The following diet is a meal plan for a 70kg athlete aiming to carbohydrate load:
Breakfast: 3 cups of low-fibre breakfast cereal with milk, 1 medium banana and 250ml orange juice.
Snack: 1 x Toasted muffin with honey and 500ml sports drink
Lunch: 2 sandwiches (4 slices of bread) with filling as desired, 200g tub of low-fat fruit yoghurt
Snack: Banana smoothie made with low-fat milk, banana and honey cereal bar
Dinner: 1 cup of pasta sauce with 2 cups of cooked pasta, 3 slices of garlic bread, 2 glasses of cordial
Late Snack: Toasted muffin and jam, 500ml sports drink
This sample plan provides ~ 3500kcal, 600 g carbohydrate, 125 g protein and 60 g fat.
The fat content should be kept low to keep gut residue low and ease the transit of food through the gut. Low fibre is also desirable so that you can be happy to start your race without concerns about needing the toilet later into the day.
If the food volume seems like a lot, you can use energy drinks to top up your carbohydrate intake without having a lot of food bulk.
And now for an interesting fact…
Carbohydrate loading will most likely cause body mass to increase by approximately 2kg. For every extra gram of glycogen stored you will also store 2g of water. This can be a concern for many runners, but the potential negatives of setting off slightly heavier are far outweighed by the potential performance benefits.
- 3 Ways to Effectively Carb Loading Before a Race
- Carb Loading for Runners and Endurance Sports
- Why Does Carb Loading Before a Race Work?
- RunnersConnect Insider Bonus
- How to Carb Load for a Race
- Carb Loading: 10 Snack And Meal Ideas
- Meal ideas
- Carbo-Loading for the Marathon
- What is meant by the term ‘carb-loading’?
- How and when should I start to carb-load before a race?
- What are some different ways to carb-load?
- What should my portion size of carbohydrates be at each meal?
- 10 Tips for Carbohydrate Loading
- Carb Loading: What Is It & Why Is It Bad For My Diet?
- Carb Loading Case Study
- Carb Loading vs. Protein Consumption
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- The truth about carb loading
- Let’s clear up the carb controversy.
- Carb Loading Explained
- Why carb load?
- Who is carb loading for?
- How to carb load (and what to eat)
- Foods High in Carbohydrates
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- Carbo Loading
- What is carbohydrate loading and Who does it benefit?
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- How much will carbohydrate loading improve my performance?
- What does an effective carbohydrate loading diet look like?
- Are there any difference in the effects of carbohydrate loading in males compared to females?
3 Ways to Effectively Carb Loading Before a Race
Carbohydrate loading, also referred to as carb loading, is a familiar term among athletes of all sports, but especially in the world of running.
Carb loading before marathon events can help prepare us for success on race day, but it is not just for marathon runners, but all endurance events.
To most of us, it is often used to describe a large pasta dinner the night before a race or the consumption of massive amounts of carbohydrate justified by statements such as “I run a lot, so I can eat this.”
It is true that carbohydrate is the body’s major fuel source and is a crucial component of the distance runner’s diet.
However, true carbohydrate loading is a systematic and scientific practice that takes course over the weeks and days leading up to competition, usually a marathon or ultra marathon with the purpose of maximizing the storage of glycogen in muscles.
If you are thinking of taking your race week eating to the next level, you could consider carb back loading, but we found carb back loading results were not as impressive as once thought.
If you are looking for the best food for carb loading, we have a carb loading diet for you to follow, but today, we are going to explain the who, what, when, why and how of carb loading and tips for how you can us it to race as fast as you can.
Carb Loading for Runners and Endurance Sports
Carbohydrate loading is only effective for endurance events lasting longer than 90 minutes, such as marathons, ultra marathons, and triathlons.
During intense, continuous endurance exercise, your muscles will become depleted of glycogen after about 90 minutes.
Carb loading is meant to store extra glycogen that your muscles can tap into once the normal stores are used up.
Carbohydrate loading is not useful for events like a 5k or 10k since the running effort will not be long enough to completely deplete muscle glycogen stores.
Any extra glycogen in the muscles during those events may actually be detrimental to performance due to the potential of muscle stiffness and heaviness that can be associated with carbohydrate loading.
Why Does Carb Loading Before a Race Work?
Muscle glycogen is the main source of energy in intense endurance events.
As that glycogen is used up, athletic performance is jeopardized.
However, the greater the amount of stored muscle glycogen, the greater the endurance potential of the body.
