Crash Course in Carb Cycling & My Approach

*DISCLAIMER: I am not a nutritionist, dietician, doctor, etc. I’m simply sharing what I know and my own experience. Not everything works for everybody – this is just what has been working FOR ME under the guidance of my coach.*

I’ve been a fan of carb cycling in one form or another for quite some time now. I’ve tried a few different variations on it,  done some “informal” carb cycling, done some very meticulous carb cycling, and used various approaches to find something that works for me. So what the heck is carb cycling? Carb cycling is a dietary approach in which you, wait for it, cycle your carbs throughout a given time period (usually a week). Again, there are lots of iterations of carb cycling, but generally the thought is to cycle carbs and fats, while keeping protein the same, throughout the week based on your body composition goals and activity levels. The goal of carb cycling is to burn fat while continuing to maintain or build muscle (lean mass) and retain/increase strength. If the goal is to get stronger and leaner, why carb cycling? Well, the thought is to keep your body metabolically flexible and provide your body with enough carbohydrate to maintain or gain muscle mass and maintain or gain strength but still allow your body to burn fat by manipulating carbohydrates.

Rather than rehash all the science behind carb cycling, I will direct you here. (Note: I don’t really do any “calorie cycling” – I will have one or two untracked, whatever I want meals a week though).

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You can google “carb cycling diets” and find hundreds of versions of “carb cycling”. There are some protocols that are very specific and require a good deal of math, calculation, and tracking and then there are protocols that don’t require any tracking, measuring, etc. There are protocols that have you eating high carb on training days and protocols that you have eating high carb the day before your hardest training session. The one that works best? I think it really depends on what your goal is, how experienced you are with nutrition,  and how well you know how your body reacts to certain things. For example, I like to have my highest carb days on my heaviest and hardest training days because I feel the carbs help my recovery capacity while other people like to load the carbs the day before their training days to help refill their glycogen stores.

Another thing to consider is how you go about implementing a carb cycling plan. This is largely going to be dictated by the amount of mental stress caused by tracking/measuring/counting.  You can measure and count how many grams of carbs, fats, and protein you are going to have or you can skip the counting and just focus on adding in more carb dense foods on training days and eating less fat dense foods on those same days. Stacy over at Paleo Parents wrote about her carb cycling protocol and is a good example of how carb cycling can be done without tracking macros or counting calories.

I personally DO count and track since it actually just makes it easier for me, but again, that isn’t necessarily required. * I organize my  nutritional week into three categories based around my training schedule. These categories are: high carb days, medium carb days, and low carb days. *I would say that once you reach a certain point, some awareness of what you’re eating IS going to be required.*

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So here is what that looks like in a typical week for me:

Monday: Volume Training Day (high total tonnage, moderately heavy weight) → High carb day Tuesday: Rest day → low carb day

Wednesday: “Deload” Training Day (lower total tonnage, lighter weight) → medium carb day

Thursday: Rest day → low carb day

Friday: “Intensity” Training Day (moderate total tonnage, heavy weight) → high carb day

Saturday: Deadlift Program day (high total tonnage, moderate to heavy weight) → medium carb day

Sunday: Rest day → low carb day

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High carb days: These days are, as the name implies, high on carbs and consequently low on fats. I personally place my high carb days on my heaviest, hardest training days for recovery purposes and to help restore glycogen stores and gain muscle.

Here’s an example of a “High carb” day meal plan for me:

Pre-workout: ½ cup sweet potato puree + ½ scoop protein powder

Post-workout: 1 scoop protein powder + plantain bread

Meal 1: 3 eggs + 2-3 white potatoes

Meal 2: Lean meat + carbs + veggies such as  bison + ½ cup white rice + veggies

Meal 3:  Lean meat + carbs + veggies such as chicken breast + 2 ounces rice pasta + veggies

Meal 4: Lean meat + veggies or Epic bar or SR Bar

Medium carb days: These days have a moderate amount of carbs, moderate amounts of fats, and protein intake remains the same. I use this on my lighter, less intense training days to help with recovery and glycogen replenishment.

