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Do You Need Carbs For Heart & Muscle Recovery?

Written by Barbara Depta and registered dietitian, Detrick Snyder, MPH, RDN. Updated on 2023-08-16.
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The Bittersweet Truth About Carbohydrates. 

Carbohydrates for exercise is a controversial topic. Most people wonder whether carbs are generally necessary for muscle recovery. Carbs may be “good” after a workout, but are there better carbs than others? Can you pay attention to your muscle recovery while also maintaining heart health? To understand this, you have to think about the differences between types of muscles and what nutrition strategies address the unique needs of each.  

  • How do you fuel your heart and musculoskeletal system?
  • Critical nutrition to keep your heart and other muscles healthy
  • Do you need carbs for heart & muscle health?
  • What carbs support Nitric Oxide production, heart health, and the musculoskeletal system?

With this guide, you will make the best choices of carbohydrates and other nutrients for recovery from physical activity.

1. How Do You Fuel Your Heart & Musculoskeletal system?


Cardiac (Heart) Muscle & Musculoskeletal Muscle Compared

To understand how to use nutrition to recover after exercise, you have to know the basic differences between how your heart and your other muscles, like for example, your hamstrings function.

Your musculoskeletal system is composed of muscles that attach to bones in a web of connective tissues. To move your muscles, your cells produce energy from the nutrients in the food you eat.

Your heart is also a muscle, but it is made of a different type of muscle fibers called cardiac muscle fibers. The cells of your heart muscle carry out the essential function of keeping your heart beating like a powerful drum.

The heart and all muscles need blood circulation for oxygen and nutrient supply. This sets the foundation for the importance of nitric oxide — nitric oxide is the signaling molecule that tells your blood vessels to open up and let the blood flow. If your nitric oxide levels are low, your heart and muscles can’t function their best.

But how does the cell’s energy source relate to your nutrition strategy for recovering from exercise? First, you have to understand how your heart and your other muscles turn the food you eat into energy.

2. Critical Nutrition to Keep Your Heart & Other Muscles  Healthy.

      Different Muscle Types, Different Nutrition Requirements.


All muscles — heart muscles included — can switch between fats and glucose for fuel, but the heart muscle only does so as a last resort. The heart will burn fats regardless of what you eat, and muscles will use whatever you throw at them.

This introduces the very important topic of balance in your carbs. We’ll get into the “why”, but keep in mind that if you fuel your muscles with simple carbs and this causes high levels of glucose in the blood, you set yourself up for poor health in the long run.

Heart fibers do not have the same variety of requirements as other muscle fibers. To fuel its constant beating, the engine of your heart just needs an efficient, slow-burning, readily available fuel source: fat . In all but the most extreme cases, your body will produce the necessary fats to meet the heart's demand.

Your heart only resorts to glucose (carbohydrates) for fuel when there is no other choice. This is supposed to only happen in extreme states, a failing heart, unhealthy weight gain, and when there's truly nothing else to burn

Even if macronutrients don't matter much for fueling your heart, the types of fats do play a role in the health of the heart. Healthy fats like olive oil supply your heart with the calories it needs, while keeping HDL “good” cholesterol high.

Here are some other examples of heart-healthy fats:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Canola oil
  • Walnut oil
  • Macadamia nut oil
  • High-oleic sunflower oil
  • High-oleic safflower oil
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Fueling Musculoskeletal Muscles

Musculoskeletal muscles adapt to the demands you place on them. Take endurance versus strength training, for example.

Strength training entails short bursts of very high energy. This kind of exercise leads to more "fast twitch" muscle fibers. These fibers are ideally suited to the demands of producing short and powerful bursts of energy. This pathway burns sugar to meet the energy need, but the energy supply in the cell burns out after a few seconds. 

Training endurance, on the other hand, involves much easier work spread out over a much longer timeline. Endurance training fosters “slow-twitch” muscle fibers that are suited to creating a steady state of work. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are primarily fueled by fat. Because body fat is the largest reserve of energy in your body, you can fuel these kinds of muscle fibers for a very long time.

Fueling Heart Muscle Fibers

Your heart muscle fibers are the muscle fibers with the most advanced endurance capability in your body. Think of it: you depend on it contracting and relaxing about once per second for every minute of your life.

Because of this unique endurance requirement, heart muscle fibers are similar to endurance-trained musculoskeletal muscles. They rely on fat — or more accurately, "fatty acids" — because it is a slow-burning fuel source that is easily stored.


It doesn’t matter what you eat, your macros, what you do, or how you train, the heart will keep using fats for fuel so it can keep on beating. Your heart only resorts to glucose (carbohydrates) for fuel when there is no other choice. This is supposed to only happen in extreme states, a failing heart, unhealthy weight gain, and when there's truly nothing else to burn. If that becomes the norm, health is headed downhill fast.

