Earn Your Carbs


I have read many of the top CrossFit athletes are eating a Paleo diet, so I thought I should be too. I have been following a strict Paleo diet, but I have been finding it hard to perform on a low carb high fat diet with no dairy. I feel I am lacking in body composition and my performance is going down.


earn your carbs #1

Listen up Nickelback -- I am not sure where you read the Paleo diet should be done “low carb” when applied to athletes, but that is not the case. I believe this to be a dangerous mis-conception floating around the functional fitness world and other types of training that involve high output athletic endeavors.

Your carbohydrate consumption should mirror your energy output. Or as I have said over and over, “Earn your carbs.”

If you are overweight and just getting off the couch to begin your fitness journey, you should be “low carb.”

If your training involves lifting heavy weights 4 days a week with longer 3-5 minute rest periods between sets with the occasional early morning 45-minute walk, your carbohydrate consumption should be on the lower side.

If your training looks like 6-12 training sessions a week involving lifting weights, high intensity interval training, sprinting and plethora of other movements performed at high intensity, then you should not be eating a low carb diet or restricting calories for that matter.

The primary energy source for the second energy system, the lactic anaerobic (anaerobic glycolytic) is glucose; all carbohydrates entering the body are converted to glucose. This is the system most tapped into when running 800 meters, performing HIIT or CrossFit style workouts. While fats can act as a source of fuel, certain cells, like those of the brain and blood, rely almost exclusively on glucose for energy.

If you are using CrossFit Football as your primarily training system, you need to consume carbohydrates. But remember, not all carbs are created equal. For information on what to eat go out the post I did a while back called, “Just Tell Me What To Eat.”

Another key player is the consumption of protein and carbs before and after a workout and it effects on testosterone. The increased binding of testosterone to the androgen receptors in the muscle results in what is called an up regulation, meaning there is an increased number of receptors that are responsive to the circulating testosterone. Testosterone being the major hormone signal for increased protein synthesis in the muscles. Adding 25-50 grams of protein and 50 grams of carbohydrates before and within 10 minutes of finishing exercise will increase the circulating insulin, which will result in greater uptake of amino acids in the muscles.

Insulin is a transport hormone responsible for shuttling nutrients to the cells. This makes for quicker recovery if you consume a protein rich meal or shake mixed with carbs to take advantage of this effect.

Performing high intensity interval training or the CrossFit Football program on a low carb diet will result in decreased recovery, decreased performance and lower testosterone levels.

Basically, if your goal is to have the testosterone levels of a 10 year old girl train multiple times a day, 6 days a week and avoid carbs like herpes on Spring Break.

Posted in Diet, FAQ, Talk to Me Johnnie | Tagged , , , | 41 Comments

41 Responses to Earn Your Carbs

  1. James

    Cordain wrote Paleo Diet for Athletes after his original Paleo Diet book.

    While it was focused on the nutritional needs for edurance athletes, the principles apply to any athlete. You just may need to tweek what you do to match your individual requirements.

    For someone doing CFF, taking a PWO protein+carb shake would be in line with guideline laid out on PD4A.

    • You can’t adjust the energy expenditures for an endurance athlete to work for the big HP, short duration athletes. That is like saying the nutritional needs of the marathon runner are the same as a sprinter.

      Cordain’s book needs some major tweaks for power athletes. We have done a great job on CFFB and this site addressing it.

  2. Jake

    This is good stuff john. Thanks for the post.

  3. Great article. I’ve noticed a drop in output when I decrease the carbs. Bringing in the right types of carbs and proper timing is important too. Thanks for addressing these topics. Even though they are basic concepts, they are often overlooked.

  4. John,
    Spot on!
    I toyed with some low-carb, cyclical keto diets and performance was complete shit.
    Now I eat like a beast and optimize according to your prescription – can’t say I perform like a beast, but better than w/o carbs.

  5. Brian

    After re reading the ttmj “just tell me what to eat” are the only carbs there from vegetables? It looks like everything else is just proteins and fats. I know Im probably wrong about this, but, I thought while doing paleo your carbs come solely from vegetables. It seems then If you are eating paleo you could have as many carbs as you want if there coming from vegetables because they are listed under the, “eat without abandon” category.

    • You missed the best carbs of them all…roots, tubers, bulbs.

      Starchy veggies, sweet potatoes, yam, potatoes and whole most of roots like carrots, yucca…we can keep going.

  6. Jason

    Hy John,

    Going a little deeper; what’s your take on higher circulating insulin levels before a workout, and your body’s ability to release glycogen stores in order to fuel longer-duration work?

    I’m getting my atheletes to pound back the carbs immediately post-WOD, and then loading up again during the real food meal afterwards. Believe me they earn those carbs, but it seems counter-intuitive to load up before a WOD, as that would decrease insulin sensitivity post-WOD as well.

    Just looking for the optimal way to fuel these beasts.

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  11. Hey John
    I race Dh/Enduro Mtb along with running a Crossfit gym and I’ve started eating a large calorie MCT (Medium chain triglyceride) breakfast in the form of Coconut milk, Bananas, eggs and spices http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=320363428028797&set=a.120440168021125.18215.118497871548688&type=1&theater
    We practice 90 second dh runs and push back up for about 3 hours in total. When I get down I’ll have some chicken and sweet potato/ parsnips straight away. Works a treat
    Cheers for the info and Tóg go bog é

  12. Bsoria

    I bought a shirt from you this past weekend at Norcals. You were busy texting while I was hoping for you to look up and recommend proper sizing for me. You may be the biggest man I have ever seen in real life. I fully expect a hug from you next time we meet.

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  14. John

    Great post John.

    I am totally down with the post workout protein and carbs. Pre-workout seems to be highly dependent on the individual and how they like to enter a wod. I have realized lately that I don’t like to do any type of conditioning with any food in my stomach, however, my performance does seem to suffer.

    So, what is your preferred pre-workout protein and carb? Would a whey shake with simple carbs do (dextrose, maltodextrin, etc..), or are you truly going meat and starchy carbs pre-wod?


  15. Kim

    Hey there – great blog, great info. Just a friendly suggestion that you should always be respectful and professional and credit the source of your images, especially if they’ve been taken/created by a professional. This wasn’t my image, but I’m pretty sure I know who took it and there was a watermark on it originally. Don’t be a douche and steal crap – borrow and then credit appropriately. You wouldn’t want someone else plagiarising your blog, right? Thanks!

    • I can tell this is very upsetting to you. We have taken it down. You can rest now. And thanks for the douche comment, I am sure you are really cool person to hang out with lots of friends who enjoy you carrying around your soap box to point out the wrongs of society.

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  20. Jeff

    Chris Kresser’s web site had a great recipe for yucca fries cooked in duck fat. They are awesome

  21. Mike James

    Thank you. I have so many people who wonder why their performance is plateauing or decreasing. I save my breath (cause they won’t listen to some snot nosed kid, obviously because I have NO idea what I’m talking about) and send them straight to here. You’re doing the world a service!

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  30. restoran oyunlar

    I always wondered about things like this, thanks

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