THE ULTIMATE GUIDE ON GLYCOGEN

Carbohydrates are to be avoided at all costs, right? Wrong!

I know that might be something you'll hear on social media, but it’s a little ridiculous. Most of the time, people say this in the context of weight loss. To that we say, your calories are the only thing that matters for weight loss. But, that's a conversation for another day.

Can we survive without carbohydrates? Sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s the smartest move.

Lets break this down.

All of the food we eat can be simplified into a single word: Energy.

Our brains, muscles, and organs all need energy to fuel everything we do on a daily basis. That goes for carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

When it comes to fueling exercise, our bodies prefer carbohydrates. So much so that we even store them in our muscle tissue.

This makes sense considering our muscles need tons of energy when we work out. These carbohydrate stores are called glycogen, and trust us - you want plenty of it!

At least, that's if you want to work out with any sort of intensity. Glycogen is a quick and explosive source of training fuel!

For athletes looking to up their game, understanding how to replenish glycogen is key.

It’s not just about bouncing back faster after a workout. It's about making sure every training session counts, and maximizing our performance too.

So, let’s dive into why glycogen is a game-changer, and how you can manage it to keep performing at your best.

WHAT IS GLYCOGEN?

Glycogen is really just a fancy word for glucose that we store inside our muscles and liver. Every carbohydrate we eat is broken down into glucose.

After exercise, that glucose gets shuttled into our muscles and liver. Our bodies bind the glucose together like chains, and this becomes glycogen (1).

This stored form of glucose is our go-to fuel source when we're diving into more intense exercises. As our energy demands increase, so does our glycogen utilization.

WHY DO YOU NEED TO REPLENISH GLYCOGEN?

Imagine your body like a car; glycogen is the fuel in your tank. When you're cruising along at low speeds, you may not tap into your fuel reserves as much. This would be similar to low-intensity exercises like walking or light jogging.

When it comes to performance in a car, it’s all about max speed and acceleration. As you ramp up the RPMs to drive at high speeds, you burn through gas pretty quickly.

This is the same with your body regarding glycogen. As soon as you ramp up the intensity, your body starts burning through glycogen.

This is because at higher intensities your body needs energy, and it needs it now. Glycogen breaks down quickly and delivers that energy when we need it.

However, just like a car with a finite amount of fuel, your glycogen stores aren't endless.

As you work out, these reserves start to diminish. When that happens, you’ll clearly notice you don’t have much left in the tank. You won’t have to guess because you’ll feel it.

Ever hit a wall during a tough training session? That's a good sign that your glycogen levels are running low.

Once glycogen levels get low, our overall performance takes a hit. If we properly replenish glycogen after exercise, we likely won’t hit a wall until the end of the next workout.

If we start exercising with low glycogen levels, it can be easy to feel fatigued more quickly. That’s a recipe for a bad workout if you ask me. Nobody wants that, so it’s important to refuel your body afterward to refill those glycogen stores.

Replenishing glycogen isn't just beneficial, It's necessary.

It’s the difference between feeling sluggish during your next workout, or performing your best and seeing progress.

That’s why it’s so important to understand how this all works. Not only how to replenish glycogen, but understanding how to use it to your advantage for performance.

By mastering this, you can ensure that you’re always ready to perform at your best. This is true whether you're gearing up for a marathon, weightlifting, or any other type of exercise.

HOW TO MAINTAIN AND REPLENISH GLYCOGEN STORES

Maintaining your glycogen stores is a bit like balancing a budget. You’ve got to manage what you spend, and make sure you’re saving enough to last you through the times you need it most.

One straightforward strategy is to tweak your exercise intensity.

Lowering the intensity means your body burns less glycogen and more fat. This can help preserve glucose for when you really need it.

But what about when you’re in the middle of a long session and need a quick energy boost? That’s where carbohydrate intake during exercise can make a big difference.

Something as simple as an intra-workout carbohydrate powder can provide extra glucose while you exercise. This can help keep your energy levels more stable and counterbalance low glycogen levels.

If you want to increase the amount of glycogen your muscles can hold onto, that’s possible too! You may have to push yourself pretty hard though!

The first step is to deplete your glycogen stores through intense exercise. Follow that up with 3 days of high carbohydrate intake, and you can potentially double your glycogen storage capacity (2, 3).

Our bodies don’t want us to run low on energy. Our body’s number 1 priority is survival, and glycogen is designed to help with that.

Long ago, humans had predators that we had to either fight off or run away from. Hence the term fight-or-flight.

Glycogen is our backup reserve of fuel to help us survive in a dangerous situation. So, when you get really low, your body wants to fill it back up!

In this case, you might store quite a bit more too. I’ll get into that more in the next section.

Let’s dive into how to properly replenish glycogen.