Muscles are more metabolically flexible.

What does it mean?

No matter what you eat, your muscles will figure out how to use it. They will adapt their fuel source to whatever you throw at them.
If you eat a carb-free ketogenic diet, your muscles will ramp up fat burning.
If you eat a diet high in sugar, your muscles will burn that too, but not without serious consequences to your health – more on that next.

3.Do You Need Carbs For Your Heart & Muscle Function -

What Carbs Are Critical?

This is important, so let’s briefly recap: the heart muscle uses fat for fuel, whereas the other muscles in your body can use a variety of fuels to create work.

But regardless of your sport, you are more than a glucose-burning musculoskeletal system, and also more than a fat-burning cardiovascular system on legs. Whether you’re training or it’s game day, with the right strategy you can optimize your carbohydrates for performance and recovery.

Carbohydrates 101

What are the nutritional differences between carbs that support the heart versus the muscles?

First, understand that the foods you eat are made up of a combination of types of carbohydrates.

In order from simplest to most complex (AKA. from the most unhealthy to the healthiest), these are the different types of carbohydrates:

  • Simple carbs (ie. glucose or fructose)
  • Disaccharides (lactose, sucrose)
  • Complex carbs (Polysaccharides, starches, oligosaccharides
  • Fibers (ie. soluble fiber, cellulose, etc.)


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Simple Carbs

If your food has more simple carbs, you are able to get more energy (ATP) from it quickly. This forms the foundation of a fueling strategy during exercise, but you don’t get a free pass to eat sugar just because you work hard. 

If you eat more glucose than you burn, this results in high blood sugar, with negative consequences like slow metabolism, unwanted weight gain, and insulin resistance. Besides the effects on weight and metabolism, unregulated blood sugar leads to harmful molecules that permanently stiffen your connective tissues.

Examples of simple carbs that can easily lead to high glucose levels:

  • White bread
  • White rice
  • Pasta
  • Baked goods
  • Refined flour
  • Sugar
  • Candy

Read more here on how sugar destroys your body: Joint Pain And Sweet Tooth: What Can You Do About The Undeniable Link?

And take a look here for 51 tips to Sugar- Proof Your Health & Home

In sum: If you don’t burn those simple carbohydrates immediately, your body converts them to stored fat. When your blood has high glucose levels, your connective tissues become brittle over time, predisposing you to injury down the line.

Complex Carbs

Foods that have more complex carbs and fiber are generally healthier. Your body derives energy from complex carbs more slowly than from simple carbs. This is relevant because complex carbs can be beneficial for consistent, all-day energy, but if you need to fuel a race, simple carbs may be faster.

Fiber is a carbohydrate that’s so complex that your gut actually can’t break it down. Instead, your gut bacteria digest fiber and produce anti-inflammatory compounds called short-chain fatty acids. Notably, the short chain fatty acids may have a direct role in protecting the heart from damage.

Complex carbs and fiber-rich carbohydrates (ie whole grains, vegetables) are healthier in every regard than simple carbs. Even if the heart is burning fat, it’s the right carbohydrates that determine your heart health. 

4.What Carbs Support Nitric Oxide Production, Heart Health & the Musculoskeletal System?

Best Carbs for Heart Health

Without the nutrients in veggies (carbs), your cardiovascular health is damaged.
 
Nitric oxide — a critical molecule used for opening up blood vessels and for supporting the inflammatory process during exercise recovery — is one example of a nutrient you get mostly from the carbs you eat
.
Coincidentally, many of the best carbohydrates for your heart health are the best for muscle recovery, and they all tend to be red veggies. 

For more on the differences between reds vs. greens for your heart health, take a look here: Red Spinach (Not Green Spinach) to Support Your Cardiovascular Health.

  • Red spinach (also, red spinach extract) is a powerhouse of natural plant-based nitrates. Your body converts nitrates to nitric oxide, which boosts blood flow and facilitates recovery.
  • Beets have some nitric oxide boosting power. They do not contain as much nitrates as red spinach does, but they also contribute unique antioxidants called betalains which can improve heart health. 
  • Aronia Berry is another powerhouse of a superfood: it’s one of the best sources of polyphenol antioxidants known. Numerous studies show that aronia can improve blood flow and improve other aspects of heart health.
  • Kale of all colors contribute high amounts of vitamin K and potassium, among many other nutrients, that give your cardiovascular system what it needs.
  • Cocoa helps open up blood vessels and allows greater blood flow.
  • Beta-glucan and Inulin are examples of types of fiber that can play a protective role in heart health.

