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What is Carb Cycling?

What is Carb Cycling?

Purpose and Benefits

Carb cycling aids in building and preserving lean muscle mass, especially crucial after strength training. This approach acknowledges the post-workout anabolic window, utilising carbs to replenish energy and facilitate muscle tissue repair. Balancing higher and lower carb days can optimise physical performance and prevent metabolic slowdown. Studies suggest that a carb cycling or “calorie shifting diet” helps prevent a decline in resting metabolic rate, offering benefits such as decreased plasma glucose, lower cholesterol, and reduced hunger compared to classic calorie restriction diets.

Carb cycling facilitates weight loss while preserving and building lean muscle mass, making it a gold standard for improving body composition and especially useful for cyclists and bodybuilders. By creating a carb deficit, the body turns to stored fat for fuel, promoting effective weight loss without compromising metabolism. Carb cycling can contribute to hormone regulation and blood sugar control. While low-carb approaches show benefits in managing diabetes and related risk factors, periodic boosts in carb and calorie intake may protect against hormonal declines associated with dieting, promoting metabolic rate and overall health.

How Carb Cycling Works

Carb cycling involves alternating between lower-carb and higher-carb days throughout the week. It’s essential to recognise that increasing carb and calorie intake provides a metabolic boost, while the opposite may slow down your metabolic rate. Weight loss is facilitated by strategically cutting carbs and calories on specific days.

Meal timing can play a role in carb cycling plans. Some individuals opt for more frequent eating (four to six times per day) to enhance adherence and potentially gain metabolic advantages. Alternatively, others integrate intermittent fasting by reducing daily meals to twice a day, occasionally skipping breakfast for quicker results.

Types of Carb Cycling

Weekly carbohydrate cycling is a common method of carb cycling that involves maintaining a consistent daily intake of protein and fats while adjusting carbohydrate intake (and consequently, calorie intake) based on training preferences. Some variations include another approach where daily calories remain constant, but carbs and fats fluctuate throughout the week, prioritising high carbs on training days and higher fats on rest days. While personal food preferences may drive this method, it stems from misconceptions about carbs causing weight gain without training, a notion that’s debunked. This approach mirrors the final form of carb cycling discussed later.

Typically, a weekly cycling approach emphasises medium days, with a high-carb day strategically placed on or before a heavy training session, and low-carb days on lighter training or off days. While this setup logically fuels training and limits fuel on rest days, its effectiveness is subject to scrutiny.

Cyclic ketogenic diets involve ketosis, an extremely low carbohydrate consumption, which forces the body to use ketone bodies as its primary fuel source. However, sustained ketosis or very low-calorie diets can have adverse effects. Training on a low-carb diet presents challenges, particularly in resistance training, which relies on carbohydrates as a primary fuel source. Depleting muscle glycogen reduces training intensity and duration. To counteract this, cyclic ketogenic diets incorporate periodic refeeds, involving a reduction in protein and fat alongside a substantial increase in carbohydrates, aiming to replenish glycogen stores and address hormonal adaptations.

Macronutrient Manipulation

The careful manipulation of macronutrients is pivotal for carb cycling. Protein intake remains consistent and sufficient throughout the cycle, supporting muscle repair and maintenance. On high-carb days, tailored to periods of increased physical activity or intense workouts, there is an emphasis on elevated carbohydrate intake. This provides essential energy for training, replenishes glycogen stores, and optimises overall performance. Conversely, low-carb days, designated for rest or lighter training, involve a reduction in carbohydrate intake, encouraging the body to utilise stored fat for energy and promoting fat loss. Adjustments in fat intake complement the overall calorie goals, with moderate fat consumption on high-carb days and a focus on healthy fats on low-carb days. Caloric manipulation aligns with specific health and fitness objectives, with higher caloric intake on high-carb days to meet increased energy needs and a calorie deficit on low-carb days to facilitate fat loss during reduced activity.

Implementing Carb Cycling

While flexibility allows for adjustments, here’s a sample of a typical carb cycling meal plan: Monday and Wednesday are higher-carb days; Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday are lower-carb days; and Saturday is either a higher-carb day or optional reward day.

Another carb cycling approach involves a weekly “refeed” day, an 8–12 hour planned increase in calorie intake, typically emphasising a substantial rise in carbohydrates. This is usually implemented no more than once weekly, or sometimes only 1–2 times per month.

Suitable Foods for Carb Cycling

Rather than categorising carbs as “good” or “bad,” prioritise unrefined options whenever possible. These include:

  • Whole Grains: Opt for unmodified grains like brown rice, oats, and quinoa, which offer numerous health benefits.
  • Vegetables: Diverse vegetables provide various vitamins and minerals. Aim for a colourful variety to achieve a well-rounded nutrient balance.
  • Whole Fruits: Choose whole fruits, emphasising the uniqueness of each, with a special focus on berries for their high antioxidant content and low glycemic load.
  • Legumes: Opt for legumes as a valuable source of slow-digesting carbohydrates, rich in fiber and essential minerals.
  • Tubers: Include potatoes and sweet potatoes in your diet as part of this category of nutrient-dense carbohydrates.

Potential Drawbacks

If you’re transitioning to a carb cycling meal plan that differs significantly from your usual diet, anticipate an adjustment period for your body, encompassing cravings, energy levels, and fluid balance. In the initial stages of carb cycling, you may experience the following effects, generally considered normal and likely to diminish within one to two weeks:

  • Increased fatigue
  • Occasional carb cravings
  • Possible constipation or bloating, often related to water retention, especially after higher carb days
  • Momentary weakness during workouts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Moodiness or irritability

Should these side effects persist beyond the initial adjustment period, carb cycling might not be suitable for your individual needs. Individual factors such as age, gender, activity level, body weight, and genetic disposition contribute to the varied reactions to low-carb diets. Always prioritise listening to your body and exercising your judgement rather than solely adhering to external advice.

Athletes and Carb Cycling

Carb cycling is frequently employed to elevate endurance and athletic capabilities. High-carb days contribute to increased storage of carbohydrates, known as glycogen, serving as the body’s primary energy source. On low-carb days, the emphasis shifts towards proteins and healthy fats to facilitate recovery.

Augmenting carb intake before a cycling time trial enhances power output and speed in athletes by promoting the oxidation (or breakdown) of carbohydrates. Additionally, studies suggest that incorporating extra carbs around workouts can replenish glycogen stores, expedite recovery, and enhance performance during endurance exercise.


What are the potential benefits of carb cycling?

Carb cycling may offer benefits such as improved energy levels, enhanced fat loss, and muscle preservation. By strategically adjusting carbohydrate intake, individuals may optimise their performance during workouts and encourage the body to use stored fat for energy on low-carb days.

How is carb cycling implemented in a diet?

Carb cycling involves structuring the intake of carbohydrates over a period, typically a week. This may include high-carb days on intense workout days, moderate-carb days for regular activity, and low-carb days on rest days. The key is to tailor the carbohydrate consumption to match activity levels.

Are there specific foods recommended for carb cycling?

While there isn’t a strict list of foods for carb cycling, it’s generally advised to focus on complex carbohydrates like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits on high and moderate-carb days. On low-carb days, individuals might emphasise lean proteins, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables to control overall carbohydrate intake. Personal preferences and nutritional needs should be considered when selecting specific foods.

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