GLYCOGEN REPLENISHMENT 101

After pushing yourself in a workout, it’s time to recover. Sure, your muscles are broken down and need repair. But repairing your muscles isn't the only thing you need to worry about. Refilling glycogen is important too.

If your body is a car, and glycogen is your fuel tank … After a long drive, your tank is near empty. Rather than risk running out of gas, it’s much smarter to refill your tank right after the drive is over.

This is the same when you work out. After exercise, your body is primed and ready to reload glycogen. In order to do that, though, you need to eat/drink the right things.

If glucose is what we need to store glycogen, then that’s what we must consume.

Now, as we stated earlier, all carbohydrates will break down into glucose through digestion. How quickly they break down depends on the glycemic index of that carbohydrate.

High glycemic carbohydrates break down very quickly. Low glycemic carbohydrates are more complex and are absorbed slowly. To make things easier, we’ll refer to high glycemic as “simple” and low glycemic as “complex”.

So, which ones are better to consume after exercise?

Well, this has actually been studied. To maximize glycogen storage before your next workout, simple carbohydrates are the way to go (4).

This is because of how badly your body wants to refill glycogen. Let’s break this down.

After exercise, our muscles become much more sensitive to insulin. Insulin is the hormone that helps shuttle glucose from your blood into your muscles.

When we are more sensitive to insulin, our bodies can much more easily store glycogen.

This increase in insulin sensitivity doesn’t last forever, though. So there is a finite amount of time where we can maximize this increase.

Simple carbohydrates also lead to higher insulin levels than complex carbs (5). So, in theory, more glucose can make its way into our muscles faster.

That’s why studies show simple carbs can replenish more glycogen than complex carbs within a 24 hour period (4). This was true even though both groups ate the same amount of carbs.

Now, we’re not saying you should cut out complex carbohydrates. Most of the time complex carbohydrates are the healthier choice.

They have the fiber we need and don’t spike our blood sugar the same way. When we’re not eating around a workout, we don’t really need to spike our blood sugar levels with simple carbs.

However, when it comes to replenishing glycogen between workouts, simple carbs seem to do the job best.

The simplest carbohydrate you can get is glucose. It’s already the end product your body needs. So, there’s no further breakdown needed, and it can be absorbed very quickly.

Yes, we know this is a lot of fancy information. How do you take this information and use it? Well, here’s what I do.

After understanding the research, our athletes started using a glucose powder in their post-workout shake. The results we’ve seen since that point have been nothing short of amazing!

They literally went from struggling to see results to blowing my peers out of the water in the gym.

They put on strength faster, put on muscle faster and recovered faster.

Let us break down what you can expect to notice after you start mixing glucose in my post-workout shake.

GLUCOSE CAN SUPPORT RECOVERY

It will make a huge difference in my recovery. When we say recovery, we’re talking about 2 things:

  1. Replenishment of glycogen lost from exercise.
  2. Decreased soreness from muscle damage.

USING GLUCOSE TO REPLENISH GLYCOGEN

You can literally feel more energy in your body after you take glucose post-workout. That’s one aspect of recovery that a lot of people overlook.

Though, glucose isn’t the only thing that should be in your post-workout shake. We all need protein as well. Whey protein isolate is the most ideal source.

No carbohydrate can repair muscle like protein can. Protein just isn’t what we're here to discuss today. So, please keep that in mind as you read this.

Now, let’s get back on topic.

Think about the last tough workout you’ve done that really wore you out. Have you ever felt so exhausted after exercise that you just wanted to sit on the couch and not move?

Most likely, that feeling came from a lack of glycogen in your muscles. When you lack energy, your body doesn’t really want to move much.

Throwing glucose into your post-workout shake can help replenish your glycogen stores. No, we haven’t measured it, but it certainly feels like you have your energy levels back within an hour or so.

When you have more glycogen, your body has more energy to move around and keep burning calories. If you have a weight loss goal, this can be helpful.

When it comes to your next exercise session, having more glycogen allows you to push yourself harder. After all, you do have to push yourself to get results.

Taking a glucose powder post-workout can help with exactly that!

USING GLUCOSE TO REDUCE SORENESS

Did you know that simple carbohydrates like glucose can reduce soreness after you exercise?

It’s pretty great for recovery! After digging into it, we found that carbs can help reduce muscle soreness as much as protein can in some cases (6).

Now, we’re not saying you want to use glucose instead of protein. You definitely want to use both. We only made that point to show that protein isn’t the only thing that can reduce muscle soreness.

Really, both of them work together to enhance your recovery.

We’ve taken protein without glucose, and obviously, now we mix them together. Once we started doing that, there was a very noticeable reduction in muscle soreness.

The exact mechanism isn’t completely understood, but here’s our theory. Taking glucose will increase insulin levels.

