Carbohydrate drinks/powders are unnecessary if you are training for less than an hour. Carbohydrate diets may be beneficial if you are training with high-volume training performing more than 10 sets per bodypart, or who train twice a day . Being hungry before exercise can result in a decrease in performance. Carbohydrate mouth rinsing may improve performance if training for less than an hour, but more research is needed


  • This article gives a comprehensive overview of muscle glycogen synthesis and breakdown for performance.
  • Carbohydrate drinks/powders are unnecessary if you are training for less than an hour.
  • Carbohydrate diets may be beneficial if you are training with high-volume training performing more than 10 sets per bodypart, or who train twice a day.
  • Being hungry before exercise can result in a decrease in performance.
  • Carbohydrate mouth rinsing may improve performance if training for less than an hour, but more research is needed.


Sufficient carbohydrate intake will maximize stored carbohydrates in athletes’ muscles and supply fuel to the brain and central nervous system. The brain has a constant use of glucose, and under normal circumstances, glucose is the primary source of fuel to produce ATP in the brain. Glycogen is the storage form of glucose. The major storage sites for glycogen synthesis are the liver and muscle. The liver stores glycogen and is a reservoir to constantly supply the brain with glucose (i.e., 4 grams of glucose in the bloodstream).(1)

Most athletes will get excited when they hear about protein research and its effects on muscle growth, but if you switch the topic to the benefits of carbohydrates, their enthusiasm dwindles. Protein is critically important for athletes, but consuming more protein above a certain threshold will not have any performance-enhancing benefits and will usually come at the cost of sacrificing carbohydrates. In several studies, many athletes are not consuming the optimal number of carbohydrates for full glycogen synthesis and replenishment.(2-4)

Athletes also seem to share a disconnect between sports nutrition and its relation to body composition. In a study of college athletes, most underestimated their total calorie needs and carbohydrate requirements compared with their predictive needs for their sport. Interestingly, those with the lowest scores in sports nutrition had the highest levels of body fat.(5)


Similar studies have replicated these findings in which athletes consistently underestimate their daily energy requirements (-1284 kcals) and carbohydrates (-178 grams), compared to protein (-31.4 grams) and fat requirements (-27.9 grams).(6) Endurance athletes seem to be the worst for underestimating their carbohydrate needs. One study of 146 endurance athletes found that 80% of the athletes consumed the lower than recommended amounts of carbohydrates in their diet.(7)

Most athletes far exceed their protein requirements, but athletes typically fail to meet adequate, optimal carbohydrate requirements. We have all heard that there are no essential carbohydrates, which is an accurate statement, but carbohydrates are the rocket fuel to get your body moving.


When glycogen stores are low, muscle cells cannot rapidly produce enough ATP to maintain high exercise intensity.(8) When muscle glycogen is depleted, it directly affects muscle function as calcium release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum is impaired, resulting in impaired force production.(9) Thus, intense muscle-damaging exercise can reduce force production after exercise regardless of high carbohydrates indicative of muscle tissue damage. (10, 11)

Compared to fats, there are relatively limited glycogen stores in the body. In the fasted state and during low-intensity exercise, a majority of the energy required by the muscle is provided by the oxidation of fats from adipose tissue. During high-intensity exercise, the contribution of fats as an energy source becomes less, and carbohydrates provide roughly two-thirds of the total energy needed.(12)


Carbohydrate metabolism is the preferred source of fuel under these conditions because the rate of ATP production is two times higher than fatty acids. Carbohydrate produces more ATP per unit of oxygen than fat, so carbohydrates become an increasingly important fuel source with higher-intensity activities where more ATP is required per unit of time.

Glycogen synthesis is rapidly initiated at the onset of exercise and increases exponentially with exercise intensity.(13) Muscle contraction is a process dependent on ATP being replenished. During high-intensity exercise lasting 30 – 180 seconds, the ATP required for muscle contractions is mainly powered through glycolysis (i.e., breakdown of glycogen).(14)

For sprinting events, the last part of the race is won by the athlete who can most efficiently utilize anaerobic glycolysis. From an evolutionary perspective, carbohydrate utilization and storage promote human survival by enhancing shorts burst of high-intensity contractions to facilitate chasing prey or evading predators. However, in today’s sedentary society, excess carbohydrates have led to an increase in type II diabetes and other metabolic conditions with excess calories.