How to carb load before a marathon (or endurance event)
As carbohydrate loading received more attention for its ability to improve athletic performance in endurance events, more research has focused on effective methods.
The traditional method consisted of tapered training accompanied by increased carbohydrate consumption in the weeks leading up to competition.
A similar method followed this same model but in a shorter duration of time (6 days).
There are also more rapid methods of carbohydrate loading that seek to maximize glycogen stores in the final 24 hours before competition.
Here’s the deal:
The appropriate method for you depends on the event you are doing, your training leading up to the event, and the number of events you plan on doing throughout the year.
While some athletes may practice a long taper leading up to a major competition, others prefer to keep a high level of training all the way up to the day of the event.
Below are some examples of carbohydrate guidelines according to which method you may choose.
Carb Loading Method 1: Long Taper
Using the long taper method, you should have your final hard training session 3 weeks before competition day.
By 2 weeks out, you should really start tapering your training. Just make sure you do not make the 3 most common tapering mistakes!
During this taper time you do not need to eat extra calories since your body will not be using as many as it needed during training. Instead, you should continue to eat 3-5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight and reduce your fat intake to make up for your body’s reduced demand for energy.
Your muscles will use these extra carbohydrate calories to build up a glycogen store that will remain, since you won’t be using it for training any longer. Normally your body can store glycogen at the capacity of 80-120 mmol/kg.
When practiced perfectly, this method of carbohydrate loading should allow you to almost double that storage capacity to approximately 200 mmol/kg.
Carb Loading Method 2: 6-day Protocol
In this method, a glycogen-depleting exercise is performed 6 days prior to the event.
This exercise should utilize the same muscle groups that will be used in competition, so if you are planning on following a marathon training schedule, you would want to add in a few minutes of very intense sprinting to deplete your muscle glycogen stores.
The next 3 days would consist of a normal mixed diet (~2-3 grams of carbohydrate per pound), and tapered training.
Then 3 days before competition you would further reduce training or rest completely and consume a high-carbohydrate (~4.5 grams per pound), low-fat diet.
Carb Loading Method 3: Rapid Loading
This method doesn’t require the athlete to taper in the weeks leading up to competition.
Perhaps this athlete has more competitions to be prepared for soon after, hasn’t done enough training leading into competition and needs those last few weeks, or simply performs better physically and/or mentally without a taper.
You might be wondering what to do in this situation:
Whatever the reason, it is possible to achieve comparable glycogen storage results using a 24-hour carbohydrate loading method.
To do this, the athlete will perform an intense glycogen-depleting exercise 24 hours prior to competition.
Immediately following this workout the athlete will start to consume a high-carbohydrate diet consisting of 5-6 grams of carbohydrate per pound and continue this throughout the day.
As an example, an athlete weighing 150 pounds would need to eat about 750 grams (or 3000 calories worth) of carbohydrate. To make room for all of these carbs you would need to greatly reduce your intake of fat and protein for that day.
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The guide contains a plan of exactly what you should be eating in the 5 days to 3 hours before your race. We give specific food recommendations to make sure you are ready on race day.
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How to Carb Load for a Race
Whatever method you choose, there are some things to keep in mind.
First, as always with any dietary changes, try out carbohydrate loading methods BEFORE you use them in competition.
Especially with the rapid loading method, intestinal problems may occur and you do not want to have to deal with these on race day.
In the weeks and days leading up to competition, continue to eat an adequate amount of protein (0.6-0.7 grams per pound). Protein may be helpful in assisting glycogen synthesis and can also be used as a secondary fuel source in endurance exercise.
Add some fiber-rich foods to promote regular bowel movements but don’t go overboard.
Too many refined carbohydrates can result in constipation but too much fiber could cause diarrhea and intestinal distress on race day.
You need to expect some weight gain (~2-4 pounds), and not panic about it.
For every ounce of glycogen the body also stores 3 ounces of water.
Although your muscles may feel a little heavier at the beginning of the race these feelings will subside as the body uses up the glycogen and water throughout the race.
Use various forms of carbohydrate-dense foods and drinks to meet your needs such as juices, gels, and sports drinks. Be sure to consume whole-grain sources as well to balance out all that sugar.
Here are some of the best carbohydrates for runners.
Do not wait until your last meal to load up on the carbohydrates.
You want to give your body time to digest and a big meal at night may leave you feeling full and uncomfortable in the morning.
