Many people have heard of carbohydrate or carb loading, but few know the correct way to go about this.  It is easy to use carb loading as an excuse to indulge before a big event, but what exactly should you be eating and what constitutes an event that actually requires carb loading?  Carb-loading is more than just eating pasta before race day.  There is actually preparation and planning that should go in to your pre race meal plan weeks before it happens.

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What is carb loading?

Carbohydrate loading is a strategy involving changes to training and nutrition that can maximize muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores prior to endurance competition.  Use this strategy to prepare for a marathon, triathlon or another endurance event.  Perhaps you’re training for a marathon or triathlon. Or maybe you’re a long-distance swimmer or cyclist. Whatever your sport, if you plan to complete 90 minutes or more of high-intensity exercise, carbo loading may improve your performance.

Carbohydrate loading has the potential to improve performance by 2-3%. For a 2 hour half marathon that is an improvement of roughly 2.4 to 3.6 minutes or nearly 7 minutes for a 4 hour marathon.  More than the improved performance, properly preparing and fueling your body will lower the chances of you hitting a wall.  When you deplete your glycogen levels, your body has to find another source of energy.  Marathoners use gels and sports drinks, supplementing their glycogen levels (usually every 30 minutes) with simple sugars that can be easily transferred to energy, and can prevent hitting the wall and thus allow them to run at their desired pace for a longer duration. This could mean the difference in completing your mission or finishing with a PR.  

Carbohydrates are found in grains, vegetables and legumes (beans and peas). They are also found in sugar and sweets, including fruit and dairy products. Each gram of carbohydrate contains four calories.  During digestion, your body converts carbohydrates into sugar. The sugar enters your bloodstream and is transferred to individual cells to provide energy. Your body may not immediately need all of this sugar, however. So it stores the extra sugar in your liver and muscles. This stored sugar is called glycogen.

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When do you need to carb load?

Carb loading is all about upping the amount of glycogen the body and helps us go longer before hitting “the wall,” or the point when carbohydrate reserves are so depleted that a person can't reach their highest level of performance. Carb loading is only necessary for exercise that lasts 90 minutes or more, since that's when the body starts running low on glycogen. 

While we usually hear about carb loading in reference to endurance events like marathons, going carb-wild can also be useful for other types of prolonged high-intensity exercise, like hiking, swimming, or one of those crazy 90-minute spin classes . Carb-ing up may even be useful before weightlifting sessions: One study found that carb loading before lifting increased the amount athletes were able to lift and gave them more time before they felt exhausted. But for weightlifters and endurance athletes alike, careful planning is key to carb-loading.

How to carb load

 Not all carbs are created equal and yet somehow in the lead up to race week we toss aside our normally good habits for junk food carbs.  You can not just down a bunch of sugary snacks the night before or stuff yourself full of creamy pasta.  There is planning and preparation that go into carb loading. Avoid sugary snacks or desserts, these contain simple sugars that burn off quickly and can lead to a crash.  More than just donuts and cookies, carbs such as white potatoes, un-enriched pasta and white bread are also considered high-glycemic carbs that can result in a spike in blood sugar.  

Several weeks before your event do a trial carb load.  Eat the foods you are planning to eat before one of your longer prep runs or workouts.  Every body is a bit different and you may find that creamy pasta does not feel or taste as good while burping it up while you are exercising.  You may want to avoid carbs that contain a lot of fiber as they may make you run to the bathroom rather than the finish line.

One of the most overlooked or forgotten steps in carb loading is the carb depletion that needs to take place first.  Prior to starting your carb load it is important to drain your stores in order to rebuild them effectively and with the proper nutrition.  This usually takes place about 4 days before the race day or event. Here is the process as described by The Complete Nutrition Guide for Triathletes:

    1. Seven days prior to the event do a long or strenuous workout which will deplete your body of glucose.

    2. For the next 3 days maintain a lower carb diet of 35-50% of total calories

    3. For the final 2 days prior to the race switch to 75% of calories from carbohydrates, while dramatically decreasing overall work volume (the other 25% is largely protein)

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Next is the initial carb loading sequence.  Once your stores are depleted, you will want to build your stores back up.  One large meal of carbohydrates is NOT carb loading and for many people has the opposite effect of what they desire. Carb loading generally starts 2 days before.  Again, this does not give you free rein to go wild with your diet.  Choose wisely and vary the carbs introduced into your body.  They should be included in every meal of the day and make up 85-95% of your calorie intake.  

According to Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D., founder of Nutrition a la Natalie, you should shoot for about 4 grams of carbs for every pound of body weight. Here’s a menu example for the average 150-pound runner:

Breakfast: 1/2 cup dry oats made with 1/2 cup 1% low-fat milk and 1/2 cup water. Top with 1/2 cup mixed berries and 1 tablespoon of nut butter, 1 banana, and pair with 8 ounces of orange juice (125 grams).

Mid-morning snack: 2 Oat and Honey bars and 4 dates (90 grams).

Lunch: Sandwich with 2 slices of white bread, 3 ounces of deli turkey, 1 ounce of swiss cheese, and tomato slices; 1/2 cup of roasted chickpeas; 1 cup of grapes; and pair with 8 ounces of chocolate milk (150 grams).

Mid-afternoon snack: Medium sweet potato (microwaved), topped with cinnamon; 1 ounce of dark chocolate; and pair with 8 ounces of coconut water (80 grams).

Dinner: 1 1/2 cups of cooked white rice; 1 1/2 cups of cooked butternut squash; 4 ounces of grilled chicken; side salad (about 1 to 2 cups of lettuce and veggies combined); and pair with 16 ounces of a sports drink (155 grams).

Carb Total:
600 grams

Another big mistake made by athletes is missing the last carb loading meal…. breakfast the day of the event.  Nerves result in stomach issues for a lot of athletes, so they try to skip out or skimp on race morning fuel. You must give your muscles this last boost of glucose to help you prevent energy lulls, mood swings and obviously fatigue. When you eat a meal high in sugar it releases insulin, which tells the body to start storing glucose for later because it has sugar available for energy at that moment. So your 2 days of carbo-loading is now being stored in your muscles instead of freely available when you start the race.  Aim for 1-3 grams (depending on how far in advance you eat) of high quality carbs, low fat and low fiber – oatmeal with banana or yogurt w/ fruit if you can stomach it.

While I don’t plan on signing up for any marathons or even half marathons anytime soon, I was intrigued by this subject and may incorporate it for my GORUCK events and longer hikes.  Hope this was helpful!