Carbohydrates are recommended to facilitate enhanced performance and optimize recovery. Glycogen synthesis occurs in two phases:

a.) a rapid phase glycogen synthesis phase that does not require insulin and occurs 30- 60 minutes after exercise.

b.) slow glycogen synthesis phase is in which glycogen is synthesized over a period of hours.(15)


Athletes involved in multi-day events and twice-a-day training are encouraged to consume carbohydrates to facilitate the rapid restoration of glycogen stores. It is recommended that carbohydrates be consumed in the first two hours after exercise to maximize glycogen re-synthesis. Delaying carbohydrate ingestion by three hours after exercise resulted in a 26% lower muscle glycogen synthesis rate than ingesting carbohydrates immediately after exercise.

A 2-hour delay in intake of a carbohydrate-rich meal had no effect when glycogen content at 8 h post-exercise.(16) Thus, it is recommended that athletes prioritize carbohydrates after exercise in the first few hours after exercise. The ISSN recommends regular ingestion of snacks or meals; providing carbohydrates and protein in a 3:1 ratio helps promote recovery and replenishment of muscle glycogen.(17)


It was once thought that a majority of the carbohydrates needed to be consumed immediately after exercise, but the feeding frequency of carbohydrates is also irrelevant with extended recovery (i.e., 24 hours). Consumption of carbohydrates in four large meals or 16 small snacks had comparable effects on muscle glycogen storage by 24 hours.(18) If sessions are less than eight hours apart, it is recommended that for optimal glycogen synthesis, 1.0-1.2 g/kg of carbohydrates be consumed for the first four hours, followed by the resumption of the daily carbohydrate requirements.(16) Importantly, no additional benefit to muscle glycogen rates occurs with carbohydrates beyond 1.0-1.2 g/kg.(19)

Glycogen synthessis
Evidence based muscle


So if you want to replenish glycogen stores fully, how much carbohydrates do you need to consume? It has been found that close to 10 g/kg/bw per day (i.e., 4.5 grams per pound of body weight) can fully replenish carbohydrates within 24 hours.(20, 21)  These two studies used 600-750 grams of carbohydrates in 24 hours to restore glycogen in 24 hours! This is only if you want to maximize glycogen stores before an exhaustive race or a prolonged competition.

However, research has shown that an athlete does not need to have full glycogen capacity to train. A review of the literature found that over a period of a week, a high-carbohydrate diet can maintain higher levels of glycogen stores, but consuming a moderate carbohydrate diet resulted in lower muscle glycogen but was still able to meet the demands of hard training.(22) In a study that compared a high (10g/kg/bw) vs. moderate (5g/kg/bw) carbohydrate diet over seven days, the moderate carbohydrate group had 30-36% lower muscle glycogen but still had similar performance to the high carbohydrate group.(23)


In an excellent review of the literature titled Muscle Glycogen Metabolism and High-Intensity Exercise Performance: A Narrative Review, it was concluded:

a.) If muscle glycogen is only moderately depleted, no effect on high-intensity performance occurs; however, low-carbohydrate diets impair exercise performance

b.) no effects on performance or fatigue are observed with brief single-effort exercises

c.) continuous and repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise results in impaired performance when muscle glycogen is lowered

d.) low-carbohydrate diets can reduce exercise performance, but elevated muscle glycogen with high carbohydrate dies provides no additional performance benefits.(24) Thus, every time you train, you don’t need to have maximal glycogen stores; you just need to have sufficient glycogen stores dependent on the intensity and duration of exercise. The research clearly shows the importance of carbohydrates for performance and the detrimental effects of low-carbohydrate diets, but you can meet the demands with adequate carbohydrates in the diet.


