When you enter into a carb cycling phase of your diet, it is important to consider the best and worst times to actually consume higher amounts of carbohydrates.
The best time to eat the majority of your carbs when you are carb cycling is on days when you are the most active, and more specifically within 3 hours before and after any activity or workout. On days when you are less active, you should aim to reduce your carb intake and have a moderate- or low-carb day.
It is especially important to ensure that you are eating the majority of your carbs around your weight training sessions if your goal is to build lean muscle mass. This will also help to ensure that you have as much energy as possible available for your workout.
In this article, I will discuss:
- When should you eat carbs when carb cycling?
- How to know if your carb timing is working or not?
- Best carbs to eat while carb cycling
When Should You Eat Carbs When Carb Cycling?
When you are carb cycling, there are specific times in which it will be best to eat your carbohydrates in order to optimize your results. Paying attention to these details can be the difference between whether or not you find success within your carb cycling phase.
Because carb cycling is a more complex diet to follow, it is typically best reserved for serious athletes, particularly bodybuilders and endurance athletes, who are looking to lose fat, improve athletic performance, and improve insulin sensitivity.
If you decide that carb cycling is right for you, there are a few factors that you will want to consider when you are figuring out how to schedule your carb intake depending on the day.
Four rules that you can follow when scheduling your carb intake for your carb cycle are:
1. Schedule Your High-Carb Days When You Are Doing an Intense Workout
The best time to schedule your highest carb intake is on the days when you are expending the most energy and have your highest intensity workout scheduled. The reason for this is that your body requires more energy during your workout, and carbs are your body’s preferred source of energy when you are training.
While the definition of a high-intensity workout is subjective depending on the individual, some examples of intense workouts that might warrant a high-carb day are:
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts
- A grueling leg day (or any weightlifting involving larger muscle groups)
- Stair sprints
- A long-distance run
- Intense physical activity lasting longer than an hour
It is also important to keep in mind that the leaner you are, the more high-carb days you will likely need to implement.
This is because leptin levels can become depleted in leaner individuals who have been dieting, and refeeding with carbs is a great way to restore leptin levels in the body.
2. Schedule Your Moderate-Carb Days When You Are Doing a Moderate Workout
On a day where you plan to complete moderate-intensity exercise, you still need energy coming from carbohydrates, but not as much in comparison to your high-intensity workout days. For this reason, your carbohydrate intake should be at a moderate level on the days when your workouts are also moderate.
Some examples of moderate-intensity workouts include:
- Brisk walking
- Weightlifting that involves smaller muscle groups (such as an arm day)
- Hot yoga or Pilates
- Activity that lasts between 30-45 minutes
3. Schedule Your Low-Carb Days When You Are Doing a Lower-Intensity Workout or Taking a Rest Day
Your low-carb days should be reserved for the days when you have either scheduled an activity that requires minimal intensity or a rest day. It is important that you do not accidentally schedule a low-carb day on a high-intensity workout day, as you will lack energy and your workout will suffer.
A few examples of lower-intensity workouts that would be ideal to schedule for your low-carb day include:
- A casual walk
- Restorative yoga
- Outdoor activities such as gardening
- A beginner-level hike
4. Eat the Majority of Your Carbs During the Hours Before and After Your Workout
Once you have determined which days are going to be your high-carb days and which are going to be your low-carb days, you can focus on what time of the day is the best time to consume the majority of your carbs.
Keep in mind that when it comes to body composition goals, the most important factors are making sure you are consuming the right number of calories and macros and that your carb intake is as accurate as possible.
The time of day at which you decide to eat your calories and macros is much less important than simply making sure you are hitting your daily numbers.
- Related Article: Is It Better To Hit Your Macros or Calories? (What’s Best)
With that said, there are certain times during the day when you are going to benefit more from your carbs. These are typically during the hours before and after you complete your workout.
If you time your carb consumption during the hours prior to your workout, you’ll have an abundance of energy provided by the carbs that you will be able to utilize during your training session.
If you consume your carbs after your training session, your muscles will be able to replenish the glycogen stores that may have been depleted during your workout. Not only that, but carbs paired with protein will help to facilitate muscle rebuild and repair after your workout.
Do You Always Have to Correlate Your Carb Intake with Your Workout Schedule?
If you are just dipping your toes into the world of carb cycling, it may feel overwhelming to have to pay attention to manipulating your carb intake and correlating that with your workout schedule at the same time.
