Carb Cycling: Is It Worth It?
Ok, so here’s the thing. I’m sure we’ve all heard of carb cycling, maybe even done carb cycling ourselves, but what does it actually entail?
Well let’s not dive straight in the deep end. Nutrition, as I’m sure you’re aware (perhaps frustrated by even), is a complex discussion even for the most experienced or perhaps studious of us all.
When it comes to fat loss, gaining some size or even just being happy with where you’re currently at, calories will always be king. Sure, we can play around with the approach, but similar to training or cycling potentially, making it your own is a good way to go.
When we start out with something new, like a different hobby or sport, we’ve all been faced with the inevitable jargon, seemingly ridiculous amounts of detail as well as, let’s face it, being often overwhelmed.
Take cycling, for example:
It’s a great exercise for many and, if you’re still relatively new to the discipline, any chat about RPM, cadence or PSI is sure to grind even the toughest of gears.
Nutrition’s no different and the more we add on minute details and ‘toppings’, the more we’re likely to sack off our goals, hit our local and return to our usual routine or lack of for that matter.
But, hey, building up momentum and getting the wheels turning is and will forever be the best approach, at least for myself and my clients.
Grinding your own gears
I’m always one to take a perhaps different approach to many of these debates or topics and let’s imagine things as if they were set out with a clear starting point and destination.
As with many routes, roads or paths, there will always be more than one way to reach our desired end point.
Sure, we can hit the ground running, cut out our favourite foods, fast for 16 hours each day and reduce our intake to a selection of chicken breasts, green vegetables and brown rice, but similar to only half filling up our petrol tank, we sure as hell are going to run out of gas pretty damn quickly.
When it comes to carb cycling specifically, many of us like to think that it’s a miracle approach, designed to maximise our training, perfect our fat loss potentials and be absolutely necessary.
But here’s the thing:
The body isn’t so simple and, often, when we add on these small adjustments, it doesn’t really give us the extra boost we think it will.
Imagine the scene, you’ve got a few options or approaches when it comes to your journey.
You could splash the cash and go big on your dream supercar, fragile at the best of times and the quicker the better right? Or, you could sit down for days on end planning the perfect approach, timing to perfection and including even the exact route to the minute.
Genuinely, the result of both of these often and almost always is never really leaving your starting point.
Paralysis by analysis will be sure to keep you right where perhaps you don’t want to be, fretting for weeks on end on the perfect supplements, number of meals per day and how to nail your carb intake to the exact gram every single day.
As a science student myself, I often enjoy details and sure, planning is important.
But if you’ve ever been faced with the lofty task of an upcoming deadline, thesis or any project for that matter, how many times have we (and I include my own experiences in this) procrastinated, ‘started tomorrow’ or just not got the result we wanted?
As with most things fitness related, there’s often method in the madness and here’s a few (science backed of course) reasons why managing your carbs day-to-day actually doesn’t really matter.
Rocket science or rocket fuel?
As a recent study has concluded, even our intake or ‘perfect’ carb/fat ratio maybe isn’t so perfect after all.
See, the body’s an efficient engine (at least when we fuel it the correct way). When it comes to our intake, genuinely, the most important thing will always be your total calorie intake, not even day-to-day but for the whole week too.
You’ve no doubt been told or even heard the whole ‘fat burning’ basics.
Carbs this, carbs that and why you need to nail your eating to make damn well sure that your workouts are record-breaking every single time.
We’re all busy in many ways and having to think, plan and adjust our carbs every single day seems slightly overkill if you ask me.
When it comes to planning your nutrition, think big and think weekly.
Sure, we can use a classic low/medium/high approach to carbs, perhaps even a low-medium, medium-high and extra high potentially? It’s already starting to sound more like me trying to order a sirloin at my local grill.
As I often say, making nutrition work for you is the way to go.
A phrase I love and still stand by myself is to fit your fitness around your lifestyle and not the other way round.
Sure, there’s no real logic in tweaking your carbs when it comes to making sure your body’s always in its ideal ‘fat burning’ state, whatever the hell that means. But, such is life, there’s always two sides to the coin or cogs in the wheel and being sociable is always important.