If an exercise damages muscle, such as eccentric exercise or downhill running, more carbohydrates are needed to restore muscle glycogen due to decreased ability to take up glucose. (25) After intense muscle-damaging exercise, insulin resistance occurs, and cellular carriers of glucose transport (i.e., GLUT-4) are reduced by damaging exercise.(26, 27) It has been found that muscle glycogen synthesis can be impaired for up to 72 hours following damaging muscle eccentric exercise.(28) Sports that involve a high number of breaking movements or changes in directions, such as soccer or football, involve a high number of eccentric contractions have also been found to have delayed glycogen restoration 24 hours after matches.(29)

There are no differences in glycogen synthesis between males and females as long as sufficient carbohydrates are met. There have been some studies that suggest that glycogen storage is affected by the menstrual cycle.(30) Athletes must consider the optimal glycogen benefits for their sports. 1 gram of glycogen holds 3 grams of water. This could be beneficial for athletes concerned with hydration (i.e., athletes exercising in a hot environment) and problematic for athletes that need to make weight (i.e., wrestlers, MMA athletes, etc.). Other supplements that can enhance glycogen synthesis are creatine monohydrate and whey protein hydrolysates, whereas caffeine, glutamine, and flavonoids are less well documented.(31, 32)


The relative contribution of carbohydrates as a fuel source during exercise depends on the intensity and duration, with a larger contribution of carbohydrates needed as exercise intensity increases. There is inconclusive evidence on whether low or high glycemic index carbohydrates have any performance-enhancing effects.(33, 34) Carbohydrates are stored as muscle glycogen (~350-700 g) and liver glycogen (~100 grams) depending on the athlete’s training status and diet.(35)

High carbohydrates are especially warranted during prolonged aerobic exercise (>90 minutes) and intermittent high-intensity team sports (i.e., soccer, basketball, hockey, etc.) lasting greater than an hour to an hour and a half. If you perform back-to-back anaerobic exhaustive exercise (i.e., tournament settings), carbohydrates can enhance exercise performance. In a study of trained cyclists in which they performed a time trial (i.e., 60-90 minutes of exercise), four days of carbohydrate super-compensation between exhaustive exercise increased exercise intensity and resulted in superior endurance (36)

Carbohydrate supplementation

Carbohydrate supplementation has been shown to increase the amount of work and the duration of the exercise performed during aerobic exercise.(37) It is well documented that during low-to-moderate exercise intensity (~30-65% of aerobic capacity), fat oxidation (i.e., fat burning) is the predominant fuel source. Low-carbohydrate diets may be beneficial for ultra-marathons and other sports that require exercise for several hours. Low carbohydrates may be beneficial in these situations, as low-carbohydrate diets can promote cellular adaptations to improve fat metabolism and enhance mitochondrial biogenesis (i.e., the creation of more mitochondria).(38, 39)

Although fat oxidation increases during high fat, low-carbohydrate diets, chronic adaptation to a high fat, low-carbohydrate diet results in impaired exercise economy and negative performance, resulting in impaired aerobic capacity.(40) This suggests that real-life endurance is impaired despite burning more fat as an energy source during keto diets. Despite the abundance of research for aerobic-based exercise, the research regarding carbohydrates and resistance exercise is less well documented.

Glycogen synthessis
Evidence based muscle


 Activities such as weightlifting and track events (i.e., shot put, jumping, discus) require repeated high effort muscular contractions. It has been suggested that in many textbooks, the first 10 seconds of exercise is supplied by the ATP-PC system.(41) When muscular contractions last longer than a few seconds, the energy derived to regenerate ATP is derived from blood glucose and muscle glycogen stores. It has been estimated that during a 10-second maximal sprint, 53% of the energy is provided by the ATP-PC system, 44% glycolysis (i.e., breakdown of glycogen), and 3% aerobic metabolism. After 30 seconds, the ATP from glycolysis doubles.(14)

Bodybuilding is a highly glycolytic sport requiring high anaerobic demand. For a single set performed to muscular failure, stored ATP provided 1.6%, PCr hydrolysis provided 16.3%, and glycolysis provided 82.1% of ATP demands.(42) Glycogen utilization is much higher in type II explosive fibers than aerobic type I fibers. It was found that glycogen levels were depleted more in type II fibers than type I fibers after high-intensity intermittent shuttle running exercise.(43)  


For years, it has been advocated that consuming a pre-workout carbohydrate beverage can enhance performance if you are performing resistance exercise. For optimal strength and hypertrophy, athletes should consume 5-6 g/kg/ day/ or 1.8-3.2 grams (55-60% of daily energy intake) per pound of body weight.(44) Much of the research in the past few years has found that if you are training for less than an hour, carbohydrate drinks before resistance exercise is unnecessary.