If you are a beginner at carb cycling, you may want to start out simply by implementing higher-carb days and lower-carb days without the added burden of correlating this to your workouts.
As long as you are meeting your calorie and macro requirements, you will not compromise any body composition goal that you might have.
Once you are able to get consistent with hitting your low-carb and high-carb days, you can start to focus on the finer details such as correlating your workouts with your carb intake and timing your carb intake appropriately throughout the day.
How To Know if Your Carb Timing Is Working or Not?
If you are carb cycling correctly, you should see and feel positive results in about 2-3 weeks of consistency.
Timing your carb intake correctly should result in you having higher energy during your workouts, improving insulin sensitivity, and weight loss (provided you are also in a calorie deficit, or eating fewer calories than you burn each day).
If you have been carb cycling for a consistent period of time and are not seeing the results you were hoping for, there are a couple of factors that you might want to consider:
1. Ensure Your Calorie and Macro Percentages Are Accurate for Your Goals
If you have been consistently carb cycling and you are not seeing the results you want, take a step back and ensure that you have calculated your calories and macros correctly.
For example, if your goal during your carb cycle is to lose body fat, you could follow your carb cycle perfectly but not lose any body fat unless you are in a calorie deficit.
In order to properly calculate your deficit, you must first calculate how many calories your body burns in a day (TDEE, or total daily energy expenditure). A great tool that can help you determine your TDEE is an online calculator like this one here.
For example, if a woman with maintenance calories of 2000 calories wanted to lose weight slowly, then she could consume around 1700 calories per day in order to reach her weight loss goal.
If she is carb cycling while also hitting her calorie goal, she should see progress in her body composition.
If this woman were to diet on 1700 calories a day for a number of weeks and her weight loss progress stalls, she will likely need to evaluate her calorie and macro intake again. This is because when you diet, your body will slowly adapt to the number of calories that you are eating.
In this case, the woman would simply need to recalculate her TDEE using the same method as before with her new current weight and begin to use the same macro percentages she was before on the new calorie intake.
For example, if the woman’s new maintenance calories had adapted to around 1800 calories, she would likely need to drop around 1500 calories in order to continue seeing weight loss progress.
This logic can also be applied to any individual who is looking to maintain or even gain body mass while carb cycling. For example, if you have been carb cycling and trying to put on mass but are not seeing progress, it would be worthwhile to go back to your calorie calculation to make sure you are eating enough to gain weight.
You could also try increasing your food intake by a few hundred calories while still continuing to carb cycle and track your progress over several weeks.
2. Make Sure You Are Balancing Out Your High-Carb Days and Low-Carb Days
One issue that you could run into while you are carb cycling is scheduling too many high-carb days or too many low-carb days. Overdoing either of these could result in less than optimal outcomes.
For example, if you are scheduling too many high-carb days in your cycle, you could experience the negative side effects of your blood sugar becoming too elevated, which will result in your body making more insulin. This can send a signal to your cells to save any extra glucose as fat, which will hinder any fat loss goal.
- Related Article: What Happens If You Go Over Your Carb Macros (Is This Bad?)
Similar to this, if you are scheduling too many low-carb days, you will likely feel negative side effects such as low energy and muscle weakness, headaches, muscle cramps, and even constipation. Not only that but restricting your carbs too much can reduce dietary adherence, which could result in you overeating or binging on your diet.
- Related Article: Should You Undereat After Overeating? (Here’s What To Do)
Finding the right amount of high-carb, moderate-carb, and low-carb days for your carb cycle will differ for everyone and will likely require a lot of self-experimentation. It is important to ensure that you are listening to your body and its signals when you are looking to perfect carb timing during your carb cycle.
Other Carb Cycling Resources
- How Much Fat To Eat When Carb Cycling (Does It Matter?)
- What To Eat On Low Carb Cycling Days (Sample Meal Plan)
- Refeed vs Carb Cycling: Differences, Pros, & Cons
- How Long Should You Carb Cycle? And, Can You Do It Forever?
- Carb Cycling When Bulking: Should You Do It?
- Carb Cycling vs Keto: Which Is Better?
- Who Is Carb Cycling Good For? (And Who Is It Not For)
- Carb Cycling vs Intermittent Fasting: Which Is Better? (3 Differences)
About The Author
Colby Roy is a holistic health and nutrition coach. She is certified through Precision Nutrition and has a passion for all things nutrition and healing the body. More specifically, Colby likes to work with clients who want to optimize their gut health and energy levels.