‘Eat’-ch to their own
Since we are social creatures after all (on the most part I suppose), no-one wants to be the one ordering a side salad as their mains of a weekend or an evening meal out.
Not me, not you, not ever.
This is where the fun side to nutrition can really flourish and why I’ll always have an open-minded approach to my own eating habits too.
So, perhaps there’s no physical or workout related benefit to nailing a high or low carb day, but as with most things in the fitness realm, enjoyment will always be a crucial factor.
You may consider that going ‘high carb’ or ‘high calorie’ on the weekend works for you. Naturally sticking within your rough calorie range of course!
For myself, I do love a good meal out (who doesn’t after all) and the freedom or even flexibility to choose as you desire from the main menu is always a luxury we all need from time to time. Sure, you could order just a side portion, a salad or even delve into the kids menu, but let’s be realistic.
An approach I often use and recommend to my clients is to think of your calories or even carbs as a weekly budget. Similar to money or your wages, you could stick to the exact same spend every single day, but things would get boring pretty quickly indeed.
Instead, perhaps it’s worth having a small set of savings or even a wee bit set aside to best enjoy your end of week meal and actually stick to your plan unlike the usual ups, downs and falling off track.
Ups and downs
Like with anything in life, highs and lows are inevitable and you’ll never be perfect.
But, we can get that tiny bit closer by allowing ourselves to have the room to be flexible. Genuinely, the less rules, restriction and ‘need to dos’ we can have with our eating, the better we can last longer term.
Ever try cutting out sugar, ‘bad fats’ or god knows what else? Lasted long?
I doubt it.
I can testify to a few miserable weekends of avoiding anything with a red food label on its packaging myself.
What I love about the science behind what we eat is that, genuinely, it’s actually quite simple.
We enjoy complexity and making things harder. It makes us feel that bit better when we convince ourselves that we can’t do something or that we’re simply too busy.
But, hey, once you take a step back, choose the right gear and finally find your rhythm, the path to your ideal goal is often easier than you think. As I often preach, filling up your tank with the right foods and getting properly fuelled is definitely key.
So, perhaps there’s no real backing for changing up your days into high, medium or low but when it comes to training, running out of juice isn’t particularly fun to say the least.
A different train of thought
As with any debate or topic, context is key.
Sure, switching things up is often an unnecessary addition, but the devil really is in the details after all.
When it comes to training, having a decent supply of glycogen in our muscles is an important aspect when it comes to maximising our performance or getting the best from our routine. It may be beneficial to eat well around your training and if this means switching up to a high or low day approach, then who can possibly argue?
Something I often find is that simply tailoring your intake for that day to refuel before your gym session can and often is more than enough to get the desired gains or return on your efforts.
Studies are great and what I love most is the ability to genuinely back up the theory and why we do certain things with our eating especially. A recent article covers this in great detail (don’t worry, I’ll summarise without the science-y babble).
When it comes to workouts especially, it’s not black and white per se, but it’s genuinely good practice to stock up on carbs ideally. Sure, fats are tasty and I often prefer them myself, but the body’s an engine in many ways and you wouldn’t fill up a petrol car with diesel (at least I would hope not anyway).
A fork in the road
So, there you have it, the same destination, the same starting point but a tangly mess of different routes in between.
As I often say, picking the one that suits you best will always serve you well.
You could emulate your favourite Instagram personality, athlete or Jim from work, but if they’re spending hours calculating their precise macronutrient timings and ratios to the gram or second, then it’s perhaps worth taking a different route.
We all like to follow a ‘no pain no gain’ mentality and, sure, nothing good ever comes easy, but honestly making things as simple as possible will often be the long-lasting approach you’re missing.
Perhaps my favourite article of all time (I have more than I’m willing to admit) genuinely does conclude that, when it comes to fat loss and getting in shape, picking a plan you can actually stick or adhere to is the most important factor of all.
Instead of a low-carb diet, it might worth taking a low-information diet instead…