In 2004, a study in cyclists questioned the use of carbohydrates for exercise less than an hour when trained cyclists who received an IV of glucose or saline had similar increases in performance.(45) Other studies have shown that consuming 600 grams of carbohydrates for three days resulted in no greater cycling performance for 45 minutes than those receiving 100 grams of carbohydrates. This suggests that intense exercise under an hour does not need a special high-carbohydrate diet when total energy intake is adequate.(46)


Intense resistance training has been found to reduce muscle glycogen by 25-40%. (47) In a study of exercise intensity and glycogen depletion, researchers found that exercise at 60% of a 1 RM resulted in glycogen depletion. In contrast, glycogen depletion was minimal at 30 and 45% of a 1 RM.(48) Glycogen stores can be fully replenished in 24 hours. Most resistance exercise programs allow 48-72 hours of recovery before retraining a muscle group.

A small amount of glycogen stores are replenished after exercise without any food thru gluconeogenesis. In a study by Robergs et al., post-exercise glycogen stores were increased by 22% after exercising at 70% of a 1-RM without any caloric intake.(49)  The increases in glycogen in the absence of carbohydrates occur from gluconeogenesis and the conversion of lactate to glucose.(50) Carbohydrates consumed immediately after exercise will enhance glycogen re-synthesis compared to no nutritional provisions, and ingesting protein with carbohydrates does not enhance glycogen compared to carbohydrate alone.(51)


Carbohydrate levels of the diet do not seem to affect resistance exercise performance levels for less than an hour. For example, there was no difference in resistance exercise performance when subjects consumed either a 50 or an 80% carbohydrate-based diet. Other studies have found that ketogenic and low-carbohydrate diets did not negatively affect resistance exercise strength or power parameters compared to a control diet. (52, 53)

A 2009 study found no difference in the total weight lifted for an eight-exercise protocol consisting of the chest press, biceps curl, leg press, leg extension, and leg curls for those that consumed a carbohydrate beverage (i.e., 77 grams of carbohydrates) before and during exercise compared to a control drink.(54)  Others have found no beneficial effects from a carbohydrate supplement before a squat workout at 85% of a 1-RM until exhaustion lasting 29 minutes.(55) Others have found similar findings with no beneficial effects of carbohydrate beverages consumed during a 60-minute resistance exercise protocol. (56)

Glycogen Studies

High carbohydrate beverages before resistance exercise can elevate blood sugar levels to pre-diabetic levels and can cause elevated blood sugar levels for two hours after consumption. This study also found that high carbohydrates before resistance exercise did not increase performance or increase workout volume with neither moderate or high-intensity exercise. (57)

Some have suggested that slow-releasing carbohydrates and low glycemic carbohydrates such as isomaltulose before exercise can benefit performance. Isomaltulose is a slow-digesting carbohydrate suggested to result in more stable blood sugar levels during exercise. However, 50 grams of isomaltulose before exercise does not improve short-term exercise compared to an equivalent dose of maltodextrin(58, 59).

