Carb-Loading 101

May 24, 2018

Performance Nutrition Specialist Lee Hyrkas breaks down the dos and don’ts of carb-loading

Whether you are a runner, other kind of athlete or general fitness enthusiast, you have likely heard someone bring up the topic of carb-loading. Most individuals correlate carb-loading to eating endless plates of pasta the night before an event. There is nothing wrong with eating a nice race-eve pasta meal, but we might want to reconsider how we implement carb-loading. Let’s take a closer look at what carb-loading is all about.

What is Carb-Loading?
Carbohydrates (potatoes, pasta, breads, rice, fruit, beans, etc.) are an important fuel source for our body during exercise. Increasing your carbohydrate intake before an event or intense workout session may provide a performance boost. Carb-loading is a nutrition strategy in which individuals will eat larger volumes of carbohydrate-rich foods for several days to one week leading up to an event. To get the most out of carb-loading, individuals should taper their training leading up to the event. If you are unsure how to taper your training, I recommend you get in touch with our running expert, Nate Vandervest, Running Coach, CSCS, CES. Nathan.Vandervest@bellin.org. Nate will work with you to create a customized training plan.

How Does It Work?
The body has the unique ability to store extra carbohydrate in the liver and muscle tissues. During long and intense training sessions, the body will utilize these stores to maintain energy levels. However, the body has the ability to store only small amounts of glycogen (~100 grams liver, ~300-400 grams muscle tissues). If we are not keeping an eye on our nutrition, our glycogen stores can become depleted, leading to lackluster performances and possibly impaired recovery. The goal of carb-loading is to ensure that our glycogen levels are topped off and ready for our big event.

Should I Carb-Load?
Generally, carb loading is reserved for events lasting longer than 90 minutes (half marathon, marathon, triathlon, IRONMAN, etc.) and performed at moderate to high intensity levels. For activities lasting less than 90 minutes, focus on eating a balanced meal plan as your best bet.

Things to Consider
For every gram of glycogen that your body stores, roughly 2-3 grams of extra water will be stored with it. This will lead to a small amount of water weight gain (~2-4 lbs.). Gradually Increasing your carbohydrates leading up to an event can allow you to adjust to the extra water weight. Keep in mind that while high-fiber foods are often encouraged for long-term health, it may be wise to choose lower-fiber foods (skinless fruits, white grains, white breads, etc.) during the week leading up to your event. Eating too much fiber before a race may lead to GI distress (gas, bloating, diarrhea, etc.). After your event is over, switch back to higher-fiber choices. 

Practical Recommendations
During the week leading up to your event of 90 minutes or more, add an extra serving or two of carbohydrate-rich foods (fruit, whole grains, rice, starchy vegetables, etc.) at your main meals. For example, if you normally eat one cup of rice or cooked grain at a meal, add an extra half cup. If you prefer specific numbers, aim for an extra 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per main meal. This will aid in topping off your carbohydrate stores for the upcoming event. There is no need to carb-load for events lasting less than 90 minutes. Just continue to include moderate amounts of carbohydrates at meals and taper your training leading up to the event. Check out my blog titled “Keep it Simple” for more tips on building a quality meal plan. If you need help customizing your meal plan, feel free to contact me at Lee.Hyrkas@bellin.org or (920) 430-4728 to schedule a one-on-one consultation. 

 

Sources:
Clark, N. (2014). Sports Nutrition Guidebook 5th ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Rosenbloom, C., Coleman, E. (2012). Sports Nutrition. A Practice Manual for Professionals 5th ed. Diana Faulhaber.

Wasserman DH. Four grams of glucose. American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2009;296(1):E11-E21. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.90563.2008.

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