Do You REALLY Need Intra Carbs During Workouts?

To carb or not to carb during a workout? While this is a typical question, a better one is what kind of workout requires intra carbs? 

Not all workouts are created equally and consuming some mid-workout carbs could disrupt potential results. Here’s all you need to know about intra-workout carbs.

What Are Intra Workout Carbs?

Unlike pre-workout and post-workout nutrition before and after exercise, intra-workout carbs usually refer to nutrition consumed during a training session. The carbs are easily digestible dextrose to serve as readily usable energy for exercise. 

Typically, these carbs are consumed as a shake or a high-carb drink. They may also be gels, beans, or wafers depending on the type of exercise being performed.

Note that intra carbs are not starches like bread or pasta or complex carbs like potatoes. These take longer to digest and would shuttle resources to digestion instead of working muscles. 

Instead, intra-workout carbs are quickly and easily digestible. These high-carb foods are also nearly always in the form of dextrose or glucose, as fructose is known to upset many people’s stomachs.

Proponents of intra-workout carbohydrates purport that they allow one to work harder in the gym. They ultimately claim to obtain better results like greater performance and muscle growth.

Why Consume Intra Workout Carbs?

Muscles require carbohydrates as fuel for exercise, but even more so when the workout is intense. Carbs are the preferred fuel source for quick, intense, and powerful exercises like powerlifting, sprinting, circuit training, and other workouts like Orange Theory. 

Conversely, fat serves as the primary fuel source for long, less intense exercises like endurance running, walking, hiking, etc.

Now, the body can shift fuel substrates when the stored form of glucose, glycogen, is depleted. For example, this occurs during very long-distance running after an hour to an hour and a half. This phenomenon is also known as hitting the wall, and generally produces feelings of misery. 

This same concept and feeling can occur during other very intense workouts like HIIT or powerlifting too. But no matter the workout, once the body has expended a certain amount of glycogen, the body starts to conserve energy, resulting in increased fatigue, decreased focus, and loss of strength.

This is where intra carbs come to the rescue. Adding carbs during a long or extra-tough workout can help the body return to using fuel rather than conserving it.

All in all, reasons to include intra-workout carbs include:

  1. Boost exercise performance
  2. Reduce mental fatigue
  3. Promote early muscle recovery

When to Take Intra Carbs

Timing the intake of carbohydrates will also depend on the duration and intensity of the session. 

Ideally, one would consume 20-40 grams of carbohydrate an hour to three hours before training, and then start consuming intra carbs before they feel depleted. 

Depending on the intensity, this could mean after three sets of 15 reps during a powerlifting session or 30 minutes into a long tempo run. Waiting too long to take them can derail performance and negate their intended purpose.

How Many Carbs to Consume

The amount of intra carbs to take is largely individualized. While general guidelines exist, consumption is based on workout goals, physique, daily macros, and training style.

Nonetheless, general guidelines are:

Length of Training (minutes) Amount of Carbohydrate (grams)
< 45 minutes 0 grams
45 – 60 minutes 15 – 30 grams
60 – 90 minutes 30- 45 grams
90 + minutes 50-75 grams

More important than the exact amount of carbohydrates is maximizing their absorption while avoiding GI distress. Consuming pure sugar can cause cramping and diarrhea, so it’s wise to dilute it with a liquid – plain water or perhaps a BCAA or electrolyte drink as well.

For every 15 grams of sugar, mix it with at least 8 ounces of water. It will likely require some trial and error to determine the sweet spot– pun intended!

When Intra Carbs Are Unnecessary

As mentioned, the length and intensity of a workout should determine if and when to take intra carbs.

Thus, generally speaking, the average weekend warrior athlete rarely needs intra carbs. In other words, mid-workout carbs are unnecessary for:

  • Workouts less than 45 minutes
  • Low impact workouts up to 120 minutes
  • Lower intensity workouts up to 60 minutes
  • Workouts that include plenty of rest time in between working sets
  • Jogging up to 60-90 minutes
  • HIIT workouts under 30 minutes

Those who are ingesting intra carbs during a 30-minute run or a typical weight lifting session are likely impeding potential weight loss and/or physique goals. The former would benefit more from consuming intra hydration or perhaps electrolytes and the latter would benefit more from consuming branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) – leucine, isoleucine, and valine – or another form of protein.

Intra carbs certainly have their purpose but do not let their appeal turn into an excuse for a sweet treat mid-workout. 

In Summary

Intra carbs serve as fuel during long and intense workouts and serve to reduce muscle and mind fatigue and increase overall performance. This can help athletes train longer and harder, which may result in lifting heavier, achieving more reps, running longer at a fast pace, and generally improving stats. 

While they can certainly benefit exercises like powerlifting and long endurance running, intra carbs are largely unnecessary for workouts shorter than 45 minutes and those less intense in nature. 

If taking intra carbs, though, make sure to enjoy them along with some water to avoid GI upset!

References:

Gutman A. 4 Things to Know about Intra-Workout Nutrition. Muscle & Fitness. Published October 28, 2019. https://www.muscleandfitness.com/nutrition/gain-mass/4-things-know-about-intra-workout-nutrition/.  

Salter P. The Importance of Intra-Workout Carbs. Bodybuilding. Published April 22, 2021. https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/your-guide-to-intra-workout-carbohydrates.html.

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