Carbohydrate loading refers to the strategy of eating high carbohydrate meals in the days leading up to the race. Carb loading is beneficial when you will be competing in events lasting longer than 90 minutes. Anything shorter than that and it won’t play a role in performance. For those long events, though, research shows carbohydrate loading may result in up to 20% longer time until fatigue!
Why carb load?
Let’s imagine a sponge. You put it under the sink for a few seconds with the sink turned on super low – like at a drip- drop pace. The sponge is still dry in some places and only slightly saturated in others. Now, squeeze the sponge. Not much water comes out right?
Imagine the same sponge, but you have completely saturated it with water. When you go to squeeze it, you are able to squeeze out a large amount of water.
This is comparable to fueling properly in the days leading up to a race. If you only eat minimal amounts of carbohydrate, you are not putting enough energy in your muscles. When your muscles begin working in the race, the glycogen supply will run out quickly. On the other hand, if you eat properly in the few days leading up to the race, you fully saturate your muscles (like that sponge) with all the glycogen that it can hold. This means you will be as prepared as possible at the starting line.
How much should I eat leading up to the race?
While many people envision carb-loading as stuffing themselves with as much as possible, this is not the case. Actually, if you are eating a proper athletic diet that is rich in healthy carbohydrates – you won’t have to alter your eating plan too much in the week leading up to the race. The reason? Tapering!
If you are tapering your workouts the way that most coaches recommend, you’ll have a significant drop in training volume the week before your race. Because of this, you are burning less calories – and using less glycogen - throughout that week.
So, if you continue eating a standard training diet – one that contains a variety of healthy carbohydrate choices often throughout the day – you are essentially carb-loading just by doing that! The proportion of carbohydrate you’re eating compared to what you’re burning is now greater (since you’re burning less), so you are able to saturate those muscles with glycogen in advance of your race.
And then in the 2-3 days before your race, you can slightly increase carbohydrate intake (up to approximately 70% of your daily calories) to ensure your muscles are fully stocked with glycogen.
A few more tips:
- You may end up with a “nervous stomach” the night before a race, so focus on eating a carb-rich meal 2 nights beforehand. Along the same lines, if dinner usually doesn’t sit well before a race, try a large lunch the day before instead.
- Pasta isn’t the only choice. You can carb-load on a combination of rice, pancakes, quinoa, potatoes, starchy vegetables, fruits, and more. The type of carbohydrate is not as important as the amount.
- Choose familiar foods. Even though you may be excited about a pre-race party the night before, try to avoid reaching for new items or those that you don’t eat often. They may settle heavily in your stomach, or cause problems like diarrhea.
- In addition, using a variety of familiar foods is best practice because you decrease the risk of overdoing any one food. For example, carb-loading on fruit alone may result in diarrhea, while carb-loading on white bread alone may cause constipation in the days leading up to the race.
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