Here’s an example of a “medium carb” day meal plan for me:

Pre-workout: ½ cup sweet potato puree + ½ scoop protein powder

Post-workout: 1 scoop protein powder + plantain bread

Meal 1: 3 eggs + 2-3 white potatoes

Meal 2: Lean meat + carbs + veggies such as tuna + plantain chips + salad

Meal 3: Lean meat + veggies + fat such as chicken breast + roasted veggies with olive oil

Meal 4: Meat + veggies + fat such as ground beef + broccoli

 

Low carb days: These days are low on carbs and high on fats. I place my low carb days on rest days since I find that the high fat content helps my recovery and I’m normally not as hungry on these days. Low carb days make up the remainder of my week.

 Here’s an example of a “low carb” day meal plan for me:

Meal 1: 3 eggs + 2 pieces bacon + berries & fat (almond butter, butter, olive oil, etc.)

Meal 2: Meat + non-starchy vegetables + fat such as chicken thighs + broccoli, spinach, and olive oil

Meal 3: Protein shake or meat + non-starchy vegetables

Meal 4: Meat + non-starchy vegetables + carb + fat such as grass-fed ground beef with sweet potatoes, spinach, and brussel sprouts with butter

Meal 5: Carb + fat source such as sweet potato with almond butter – usually if I don’t have any carbs at meal 4

 

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Now – on to a few questions I regularly get about carb cycling:

 

Isn’t that a lot of keep track of day in and day out? Put simply, yes. At this point, it is fairly automatic for me but at first, it can seem pretty daunting. Planning ahead makes a huuuuge difference. This type of plan, particularly tracking and counting along with it, may not be the best idea for someone who feels intimidated by meal prep or is easily overwhelmed on the nutritional front.

 

WHOA. Won’t I get massive if I eat carbs? Sorry but you can’t demonize carbs as the be-all-end-all of reasons why we get fat. Carbohydrates are extremely important for your health and well being and are even more important if you’re physically active. How many carbs you need is going to depend on your chosen activity (the carb needs for someone who is an endurance runner vs a Crossfitter vs a strong(wo)man are going to be different) and how well your body handles carbs. For example, my “high” carb days are probably relatively low compared to others simply because my body and carbs had a rocky relationship for a long time (thanks to years of low, low carb dieting).

 

How do I figure out HOW MUCH I need to eat? There are some fancy caloric and macronutritient need calculators out there, you can hire a nutrition coach to calculate numbers for you, or if you don’t want to deal with numbers, you’re going to have to do some experimentation. Keep a food log and record your hunger levels, your gym performance, and how you feel. Use progress photos. Find a way to record your own version of data and reflect on it periodically. Then, make adjustments as needed.

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But things like white rice and pasta aren’t “clean”/paleo/low glycemic/etc. Can’t I just eat sweet potatoes? You COULD just eat sweet potatoes but you better really love sweet potatoes. I am not going to go into my disdain for the term “clean eating” but truly, things such as white potatoes, white rice, and rice pasta can serve a purpose. Again, it is going to be dependent on your activity level and such.

Won’t going between high carb and low carb make my blood sugar crazy? Potentially. Some individuals are most sensitive to this than others and this is another “it depends” situation. If you feel out of whack, your cravings get out of control, and you’re having issues, then maybe it isn’t the plan for you. Again, I have found this style of eating to work well for me because I took time to get my blood sugar regulated and resolve the majority of my metabolic issues.

PHEW. That’s it. I applaud you if you’ve made it this far. So – what do you think of carb cycling? Have you tried it? What other questions do you have?

