Glycogen stores are effectively carbohydrates in our body we have eaten but not yet used for energy. They are stored in the liver and muscles in large amounts and are the easiest and most accessible form of energy for our body to target when present. The good thing about keeping plenty of energy, or glycogen, stores on hard is you always have fuel readily accessible and this will also optimize your performance in any physical activity(and eating a lot is fun too). The bad thing about maintaining high glycogen stores is that having excess energy stores on hand makes you more likely to store fat and much less likely to burn body fat stores for energy. Luckily, glycogen burns fast, and the storage tank is big! (We can hold several hundred grams at one time). So learning to manipulate how much energy we are storing in the form of glycogen can have a number of benefits to how we look and feel. Keeping them low most of the time, but not empty, means we can fill them when we need them and leave them empty when we want so we can target burning fat. Here are some strategies and benefits of keeping a tight leash on your glycogen stores:
Keep your stores low - When glycogen isn’t readily available, your body turns to other sources for energy. One of the main targets is stored body fat. Keeping glycogen stores regularly low in effect teaches the body to become more efficient at using body fat for energy. For this reason, it is best to keep glycogen stores pretty low most of the time. This will make the body less dependent on them for energy and more inclined to pull from body fat.
Eat carbs only when you need them – Glycogen stores are very easy for your body to use and it can metabolize them for energy very quickly, it takes a bit longer to convert fats directly to energy. For that reason, in times of high demand for energy, like training, you will need readily accessible energy for optimal performance, so eat carbs in the hours before training. The amount is variable depending on the person, but your workouts will tell you how much is right. If you are hitting a wall early in training, you probably need a little more.
Avoid morning carbs and post-workout carbs – If the goal is a lean and strong look, avoiding carbs at these times may be of great benefit. These are the two times when we are usually really glycogen depleted and also will generally have a low energy demand, which is the best time to have the body pull all its energy from body fat. Eat just quick protein post-workout and just protein and a small amount of fats upon waking, then have a regular meal a couple hours after each, depending on your individual needs and lifestyle. By doing this you will gain an additional two hours in the morning and two hours post workout where you are burning primarily body fat and not glycogen for energy. Further, a recent clinical study demonstrated that ingesting carbohydrates post-workout does not further stimulate protein synthesis more than protein alone.
Incorporate “refill days” – Every 3-6 days, depending on your individual body, it’s best to consume a good amount of extra carbs and fill your glycogen supplies. This has two main benefits. For one, it is like hitting the reset button on your body. That is, it keeps your body very capable of processing and metabolizing carbs and glycogen to keep it running its most efficient. Secondly, it prevents your body from going into conservation mode if it perceives a long term deficit in energy intake. By spiking carbs every few days, the body goes right back into expenditure mode and you will subsequently burn more fat once glycogen is depleted again.
Getting your body to use fats for energy as efficiently and as often as possible is the best way to maintain a lean and hard physique. In the absence of high glycogen stores, your body will turn to fats for energy. Glycogen stores can be filled quickly and depleted quickly, which makes manipulating them possible. Focus glycogen intake before workouts and times of high demand and low at most other times, and be sure to refill these stores every few days to keep the body running its best.