Are You Eating Enough Carbs For Optimal Recovery?

Are You Eating Enough Carbs For Optimal Recovery?  | The Paleo Diet

While a low-carb Paleo diet is phenomenal for supporting weight loss and improving health if you are overweight, out of shape, or obese, not everyone is trying to lose weight.

For athletes training to achieve a personal best running a 10k, triathlon, or qualifying for the CrossFit Games, your eating strategy will not be one in the same.

Exercise is a catabolic process, triggering a release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline in order to raise blood sugars to fuel your activity. If you are exercising at a slow pace (less than 65% heart rate) your body has the time to use fat as a primary fuel source. However, as your exercise intensity increases your body quickly shifts to using muscle and liver glycogen (your body’s carb stores) to fuel exercise.

You have a limited capacity to store glycogen, which means after about 1-hour of training at a high intensity, you’ll likely have exhausted all your body’s glycogen stores.


The research is quite clear that if you start your next training session with low or sub-optimal glycogen status, you’ll significantly reduce your capacity to work and your performance will suffer. A recent study of athletes who consumed only 40% of their total calories as carbohydrates and performed “two-a-day” training sessions suffered a significant decrease in their performance during the 2nd session because they did NOT adequately replenish muscle glycogen stores.1

If you are training at high intensity and following a low-carb diet, you are treading a fine line. If your goal is to be fit and lean, this isn’t really a problem. However, if your goal is optimizing your performance potential, eventually you will exhibit signs of overtraining and exhaustion.

Overtraining happens when you train intensely for too long, without adequate rest periods or tapers built into your training regime. While you do want to push yourself to the edge to stimulate a training adaptation (‘over-reaching’), you don’t want to push yourself over the edge!

Short-term symptoms of inadequate glycogen repletion include fatigue, reduced work capacity during training, poor recovery and extended delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Long-term symptoms are pronounced fatigue, reduced strength levels and increased muscular weakness.


The best way to replenish glycogen after training is to consume high-glycemic index (GI) carbs. High GI carbs enter the bloodstream quickly, allowing you to rapidly replenish glycogen stores in the first 30-60 minutes after training, when glycogen synthase enzyme activity is elevated and allows for optimal replenishment.2 Root vegetables make a great post-workout carb choice, especially if you bake them, which naturally raises the glycemic index of these foods, such as sweet potatoes, yams, yucca, plantains, carrots, beets, parsnips, etc.

If you are on the go and don’t have time to sit down for meal, try adding some dried fruit to your post-workout nutritional arsenal. Dried fruit is very high-glycemic, and while not ideal as a midday snack when sitting at your desk, it’s a great option after vigorous activity. Try 2-4 Medjool dates for 36-72g of carbs, or half a pack of dried mangos (1.5oz provides 36g of carbs).

The total amount of carbs you consume post-training depends on a few variables: your genetics, current body-fat percentage, training phase, etc. Aim for one gram of carbs per kilogram bodyweight in the first hour after exercise (divide your bodyweight in pounds by 2.2 to achieve your weight in kilograms).2,3 This can be repeated every two hours for up to 6 hours post-training for elite level trainees and sports that require two-a-day training, such as triathletes, Olympic weightlifters, and Ironman competitors.

In China, a recent study examined the effects of high-glycemic meals after exercise on performance in runners. The results showed athletes consuming high-GI meals post-training had significantly improved work capacity during their subsequent run four hours later.4 This highlights the importance for refilling your glycogen stores and ensuring your best performance in your next training session or race day.


Carbs directly replenish glycogen stores and after exercise your capacity to soak up carbs and top up glycogen is heightened. Research shows that if you wait several hours post-training you will reduce your glycogen repletion rate by as much as 50%!5 Not consuming enough carbs after exercise can also exacerbate inflammation, depress immunity, and lead to prolonged muscle soreness.6

If you’re already following a low-carb (LC) or very low-carb ketogenic (VLCK) diet you can still benefit by incorporating more carbs than normal post-training, without affecting your capacity to burn fat.7 For some, this may be the added boost you need to upgrade your performance. However, at higher intensity exercise the research shows a LC or VLCK diet does not likely support better performance.8

Remember, if you’re gearing up for a 10k run, triathlon, CrossFit Games or your competitive season, fatigue is directly related to muscle glycogen depletion when exercising at higher intensities. For optimal athletic performance, refuel with the right amount of carbs post-exercise and take your game to the next level.

