Everything you need to know about carb cycling, or alternating between high- and low-carb days, including how to carb cycle — plus whether or not it’s right for you.
Sports nutrition concepts that were once reserved for elite athletes and bodybuilders are becoming totally mainstream: counting macros, eating for body recomposition, and refeeding days. While you might not want to use them all year round, they can definitely provide a helpful boost when you’re trying to reach a specific fitness goal. The latest once-niche nutrition tactic to make it into the mainstream? Carb cycling. Here’s everything you need to know about the practice, plus how to tell if it’s right for you.
What Is Carb Cycling?
“There’s no formal definition for carb cycling, but the basic principle is that you alter your carb intake based on your varying needs throughout the week, month, or year,” says Edwina Clark, R.D., a registered dietitian and head of nutrition and wellness at Yummly. The timing and amount of carbs consumed during each phase vary depending on the person, she adds.
“Carb cycling is often used among bodybuilders/physique competitors and high-performing athletes,” notes Lauren Manganiello, R.D., a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. But with the recent rise in popularity of the ketogenic diet, particularly for active people, the concept of carb cycling is becoming more common among everyday athletes.
Generally, carb cycling revolves around a person’s training schedule. “On days when they are training more intensely, they would consume more carbohydrates, whereas low-carb days would occur on days when their training is less intense,” explains Manganiello. “There are usually several high-carb, medium-carb, and low-carb days cycled throughout the week.”
So why follow a carb cycling plan? “The rationale behind carb cycling is that when your body receives limited carbs, it relies on fat as the primary fuel source, which can be helpful for weight management, body fat losses, and boosting carb storage when carbs are reintroduced,” says Clark. The idea is that by being strategic about when and how you eat carbs (your body’s preferred fuel source for exercise), you can more efficiently power your workouts and achieve better results in terms of both performance and body composition.
Who Should Try Carb Cycling?
There are two main groups of people that carb cycling can be helpful for, according to Clark: endurance athletes and active people on low-carb diets.
For those who focus on endurance sports such as running, cycling, and swimming, “preliminary evidence suggests that varying carbohydrate throughout the year-specifically lowering carbs during high volume, pre-season training-may be helpful for increasing muscle glycogen stores and performance when carbs are reintroduced,” explains Clark. Basically, lowering your carb intake before you go into your main training season (say, prepping for a marathon or triathlon), may help your body to better utilize carbs when you reintroduce them right before you need to hit your peak performance level.
For those more interested in weight control or fat loss, carb cycling can also make sense. “For some individuals, consuming a lower-carb diet can be helpful for weight maintenance and optimal health,” says Clark. That’s probably why keto continues to be so popular. “That said, research indicates that carbohydrates are the predominant fuel for working muscles during high-intensity exercise, and consuming carbs before and after a tough sweat session is critical to get the most out of it.” It’s generally accepted that a low carb intake will reduce power output during high-intensity exercise, so carb cycling could help if you’re eating a low-carb diet but want to complete a HIIT or weightlifting workout, for example. (BTW, here’s more info on how to exercise while on the keto diet.)
And while carb cycling is popular with those who follow keto-like, high-fat, low-carb diets, you don’t have to be eating a high-fat diet to benefit from carb cycling. “You can absolutely cycle your carbs with any kind of diet,” says Shoshana Pritzker, R.D., a sports nutritionist and registered dietitian.
In fact, it might be better not to carb cycle while on keto, especially if you’re newer to the eating style. “Regular increases in carbs will take you out of ketosis, so if you decide to use carb cycling with a ketogenic diet, I would limit high-carb days to only once, maybe twice, per week,” says Pritzker. After all, the point of keto is to get your body to use fat for fuel, so taking your body in and out of ketosis kind of defeats the purpose of the diet and might even make it hard to gauge whether the eating style is a good fit for you or not. (Related: Is The Keto Diet Bad for You?)
Does Carb Cycling Work?
Okay, so this all sounds great in theory, but what does science have to say about it? Uh, not much, actually. “Research on carb cycling for endurance performance is relatively new, and there’s not a lot of data on the long-term effects of swinging between low and high carb intake,” says Clark. The same goes for the potential fat-loss benefits — the evidence around carb cycling is mainly anecdotal.
The fact that the long-term effects of carb cycling are unknown is one of the reasons experts recommend trying it for short periods of time only. Plus, there’s the fact that it takes a lot of planning, prepping, and tracking to do it successfully. “It can be difficult to sustain long-term,” says Manganiello. “Physique competitors and athletes usually only use it during their ‘prep’ phase for competitions, which is usually only a few weeks or months.”
And while it might give you more energy on training days, it can also be mentally draining. “As with any type of diet, you never want to become obsessed with counting, whether it’s calories, macros, or something else, because it can promote a very unhealthy mindset and relationship with food,” notes Manganiello. “Also, individuals tend to consume the same foods when carb cycling, therefore limiting variety within their diet.”
How to Carb Cycle
If you think carb cycling might be right for you, here’s how to get started. First, it goes without saying that you’ll need to track your macros using an app or food journal. Next, you’ll need to figure out how many grams of carbs to eat each day. This is highly individual, according to experts. “There are several factors that go into figuring out how many grams of carbs to eat, such as body weight, age, sex, the intensity of your workouts, as well as listening to your body and hunger cues,” says Manganiello. (Related: How to Calculate Your Macros Like a Pro)
But there are some general guidelines you can use to figure out a starting point for your carb cycling plan. “On high-carbohydrate days, individuals often consume about 60 percent of their calories from complex carbs,” says Manganiello. “On low-carbohydrate days, individuals will switch out some of their carbohydrates for healthy fats.”
