The Basics of Carb Cycling

 No matter what changes you make in your diet and workout plan, keeping track of them so you can look back is important! Photo from Christine Bongiovanni's training journal for the 1994 NPC Minnesota State Championships.

No matter what changes you make in your diet and workout plan, keeping track of them so you can look back is important! Photo from Christine Bongiovanni's training journal for the 1994 NPC Minnesota State Championships.

At the contest prep seminars that Team On Track used to hold, one of the most common diet related questions was about carb cycling. If you're not totally clear on the concept, this post should help clear up some confusion! Within the physique sport world, the purpose of carb cycling is to "jump start" your body when you've hit a plateau by varying the amount of carbohydrates that you eat each day so that some days are high carb days and some are low carb days.

Start by looking at the average amount of carbohydrates per day, and figure out what your weekly total is. Then you just split that total up throughout your week so that you are eating close to the same weekly total, but have days with high, medium and low carbs. For example, let's say that on average, you eat 150 grams of carbohydrates each day for a total of 1050 grams per week. An example cycle could look like this:

Day 1: 0 gm of carbs

Day 2: 0 gm of carbs

Day 3: 150 gm of carbs

Day 4: 150 gm of carbs 

Day 5: 300 gm of carbs

Day 6: 300 gm of carbs

Day 7: 150 gm of carbs

Those zero carb days can be hard though! One option to help keep your brain functioning is to increase your healthy fat intake on those days – eat some avocado! It's also best to save those higher carb days for the days that you need to hit it hard in the gym or do some extra cardio, those extra carbs will make you feel like you have the energy to do anything! Lastly, let's be clear about what we're counting as carbohydrates here. Carb cycling only refers to your complex aka starchy carbs, not vegetables so eat your greens! Especially on the zero carb days, they can be a life saver!

So if you're not counting veggies, what types of carbs should you be eating? Stick to clean and healthy options such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, oatmeal, rice cakes and quinoa.

Do you have to carb cycle to win your competition? Simply put, no. As mentioned at the beginning of the post, carb cycling can be a great way to shake things up after you've been training hard, cutting from your diet but have stopped seeing changes. Like the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it – if your body is still changing, don't feel the need to start a carb cycle just because everyone else that you talk to is. You can keep it in your toolbox in case you do hit that plateau later on. If you pull out all of your tools to change too early, there's nothing left to go to as you get closer to the competition date and still need to see more changes!

One of the most important things is to keep track of whatever you're doing so that you can look back and see how effective any changes you made during your process were. There are tons of food log apps out there, My Fitness Pal is a great one. If you prefer the old school, pen and paper method, check out our training journals!