Flashback Friday: Birthday Edition

The benefit of having a blog (other than having a living recipe book!) is that you can look back at certain points and appreciate how much has or has not changed. Truthfully, I rarely spend time digging through my blog unless I’m looking for something specific – in fact, I’m not really one for “reflection” posts at all. I did get curious though about what I was doing this time last year since my birthday is coming up and it has been one seriously crazy year. Here are some excerpts of things that were on the blog in July 2013:

Title: “Week 1 of Strongman Training”

“This week, I spent a good chunk of time learning how to load a stone & practicing said skill. We don’t have very many strongman implements at the gym so my coach and I are working with what we have for now. I must say, loading stones is much more difficult than it looks but it really is a lot of fun. There is something very satisfying about picking up a concrete stone and putting it on a platform. It is also very tiring – mostly because it is something new for me. And let me tell you, it makes your upper back and biceps all types of sore in ways you didn’t know you could be sore. Also, atlas stone rash is this season’s hottest accessory..”

 

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Would you like to know what the heaviest stone I loaded that week was? 106#. I failed 114#.

 

I have loaded 200# multiple times. I’m pretty confident I could load 220#+.

 

I also spent my birthday squatting 175×5 – I will squat 175 for an easy 3×5 building-back-up-from-deload session tonight.

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I was also making a whole lot of changes:

 

“1. I’m registering for a Strongman competition in September! So, I have never competed in anything athletic in my adult life and I have definitely never even attempted my Strongman events. I’m actually really looking forward to this – it be a nice way to mix up my gym time and frankly, I need to do it just to get in the habit of not over-thinking things and just DOING THEM.

2. Career change. Well, I guess not so much change and figuring out WHAT it is I actually like/want/feel the need to do. Previously, I’ve mostly done things that I’m good at or that I don’t have to “try” very hard at – I was the person in school who didn’t need to study very hard to get A’s, most of my jobs have been things that aren’t terribly challenging and thus, not terribly rewarding. I’ve figured out that what I really LIKE to do is teach – in any sort of capacity. I resisted this SO HARD in my undergrad and grad school, I always wanted to do research or be a clinician of some sort or be in the field. But once I stopped resisting it, I noticed that I get the most enjoyment/challenge out of helping other people – whether it is literally teaching a class, helping someone at the gym who asks for my advice, or just helping a person accomplish a simple task. It’s rewarding, it’s freaking hard, and I’m not the best at it – which is why I really need to do it.

3. Truly embracing failure. I obviously don’t seek out failure and yes, I am disappointed when I fail at something but I don’t let it completely wreck me. Previously, I was VERY anti-failure – I only did things I KNEW I was good at and that had a high chance, if not a guarantee,  of success. Somewhere along the line this got old. I think that I really just stopped giving a shit what people would think of me if I failed. It’s a hugely freeing and terrifying feeling but I’m rolling with it.”

I have figured out that I really enjoy teaching – in various capacities. I have a nearly full-time teaching gig, I’m studying for my CSCS (certified strength and conditioning specialist) certification, and getting my feet wet by co-coaching our strongman workshop series.

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Things that haven’t changed: My love for all things steak. My coffee obsession/dependency. The fact that my husband and insane dog are the best. My love affair with squats.

See ya, 25. 26 looks like it’s going to be pretty damn awesome.

 

 

Skillet Plantain Bread

Despite the fact that I am completely obsessed with plantain chips, I rarely use plantains at home. #sortofpaleobloggerfail

So I decided to pick some up and try doing something other than chip-ifying them. I wanted to make plantain pancakes but didn’t feel like standing over my stove, flipping pancakes so I just poured allll of the batter into one skillet instead.

The result was a super delicious skillet bread that I seriously can’t stop munching on.

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Skillet Plantain Bread

Ingredients

  • 1 large ripe plantain, about 11 ounces (peeled and diced)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon white rice flour
  • 1 tablespoon tapioca flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • coconut oil, for greasing skillet

Note

You can leave out the cinnamon and vanilla and add savory spices instead for a savory bread.

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree until a thick batter forms.
2. Lightly grease skillet with coconut oil (I'd recommend a non stick or cast iron skillet). Heat skillet over medium high heat on the stove. Add batter to skillet.
3. Let cook, undisturbed for about 5 minutes, until several bubbles begin to form on the top.
4. Transfer skillet to oven and let cook for 10-12 minutes until fully set. Let cool slightly then transfer and slice.