Another option is to use your low-carb days as a starting point to calculate your medium- and high-carb days. “If you consider that 50 grams of carbs per day is what is generally needed to reach ketosis, you could start there as your low-carb day,” says Pritzker. “Work your way up from there and max out at 200 grams of carbs per day.”
So if you’re wondering how to carb cycle, your week might look like this:
By: Kelsey Heenan, HIITBURN
Author: Kelsey Heenan
Carbohydrates are one of the most talked about topics in health and fitness. Yet, one thing we’ve learned over the last several years, is people do not want to give up their favorite carbs . I know I don’t. That said.
It is important to understand the best way to eat your carbs in order to get the results you want. Here at HIITBURN, we use a strategy called “Carb Cycling” which is basically eating higher amounts of carbs on certain days throughout the week and lower amounts on other days. I know that sounds simple, however, it works extremely well .
Now, k nowing which Carb Cycle to start with is very important because depending on your goals and starting point, will determine which Carb Cycle is right for you. So before we move on, go to the link below and take our Carb Cycling Quiz so that you can know the exact Carb Cycle that is right for your body.
Before you move on, please make sure you take the quiz so you understand what Carb Cycle Schedule is right for you.
Now that we’ve defined which Carb Cycle is right for you to start with through our quiz, let’s cover what a sample 7-Day Carb Cycle would look like.
There are a few general guidelines when it comes to Carb Cycling, but don’t worry, they are extremely simple and do NOT require you to count calories or weigh your foods. In fact.
We NEVER recommend counting calories or weighing food. Instead, we want to teach you how to eat intuitively and to understand what your body needs so that you can look and feel your best. So.
Let’s get to the super simple guidelines.
1) Lower Carb Days = High Fat Days
On your lower carb days, you are going to be getting your energy from protein and healthy fats. So focus on getting the majority of your carbs from veggies and fruits. Then add in healthy fats like nuts, seeds, nut butter, avocado, etc.
2) High Carb Days = Low Fat Days
On your higher carb days, you are going to be getting your energy from protein and carbs. So try to keep your fat intake lower, and instead focus on eating lots of healthy carbs like potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, beans, etc.
3) Cook all your meals in healthy fats.
We like using Grass Fed Butter and Coconut Oil for cooking, and this is what we recommend you use for cooking for all meals (on both lower and higher carb days)
4) Eat when you are hungry and until you are satisfied.
That means no counting calories or weighing your foods. Simply listen to your body and eat when you are hungry and until you are satisfied.
Now that we have covered that, I want to give you a simple 7-Day Carb Cycle example plan that you can implement and follow this week.
(Remember, this is a sample plan. Make sure you take the Carb Cycling Quiz to know which Carb Cycling schedule is best for YOU)
Monday: Lower Carb
Tuesday: Lower Carb
Wednesday: Higher Carb
Thursday: Lower Carb
F riday: Lower Carb
Saturday: High Carb
Sunday: Low Carb Breakfast, Flex Meals The Rest Of The Day
Now, this is just an example of what a 7-Day Carb Cycle can look like. One of the many great things about Carb Cycling is it’s based on YOUR body.
That is why you should take our Carb Cycling Quiz so that we can show you which Carb Cycle schedule is BEST for your body and goals.
To do so, click the “Take The Quiz” button below and we will show you the exact Carb Cycle to start with.
The information provided on this site is for educational purposes only. I am not a doctor and this is not meant to be taken as medical advice. The information provided on this site is based upon my own experiences as well as my own interpretations of the current research that is available. The advice and tips given on this site are meant for healthy adults only. You should consult your physician to insure advice and tips given on this site are appropriate for your individual circumstances. If you have any health issues or pre-existing conditions, please consult your physician before implementing any of the information provided. This product is for informational purposes only and the author does not accept any responsibility for any liabilities or damages, real or perceived, resulting from the use of this information. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, transcribed, stored in a retrieval system, or translated into any language, in any form, without the written permission and signature of the author.
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Carb cycling is a popular way to gear your nutrition toward burning more fat, but it’s definitely not for everybody. Here is a breakdown of the perks and downfalls of carb cycling diets and how to figure out if they’re a good fit for you!
You’ve likely heard us talk about carb cycling a lot. We even include a carb cycling calculator in the calorie and macro calculator within the V Shred App for IOS and Android.
But here’s the deal… carb cycling is demanding and tricky, and it’s a dieting strategy with a pretty in-depth learning curve. It is definitely NOT for everyone, and even people who are well-versed in nutrition struggle with it — or only do it for specific periods of time.
When you’re just starting out, to be honest, it’s a lot easier to do carb cycling wrong than to do it right. For that reason, we only advise carb cycling as something you do after mastering the basics of calories, meal prep, and regular training.
The best way to do this is to follow (and finish) one of our 90-day programs — like Fat Loss Extreme Male , Fat Loss Extreme Female , or MOVE.
Even better, follow that program while asking all the questions you have along the way in our private Facebook groups for men or women , where V Shred trainers and nutrition experts are always available to answer your questions.
When To Consider Carb Cycling
Remember, the best eating style for you is the one that you can stick to consistently! That might be carb cycling for you, or it might not. After three months in one of our workout programs and lots of practice dialing in your calories and nailing workouts, you’ll have a better understanding of fitness and nutrition, and what works for you overall.
If you really want to try carb cycling and don’t want to wait three months, or you get to the end of the 90 days and are still totally lost, we can help you!
Our V Shred certified trainers and nutritionists create custom meal plans for people who want to take the planning off of their plate–literally.