  • For a more comprehensive list of heart healthy vegetables, check out our article: Make The Best Of Your Veggies: Synergy Of Whole-food Nitrate Combinations

    The foods made of complex carbs and fiber are the same foods that provide nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant nutrients. You can tell that many of these options are also veggie carbohydrates that support healthy nitric oxide levels.

    These nitric oxide reds form the foundation of the Resync line of nitric oxide recovery supplements. When you get your nitric oxide from a standardized, quality tested supplement, you get the evidence-based results you’d expect.

    Take a look at what you should look for: Buying Guide For The Best Nitric Oxide Supplements

Harms Of Simple Carbs On Heart Function

Even though the heart doesn’t use sugar to beat, the sugar you eat still has a profound effect on overall heart and blood health. Sugar and simple carbs are known to raise triglycerides and lower HDL and may contribute to high “bad” LDL-cholesterol. Triglycerides are a strong marker for heart disease, and HDL is the “healthy cholesterol” that you want high!

When not used up immediately, the simple carbs you eat are turned into glucose in the blood. If blood glucose gets too high, it carries the added risk of increasing inflammation, depressing immune function, and causing connective tissue damage. 

Metabolically, when your heart is relying on sugar, it’s on its last leg. The research shows that when the heart switches fuel, drastic consequences like hypoxia, heart failure, and unwanted weight gain are not far off.

Your heart doesn’t like to use sugar as a fuel, but the sugar you eat definitely affects your heart health. The types of carbs you eat play an instrumental role in overall health.

Carbohydrates and Recovery


For musculoskeletal muscles, one of the most important factors for recovery is consuming enough calories during training.

Despite strong opinions on both sides, it mostly doesn’t matter what kind of macronutrients you eat during exercise. You can eat healthy fats or healthy carbohydrates, and your muscles will recover regardless so long as they have enough of those calories. Your muscles need more than calories though; they must have enough essential protein and nutrients like B-vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, and many others.

Topping off your glycogen (your body’s stored carbohydrates) is one component of optimizing recovery. 

For professionals who need to max out their glycogen, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that after heavy exercise, you can optimize your glycogen by getting 1–1.2 grams of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight per hour for the first 4 hours.


However, because your liver will replenish glycogen from any source of carbs, there’s no need to smash a bowl of white carbs after a workout. In fact, your body will replenish glycogen no matter what you’re eating, so for most people it’s not necessary to fixate on carbo-loading in the first place. 


This is important because if you have too many simple carbs your blood sugar increases, which sets you up for long-term health consequences. Healthy calories from most sources will provide you with the building blocks to recover effectively. 


There is a general preference overall for fueling with carbohydrates, given their quick digestion and direct applicability to muscle function. But if those simple carbs are timed inappropriately and they lead to high glucose, this results in poorer recovery over time. 

For the heart, simple carbs are damaging in the way they can lead to stiffening of the connective tissue in your cardiovascular system. These constraints can reduce your ability to recover from cardio exercise — the fascia around the heart is too brittle and the veins are too stiff to allow blood to pump properly. Keep blood sugar in check by eating healthy carbohydrates and your heart will thank you!

When it comes to overall health, the same principles apply: except in cases where you’re using simple carbs to fuel performance (and burning that glucose as fast as you eat it), complex carbs and food rich in fiber will serve you best, regardless of which system or which organ type you look at. Similarly, complex carbs, reds supporting nitric oxide, will deliver the nutrients and bioactives that synergistically support your recovery.

Conclusion: Don’t Sacrifice Tomorrow’s Health for Today’s Gains


1. Simple carbs may be the conventional go-to for supporting exercise performance and recovery, but it’s the complex carbs that provide the nutrients your body needs to actually feel your best.

2. To optimize for muscle recovery without harming your heart and other systems, only eat simple carbs during or immediately before a race event. 

3. Limit your other carbs to whole grains, complex carbs, and fiber-rich veggies. Prefer red leafy veggies for the added polyphenol antioxidants & nitric oxide support they provide.

Discussing this topic brings to mind the common coaching refrain: “Consistency always beats intensity”.

If you consistently eat a nutritious, heart-healthy diet, you will be getting the long-term benefits that translate into optimal performance far far into the future. 

If you target your performance intensely with simple sugars, know that you’re playing with fire. Is the one-time boost in performance worth the long-term losses in health?

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Resync is backed by research. That’s why we break down complex science into practical takeaways you can use today. When you have the right information, you are empowered to make the right decision for you. 

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References

Disclaimer

This content is for general informational purposes only, and does not constitute the practice of any professional healthcare service, INCLUDING the giving of medical advice. No provider-patient relationship is formed. The use of this information, and the materials linked to this content is at the user's own risk. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should abide by the advice of their healthcare provider, and should not disregard or delay in obtaining medical advice for any medical condition they may have.

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