On top of that, exercise leads to increases in muscle damage and inflammation. That could potentially be 2 of the main causes of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Well, insulin is an anti-inflammatory hormone (8). It has also been shown to inhibit muscle protein breakdown (7).

So, in theory, we should notice lower muscle damage and less inflammation after taking glucose post-workout. That could be why so many people, notice less soreness with glucose in their post-workout shake.

We cannot say for sure if this is the exact reason because the science isn’t conclusive as to why.

But, we can tell you it’s a plausible explanation. Whether that’s the correct one or not, there is a reason we can feel less sore after using it. We just don’t fully understand why is all.

Now, let us make something clear. We are not advocating for taking glucose or other simple carbohydrates all day every day.

In the majority of our meals, we should prioritize complex carbohydrates. We don’t need the speedy absorption all the time. You should only take glucose around your workouts because that’s when you need it.

So here’s a good rule of thumb.

If you want to maximize glycogen storage in a short amount of time, use glucose. This will be mainly around your exercise sessions.

In every other case, you’ll likely be better off eating whole-food carbohydrate sources.

Let’s go over which foods you can use the rest of the day to replenish glycogen!

WHICH FOODS REPLENISH GLYCOGEN?

Okay, so you’ve already worked out and taken your post-workout shake. You got your glucose in already, and your glycogen levels are refilling.

On average, people can hold about 500 grams of muscle glycogen, and 100 grams of liver glycogen (9).

If your post-workout shake has 20-60 grams of glucose in it, that’s the maximum amount that can become glycogen. So you kickstarted the process, but there’s still plenty of room for glycogen levels to go up.

Now it’s time to finish the job with whole foods. Below are some of the best options out there!

PASTA AND RICE

These are staples in an athlete's diet for good reason.

Both pasta and rice are rich in carbohydrates and are easy on the stomach. This makes them both great options to help refill your glycogen stores.

They are easy to cook, and many people love them. They're also easy to overeat though, so make sure to portion them correctly!

BREAD

Bread is a super easy one. You probably already have some in your pantry, and who doesn’t like a good sandwich?

Bread provides plenty of carbohydrates that can help you replenish glycogen. We always go for sourdough or whole wheat. They taste good, and are plenty nutritious!

POTATOES

Potatoes, whether baked, mashed, or boiled, are another excellent source of carbohydrates too. They not only refill glycogen, but also offer potassium.

Potassium helps with muscle and nerve function, so it’s a good bonus!

OATMEAL AND QUINOA

Oatmeal and quinoa are great options as well.

Oatmeal is not only rich in carbs, but also contains fiber. Fiber aids in digestion and slows blood sugar spikes. It’s also very important for gut health!

Quinoa, while also a good source of carbs, packs in all nine essential amino acids. So in addition to filling glycogen, it can help with your protein intake too!

FRUITS AND FRUIT JUICES

Fruits like bananas, grapes, and oranges are high in natural sugars aka simple carbs. So are the other fruits, but these are just examples.

Not only that, but fruits like these also offer vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants!

Fruit juices can also aid in hydration while helping you replenish glycogen. Drinking fruit juice is also an easy way to get carbohydrates in.

It’s not too difficult to drink a couple of glasses of grape juice. It tastes incredible and takes very little effort to get down.

HOW MANY CARBOHYDRATES SHOULD YOU HAVE AFTER EXERCISE?

Well, we’ve already covered the type of carbohydrate that's best post-workout: glucose.

What we haven’t covered yet is how much we should have after exercise. Let’s take a look at the science.

For those trying to replenish glycogen as fast as possible:

1.2 g of simple carbohydrates per kg of body weight. Oh, we forgot to mention that’s per hour for 4-6 hours after exercise (11).

That recommendation isn’t for everyone though. That’s more for those who train very hard multiple times per day.

I’m talking 4-6 total hours of intense exercise per day split into a few sessions.

If that’s you, it makes sense. You need to perform, so you’ll need to replenish glycogen as fast as possible before your next workout. In that case, it may be necessary to front-load your carbs like that.

For most of us, we just want to replenish glycogen for our next workout. We don’t need to get that aggressive.

So, for those of you like me who aren’t an elite athlete competing 2-3 times per day, this is what we recommend:

For women, we recommend roughly 20-30 grams of glucose in your post-workout shake. For men, shoot for 40-60 grams.

The reason for the difference has to do with men on average having more muscle mass. More muscle means you have more room for glycogen, and need more carbohydrates.

If you’re a woman with more muscle than average, it’s totally fine to shoot for 40-60 grams. This is a general guideline and my opinion, not a rule.

START REPLENISHING YOUR GLYCOGEN WITH US:

When you manage your glycogen stores the right way, there can be benefits like:

  • Boosting recovery
    • Enhancing performance
    • Reducing muscle soreness
    • Having more energy to move your body throughout the day

There is more than one way to do it. You just have to make sure your nutrition is on point. By that, we mean your overall daily intake, as well as what you take post-workout.