Happy training!




1. Ivy JL et al. Muscle glycogen storage after different amounts of carbohydrate ingestion. J Appl Physiol. 1988 Nov;65(5):2018-23.

2. Jentjens R, Jeukendrup A. Determinants of post-exercise glycogen synthesis during short-term recovery. Sports Med. 2003;33(2):117-44.

3. Ivy JL1.Glycogen resynthesis after exercise: effect of carbohydrate intake. Int J Sports Med. 1998 Jun;19 Suppl 2:S142-5.

4. Wong SH et al. Effect of glycemic index meals on recovery and subsequent endurance capacity. Int J Sports Med. 2009 Dec;30(12):898-905.

5. Jentjens R, Jeukendrup A. Determinants of post-exercise glycogen synthesis during short-term recovery. Sports Med. 2003;33(2):117-44.

6. Flakell PJ et al. Postexercise protein supplementation improves health and muscle soreness during basic military training in Marine recruits. J Appl Physiol 2004;96:951-956.

7. Burke LM, Hawley JA, Angus DJ, et al. Adaptations to short-term high-fat diet persist during exercise despite high carbohydrate availability. Med Sci Sports Exerc 20002;34:83-91.

8. Antonio J, Kalman D, Stout S, et al. Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements. International Society of Sports Nutritionists. Humana Press, NY 2008.

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“10” Comments

  1. I struggled for a long time to figure out that I needed more carbs, maybe my coworker is right that I have a high metabolism but I think I just don’t like to sit still. That, and my job being extremely physically demanding, had me running into the arms of white rice, which seemed like a miracle at first. Then I started getting sick! (This was after eating Paleo for a month.) I’m still really struggling to find appropriate carbohydrate sources. Thank you for writing this, it does shed a lot of light on the issue and give me some ideas.

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  3. I try to eat a lot of carbs after my workout but does this then mean I shouldn’ eat carbs before hand? I am personally experiencing a lot of problems figuring out what to eat and when to eat it since I train (crossfit) 5 times a day from around 6PM – 7:30 or 8 then eat dinner afterwards.. I struggle mainly with what I should have during the day and if I should avoid carbs during the day altogether? Nutrition is hard. As a pescetarian thats trying to perform better in the gym and could stand to lose maybe 5 more pounds in the process any help is appreciated. Thank you.

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  6. Are you familiar with Dr. Attia’s self experimentation with fuel partitioning? His experiences in nutritional ketosis (and studies by Phinney and Volek) seem to be highly suggestive of significant advantages in both the body’s ability to manage inflammation and catabolic response, and the requirement for glycogen even at a marathon pace. With no formal medical training, I struggle to fit all of the pieces of advice I read into a coherent day to day strategy, so I appreciate any assistance fitting together the puzzle.

    • Hi Gerry,

      Great question and this is an exciting area of research. If you’re a casual endurance athlete and training/competing for your own enjoyment and personal health then this new area of research does present a potentially highly beneficial adaptation. However, if you are competing at a high level or are an elite/professional athlete then the benefits we see in the labs haven’t yet translated well to competition. As Dr Attia states…

      ‘The one drawback, it seems, to completely eliminating carbohydrates from my diet was a loss of all-out top end power.’ is the area of concern and seems to hinder real-time performance in competition significantly.

      I am looking forward to more research and info in this area and would say you can continue to experiment and evaluate for yourself how your body reacts to a ketogenic diet and training. Record power numbers or time trial times and perhaps you’ll find the balance that works for you. However, at elite level the benefits are not yet worth the risks.


      • Even though someone is fat-adapted, won’t their body first deplete the “refilled” glycogen stores for energy before burning fat again for fuel?

        • Yes, this is what the conventional wisdom is but we are seeing more studies showing some capacity to still burn fat. If you visit the link above of Dr. Peter Attia’s experiment you’ll see he is still capable of using fat for fuel at anaerboic threshold (AT), suggesting that perhaps the presence of ketones in the blood can blunt the effects of acidosis.

          It’s a very interesting area of research and we hope to see clearer conclusions in the future.

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