewer carbs can stall your fitness progress and make your workouts feel, well, more like work. Here’s how to tweak your sweat sessions so you can stay on top of your fitness game.
1. Keep your workouts short and sweet.
“Someone who’s generally well-nourished can store about two hours worth of carbohydrate energy—in the form of glycogen—in their muscles and liver,” says Kriegler. That’s a pretty decent tank of gas for a standard workout. But if you’re not adequately refilling that tank with enough carbs, you’ll be starting subsequent workouts from a glycogen deficit. “That could cause you to feel more fatigued than normal during a workout and want to cut it short,” he explains.
You can avoid that entirely by planning to shorten your workouts from the get-go. How much you should dial things back depends on your training experience and overall health, says Kriegler. Exercising for as little as 10 minutes was shown to have the same benefits as traditional endurance training in a study published in PLOS One. So, consider starting there and slowly adding on 5 or 10 minutes to your workouts. This way, you can ease into working out with less fuel and get a sense of how much energy you realistically have to put toward your sweat sesh.
2. Vary the intensity.
Carb cutters might need to dial back on high-intensity workouts (like running, swimming, boot camps, and boxing) in favor of more moderate-intensity ones (like the elliptical, resistance training, slow cycling, and walking), says Audra Wilson, R.D., a clinical dietitian with the Weight Management and Bariatric Surgery Program at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital.
“You’re just not really fueling yourself adequately to be able to perform high-intensity exercise to your utmost ability,” she explains, “and that can lead to muscle damage and breakdown.” That doesn’t mean you can’t do any high-intensity workouts; it just means that if you do them too frequently, you may be self-sabotaging. Kriegler recommends that those cutting carbs stick to one to three “hard” workouts a week, one to three that are moderate, and one to three that are easy. Plan to stick to this scaled back fitness regimen until you add more carbs to your diet.
3. Do cardio after strength training.
Your body’s preferred source of energy is always carbs. “It takes more oxygen to break down fat and protein for energy,” explains Wilson. If you start your workout with cardio, you’re going to bottom out your limited glycogen stores right at the outset; then, your body’s going to turn to protein and fat for energy. Translation: Your body will literally break down your hard-earned muscle to provide energy for your strength workout, preventing you from making gains, says Wilson. Eep!
But regardless of how many carbs you eat, doing cardio before strength will cut into the number of weight lifting reps you can perform, according to a study from the The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Not only that, it'll decrease your muscle power while increasing how hard a workout feels, a separate study from the same journal found. Bottom line: Stick to post-lifting cardio whenever you can.
4. Don’t exercise before having breakfast.
There’s a lot of buzz about working out before you’ve eaten in the morning, but experts don’t recommend it. “It’s not a research-backed way to lose weight, and it would lead to muscle breakdown,” says Wilson. In fact, cardio on an empty stomach caused twice the amount of protein breakdown in muscles than doing the same workout after eating, research published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal found.
If you’re limiting your carb consumption, plan to eat those carbs at the meals right before or after your toughest workouts, says Kriegler. “Then, it’s either going to give you the juice you need to get through that higher effort or replenish what you’ve burned through during the workout.”
5. Give yourself extra time to recover.
When you lower your carb intake, the less insulin your body makes; and the less insulin in your body, the harder it is for your body to retain electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and calcium.
Electrolytes are minerals that help trigger muscle contractions—if you don't have enough in your body, your body won't be able to perform a bicep curl or move your leg forward to take your next running step, explains Kriegler. You might experience more tension or cramping in your muscles, too. “Even if you don’t change the amount of load you’re putting on your muscles, you might benefit from longer rest periods.”
That could just mean an extra minute or two between sets of heavy lifts, or an extra day of recovery after a more intense workout. How do you figure out what kind of rest you need? Listen to your body. “If you have extra time during your workout to rest more, great,” says Kriegler. “If you need to be efficient and just adjust your training frequency throughout the week, that’s fine, too.”
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