By Emmet Browne of Troponin Nutrition
You have been dieting on a low carbohydrate contest diet for days or maybe weeks on end and are dragging, depletion has set in, and energy levels have hit rock bottom, not to mention pumps are virtually non-existent. Any competitor is all too familiar with this feeling during contest prep. But what is that upon the horizon? Ah, yes, it is your high-carb/re-feed day. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Before we get ahead of ourselves though lets make sure we know how to optimize this day to ensure we can fight off all catabolic processes in place and save our hard earned muscle for contest day.
Our primary goal on our high-carb day is too store glycogen. Glycogen is the storage of water inside the intracellular space or muscle cell. What we want to avoid is storage in the subcutaneous spaces or the area between the muscle and the skin. This is a sure way to blur your conditioning and make you feel as though your high-carb day only took you a step backwards. There are several things we need in play to ensure that we get maximal storage of our carbohydrates in the muscle. These are water, carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium.
First let’s begin with Sodium, when sodium enters a cell it pulls water along with it allowing the cell to swell. Without enough sodium you run the risk that glucose won’t be stored properly. Lets use a simple example of driving a car to explain this process, the sodium would be our driver, the one getting our car (our glucose) to the destination (inside the muscle cell). Next is Potassium, Potassium is an electrolyte that plays a key role in the regulation of water inside the cell. Sodium and Potassium work together to maintain homeostasis of the cell via the sodium-potassium pump. Potassium is the primary instigator of exchange across cell membranes for Sodium and Potassium. This is why potassium-sparing diuretics like dyazide exist; as soon as we throw our body out of homeostasis we are typically looking at a disaster. We can look to Potassium as our highway patrol, they are the ones making sure we don’t end up driving too fast resulting in an accident. Last but not least we need enough good old H2O. Water plays a critical role in glucose synthesis and is essentially our gas for the car. Without all four of these things in place we are not going to arrive at our destination or our end goal. Here are my recommendations for sodium, potassium, and water on a high carb-day for a 200 lb male:
Sodium: Not to be over complicated: keep in all sauces or seasonings, if not adding any, add a few sprinkles of table salt (preferably sea salt) to each meal, this should be adequate.
Potassium: 1,000 mg with each meal
Water: 1-1.5 gallons consumed evenly throughout the day
Another good supplement I would suggest for glucose disposal is ALA- alpha lipoic acid. Primarily the R-Isomer ALA, it is shown to be 2.5-3 xs as effective as regular ALA as it is the only ALA that is 99% pure. Matador from ProjectAD is my preferred choice.
ALA: 300-600 mgs
The second part that is critical for ensuring maximal benefit from our high-carb day is timing. Timing can be everything in life and particularly on high-carb days. Often our high-days will be scheduled for a day that we train larger body parts such as legs or back. On these days we want to guarantee we will store as much glycogen as possible while also providing energy for our hard training session on that day and possibly the next few days ahead.
Since we have been dieting hard for weeks on end our insulin sensitivity is going to be very high. If our high-day is scheduled for a training day I would want to uptake the vast majority of my carbohydrates at the times my body will need and utilize them most. First thing in the morning, after a night of fasting your insulin sensitivity is going to be very high, this is a great time to hit your body with its first portion of carbohydrates. I would consume roughly 15% of your daily intake at meal 1 assuming you are consuming six meals that day. My next “larger portion” would come right before training that day. I would hit 25% at this meal, approximately one hour before training. This will provide energy for your intense training session as well as glucose disposal into the muscle cell from the training session. Immediately after I would go with a 30% load in your post workout meal. Re-filling any depleted glycogen-stores from your training session. The rest of my three meals would share the remaining 30% equally, with 10% of daily intake per meal. Some will also choose to do a high-carb/ re-feed day on a non-training day with the goal of maximal glycogen storage in mind. If you were to do this I would split all six meals of your day evenly with perhaps a bit more carbohydrates upon waking and a bit less before bed. This will ensure that you take advantage of the most anabolic part of your day.
So, what type of carbohydrates do we want to consume on our high-carb days? There will be varying theories on this subject, as science has shown benefits from both low and high GI carbohydrates for glycogen storage in athletes. In fact there is even a very well known contest prep coach who will do all high GI processed carbohydrates once per week for re-feeds. Each and every contest prep coach will probably have a slightly varying method when it comes to this area. My thoughts on type of carbohydrate used in relation to timing are as follows.
At meal one upon waking we want a mixture of both fast and slow digesting carbohydrates, we want to take advantage of our insulin sensitivity and get an immediate insulin spike while also providing our body with some long term energy. The immediate insulin spike will began the glycogen loading process while also increasing metabolic rate. A good example would perhaps be some low fat cereal and Ezekiel bread. In my pre-workout meal I would use the same type of mixture for quick storage and energy during my workout. In my post-workout meal I would use primarily all fast-digesting carbohydrates to create a sharp insulin spike for nutrient shuttling and re-storage of glycogen that has been lost. For the remainder of my three meals I would stick to primarily slower digesting forms. These cause less of an insulin spike which is good for two reasons, more stable glucose levels for sustainable energy, and less chance of the source being stored as adipose tissue or fat. Oatmeal, Ezekiel bread, and brown basmati rice are my favorite forms in this category.
I always prefer to use whole foods when possible, especially on a high day. I feel that it keeps me much “fuller”. This is because whole food provides more essential minerals for the body like the ones we went over earlier, sodium and potassium. This is going to cause the sodium-potassium pump to work at a greater degree and allow more storage of water inside the muscle cell. This is great for training days, as that “fullness” will provide for a better pump via increased ATP production in the muscle cell.
Everyone fears Sodium because they believe it will cause massive water retention. It is actually quite the opposite, aldosterone, the hormone that is released during sodium deprivation is what causes water retention through a process of reabsorbing sodium and water in the kidneys and back into circulation. Well what about blood pressure? The body actually adjusts very well to sodium intake as long as you keep it fairly consistent, it is major fluctuations in sodium that have been linked to higher blood pressure. Another reason not to drop sodium to zero in the final week of contest prep.
Another important tip is to try to keep all fats as low as possible on a high carb/re-feed day. Fats have shown to disrupt or slow down the storage of glucose inside the muscle cell. Along with that, fats will also be more readily stored as adipose tissue during times of high insulin release. This is never an optimal situation for a bodybuilder, whether off-season or pre-contest. I hope with this information you too can optimize your high-carb/re-feed days, and leave yourself feeling successful as you look back in the mirror at round, full, muscle bellies with paper-thin skin.