Other studies have found that despite isomaltulose maintaining blood glucose levels better than maltodextrins during a 120-minute intermittent soccer exercise, no differences in performance were found between the carbohydrate groups.(60) The research consensus suggests that the post-exercise muscle glycogen synthesis relies more on the quantity than the specific type of carbohydrate ingested (i.e., moderate to high glycemic carbohydrates may be useful). However, recent research suggests that a combination of fructose and glucose carbohydrate consumption during recovery may enhance performance and reduce fatigue the following day.(61)


The evidence for carbohydrate supplementation before resistance exercise is a topic of intense debate. Cholewa et al. suggested that low glycogen/ carbohydrate availability does not affect resistance exercise performance if the volume is low (~ 8 sets per body part) and the workout duration is less than 45 minutes. He also suggested that carbohydrate supplementation may be beneficial for hypertrophy for those performing high-volume exercise and longer training sessions.(62) If resistance exercise lasts more than an hour and consists of a full-body workout (i.e., CrossFit type workout, NFL combine, etc.), carbohydrates can be beneficial.

For example, 15-30 grams of carbohydrates were found to be beneficial for a workout lasting 71 minutes consisting of short sprints, a full-body workout with each set taken to failure (i.e., bench press, bent over rows, biceps curl, overhead triceps extensions), line jumps, followed by 137-meter shuttle runs.(56) If the CrossFit sessions last less than an hour, no beneficial effects of a carbohydrate beverage are seen.(63) Similarly, carbohydrate supplementation did not have any beneficial effects on a simulated taekwondo kick performance test.(64)

Do You Need Carbs Before Resistance Exercise

A review of the literature by Henselmans et al. found no significant effects of carbohydrates on strength training performance either acutely or over the course of a training program. 11 of the 19 acute studies found no significant effect of carbohydrate intake on strength training performance. However, athletes who perform more than 10 sets per muscle group and high-volume resistance exercises may benefit from higher carbohydrate intakes.

The author suggested that high carbohydrate diets recommended for strength athletes (i.e., 4-10 g/kg/day) may be excessive for bodybuilders, powerlifters, and Olympic lifters.(65)  It has been recommended for bodybuilding that 6g/kg/bw per day, or about 55-60% of your total intake, is from carbohydrates.(42) Other researchers have suggested that carbohydrate intake should be based on training session intensity and the duration of the workouts.

Most resistance exercise protocols are periodized with periods of high-intensity exercise with low-intensity exercise. High carbohydrates should be increased on the day corresponding with higher-volume resistance training protocols and reduced on days where volume is lower.(66)

If you are involved in a multi-day event such as a strongman competition or wrestling event, additional carbohydrates (~1-2 g/kg/body mass or .45 – .90 g/pound/ body mass) are needed to replenish glycogen stores.(67) For example, athletes who consumed a carbohydrate beverage during a morning resistance exercise protocol resulted in improved repetitions, number of sets, and exercise duration during a second resistance exercise protocol performed four hours later compared to those drinking water.(68) Thus, for multi-event exercise days, carbohydrate drinks are recommended.

If you perform high-volume exercise, multi-event competitions, or mass phase, carbohydrate beverages can enhance workout performance. Carbohydrate drinks during exercise suppress cortisol, which can preserve liver glycogen and reduce muscle tissue breakdown during exercise.(69, 70) Athletes should fuel for the work required mentality is the best approach.


As mentioned previously, a majority of the studies have not found a benefit for workouts lasting less than an hour. For those that train early in the morning, it may be more important to curb hunger for psychological reasons with a meal rather than focus on the carbohydrate content pre-exercise. In a series of studies on how hunger affects performance, it was found that subjects who skipped breakfast had a reduction in performance compared to a breakfast-consuming group. The subjects that skipped breakfast experienced greater hunger scores and reduced performance.(71)

One may suggest that this was due to reduced morning glycogen after an overnight fast. Contrary to this idea, liver glycogen can decrease after an overnight fast, but muscle glycogen stores remain unaffected.(72, 73) Studies have found that those who consumed a liquid-based carbohydrate performance had a reduction in performance and experienced greater hunger during exercise than a semi-solid carbohydrate beverage with the same carbohydrates. The author suggested that it’s the psychological impact of the carbohydrate meal reducing hunger rather than the meal’s carbohydrate content.(74, 75)

Hunger and Performance

In both studies, the sensation of feeling hungry during exercise can lead to a decrease in performance despite both groups receiving identical carbohydrates before exercise. In the final study, researchers took cyclists after an overnight fast and gave them either a carbohydrate-rich meal, a protein meal, or water and had them perform maximal effort sprints. Contrary to the high carbohydrates before training, which resulted in decreased fat oxidation, the protein meal resulted in greater fat oxidation and similar exercise performance.(76)