As we’ve already mentioned, the best type of carbohydrate to consume after exercise is pure glucose. It doesn’t need to be broken down further and can be absorbed quickly.

It spikes insulin, which after a workout is a good thing! That insulin stops your muscles from being broken down any further.

It also halts inflammation that causes further damage and soreness.

What we recommend is Ignition. It’s helped our athletes and so many others get amazing results! It isn’t just glucose though. It also contains minerals and water-soluble vitamins.

You know, the vitamins and minerals we lose when we sweat.

So really, Ignition doesn’t only support glycogen replenishment. It also provides some much-needed nutrients we lose in our workout too!

Don’t just take our word for it. Look at the reviews yourself. They’re stellar, and if you add Ignition in, you can see why firsthand!

For an excellent post-workout protein to go along with it, there’s our Whey protein isolate range that works hand in hand with Ignition to support optimal recovery.

Ignition is designed to refuel glycogen, and WPI is designed to kickstart muscle repair.

We're happy to help with anything to help you look and feel your absolute best.

REFERENCES:

(1) Adeva-Andany MM, González-Lucán M, Donapetry-García C, Fernández-Fernández C, Ameneiros-Rodríguez E. Glycogen metabolism in humans. BBA Clin. 2016 Feb 27;5:85-100. doi: 10.1016/j.bbacli.2016.02.001. PMID: 27051594; PMCID: PMC4802397.

(2) Jensen J, Rustad PI, Kolnes AJ, Lai YC. The role of skeletal muscle glycogen breakdown for regulation of insulin sensitivity by exercise. Front Physiol. 2011 Dec 30;2:112. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2011.00112. PMID: 22232606; PMCID: PMC3248697.

(3) Bergström J, Hultman E. Muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise: an enhancing factor localized to the muscle cells in man. Nature. 1966 Apr 16;210(5033):309-10. doi: 10.1038/210309a0. PMID: 5954569.

(4) Burke LM, Collier GR, Hargreaves M. Muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise: effect of the glycemic index of carbohydrate feedings. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1993 Aug;75(2):1019-23. doi: 10.1152/jappl.1993.75.2.1019. PMID: 8226443.

(5) Vlachos D, Malisova S, Lindberg FA, Karaniki G. Glycemic Index (GI) or Glycemic Load (GL) and Dietary Interventions for Optimizing Postprandial Hyperglycemia in Patients with T2 Diabetes: A Review. Nutrients. 2020 May 27;12(6):1561. doi: 10.3390/nu12061561. PMID: 32471238; PMCID: PMC7352659.

(6) Ten Haaf DSM, Flipsen MA, Horstman AMH, Timmerman H, Steegers MAH, de Groot LCPGM, Eijsvogels TMH, Hopman MTE. The Effect of Protein Supplementation versus Carbohydrate Supplementation on Muscle Damage Markers and Soreness Following a 15-km Road Race: A Double-Blind Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2021 Mar 5;13(3):858. doi: 10.3390/nu13030858. PMID: 33807745; PMCID: PMC7999032.

(7) Chow LS, Albright RC, Bigelow ML, Toffolo G, Cobelli C, Nair KS. Mechanism of insulin's anabolic effect on muscle: measurements of muscle protein synthesis and breakdown using aminoacyl-tRNA and other surrogate measures. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Oct;291(4):E729-36. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00003.2006. Epub 2006 May 16. PMID: 16705065.

(8) Sun Q, Li J, Gao F. New insights into insulin: The anti-inflammatory effect and its clinical relevance. World J Diabetes. 2014 Apr 15;5(2):89-96. doi: 10.4239/wjd.v5.i2.89. PMID: 24765237; PMCID: PMC3992527.

(9) Jensen J, Rustad PI, Kolnes AJ, Lai YC. The role of skeletal muscle glycogen breakdown for regulation of insulin sensitivity by exercise. Front Physiol. 2011 Dec 30;2:112. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2011.00112. PMID: 22232606; PMCID: PMC3248697.

(10) Margolis LM, Allen JT, Hatch-McChesney A, Pasiakos SM. Coingestion of Carbohydrate and Protein on Muscle Glycogen Synthesis after Exercise: A Meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2021 Feb 1;53(2):384-393. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002476. PMID: 32826640; PMCID: PMC7803445.

(11) Podlogar T, Wallis GA. New Horizons in Carbohydrate Research and Application for Endurance Athletes. Sports Med. 2022 Dec;52(Suppl 1):5-23. doi: 10.1007/s40279-022-01757-1. Epub 2022 Sep 29. PMID: 36173597; PMCID: PMC9734239.

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