One of the most interesting studies about the psychological effects of carbohydrate manipulation before exercise came out if the United Kingdom. Researchers had subjects perform an exhaustive exercise to deplete glycogen, and then subjects were randomized to three experimental groups: a.) a high carbohydrate group, b.) Perceived carbohydrate group (i.e., participants were told they were receiving a carbohydrate drink, but it was a placebo c.) low carbohydrates (participants knew they were consuming a low-carbohydrate diet).

The subjects then completed a high-intensity protocol. All the subject’s motivation to train was high at the beginning of the testing. The high carbohydrate group resulted in the highest exercise capacity. Still, the group that perceived they were receiving carbohydrates but were drinking a 0-calorie sweetened beverage outperformed the low-carbohydrate diet group. So just thinking you are consuming carbohydrates improves performance.(77)

Glycogen synthessis
Evidence based muscle
Carbohydrate mouth rinsing may improve performance if training for less than an hour, but more research is needed


When I first read about carbohydrate mouth rinsing, it sounded like complete voodoo science. How can simply rinsing your mouth with carbohydrates improve performance without swallowing it?

The theory behind carbohydrate mouth rinsing is you sip a high carbohydrate beverage like Gatorade and rinse it in your mouth for 5 to 10 seconds and spit it out. The carbohydrate solution, although not swallowed, is suggested to stimulate oral receptors in the mouth, which can enhance central nervous system responses (i.e., reward centers in the brain).(78) Smaller dosages of the carbohydrates (i.e., 6% carbohydrate) in the mouthwash do not enhance the response compared to larger dosages (i.e., 12% and 18% carbohydrate).(79)

Carb Rinsing Science

Carbohydrate rinsing may also benefit those who need to perform a high-intensity exercise without the concern of gastrointestinal stress from high carbohydrate drinks. Carbohydrate mouth rinsing has resulted in less exertion during exercise and improved well-being.(80) In a study in which cyclists performed a time trial race in a 3D cycling simulator that had hills and required them to do all-out sprints (~48 minutes of exercise), the use of a carbohydrate mouth wash improved performance (i.e., although a small improvement).(81) Since most resistance exercise protocols are roughly an hour, a carbohydrate mouth rinse may improve performance without consuming additional calories.


Carbohydrate mouth rinsing has been found to have no effect when subjects were fed before exercise; thus, it’s applicable to those who trained fasted.(82, 83)  A review of the literature found that carbohydrate mouth rinsing was able to provide a slight change in performance (~2.48%) in sessions lasting approximately an hour.(84) Several studies have found that when subjects were in a glycogen depleted/low glycogen state and used a carbohydrate rinse before exercise, their performance improved compared to the control group drinking water.(85, 86) All these studies suggested that carbohydrate mouth rinsing led to a greater increase in workout volume than the control group. Carbohydrate mouth rinsing has been found to increase performance at a higher intensity exercise (i.e., 80% of a 1 RM) than a lower intensity exercise (i.e., 40% of a 1 RM). (87)

In addition to a carbohydrate mouth rinse, menthol and also caffeine mouth rinses have been found to improve performance as well.(88, 89) In sum, consuming a carbohydrate drink before resistance exercise is only warranted if you are going to be exercising for a long time >1.5 hours and are doing more than 10 sets per bodypart. Consider a carbohydrate mouth rinse if you exercise for less than an hour. Carbohydrate mouth rinses can provide small performance improvements but maybe something to try, especially if you are dieting and do not want the additional calories.


  • Carbohydrate drinks/powders are unnecessary if you are training for less than an hour.
  • Carbohydrate diets may be beneficial if you are training with high-volume training performing more than 10 sets per bodypart, or who train twice a day.
  • Being hungry before exercise can result in a decrease in performance.
  • Carbohydrate mouth rinsing may improve performance if training for less than an hour, but more research is needed


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