Instead trying eating your largest meal early in the day prior to competition. Here are 6 other important nutrition tips for the marathon taper.
Finally, be sure to still consume some energy sources and fluids during your event.
What you have stored up will help you go longer, but it still may not be enough to get you through the entire race without an additional fueling plan.
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Carb-loading diets have recently become popular in the sports and fitness community as a way to improve stamina and boost energy levels by increasing muscle glycogen levels by about 50%. Carbohydrates are your body’s main energy source when exerting yourself, and complex carbs such as legumes and whole grains are an essential part of every athlete’s diet. Carb-loading, however, is not a beneficial strategy for everybody. Loading up on carbohydrates has both its pros and its cons for different athletes.
What is Carb-Loading?
Carb-loading involves increasing carbohydrate intake around one to four days before a sporting event. Excess carbohydrates are stored in the muscle as glycogen, which offers a source of protein during physical exertion. The idea of carb-loading is to maximize glycogen stores in muscles before a competition, helping to improve stamina.
Loading up on carbs before an event works best for endurance sports such as marathon running, long-distance cycling, cross-country skiing, and lap swimming. It’s not as effective, however, for high-intensity team sports and everyday training. In general, carb-loading is best reserved for activities that involve more than 90 minutes of nonstop moderate to high-intensity exertion.
The Benefits of Carb-Loading
When applied to a training routine properly, carb-loading can help athletes to go for longer without experiencing fatigue. Normally, only small amounts of glycogen are stored in muscles, and when this supply runs out, exhaustion sets in. Carb-loading increases glycogen stores in tissues, giving individuals more energy at their disposal to use during a competition. Eating plenty of carbohydrates also helps to build muscle mass and prevent age-related muscle loss.
The Pitfalls of Carb-Loading
Following a carb-loading diet can cause more harm than good for certain populations. Casual gym-goers and high-intensity sports teams should avoid too many carbohydrates, as such a meal plan can lead to water retention and weight gain. Not only will this affect physical performance, but it may have long-lasting health implications. Carb-loading can also cause digestive problems such as bloating. Many foods that are rich in carbohydrates also contain dietary fiber which, while beneficial in small amounts, can lead to constipation and diarrhea in large doses.
While carb-loading can be beneficial for some individuals, it’s not necessarily an ideal strategy for all athletes. Eating an excess of carbohydrates only increases stamina for those who are competing in long-distance or endurance events. For daily workouts and most popular sports, carb-loading can actually detract from performance and lead to weight gain and digestive issues.
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Carb Loading: 10 Snack And Meal Ideas
Looking for ideas of how to consume enough carbs? These carbohydrate-rich snack and meal ideas are just the ticket.
Looking for ideas of how to consume enough carbs? These carbohydrate-rich snack and meal ideas are just the ticket.
For any long distance runner or keen fitness enthusiast, the term carb loading will be a familiar one. It is the process by which you replenish your body’s natural store of glycogen, which is diminished when you exercise.
The body stores around 90 minutes worth of glycogen before you run out, so you need to either top it up as you go (marathon runners in particular will appreciate the need for sports drinks and carb snacks during a race). But you can also replenish and load up your glycogen ahead of a fitness event and this is known as carb loading.
With that in mind, here are some snack and meal ideas for when you need to horde a few extra carbs to maximise your body’s energy reserves.
Pancakes and banana/blueberries and maple syrup
Pancakes are an American staple in terms of breakfast and they are also a tasty way of carb loading. You can choose a variety of toppings; bananas bring carbs and protein to the party, while blueberries are jam packed with antioxidants. Add a touch of maple syrup for extra flavour and wash it down with a cup of coffee and you’ll be ready to face the day with more energy than you know what to do with.
Bagel and peanut butter
This is one of the runner’s favourite snacks, even though there isn’t a trace of butter to be found in it! It is packed full of peanuts, protein, fibre and unsaturated fat, which makes you feel full for longer. This helps athletes maintain a sustained effort during lengthy training sessions and/or races.
Toast and honey
There’s nothing like a piece of toast with butter and honey at the best of times, but even better when you’re training. This is ideal as part of your breakfast or before a run. Perfect with a cup of coffee.
A handful of dried apricot is a great way of topping up those carb levels. They’re full of vitamins, fibre and potassium and taste great. Prunes are also packed full of carbs and they’re low in fat too. But they both have plenty of fibre, so don’t have too many the day before a big race, or you may find your stomach rebels somewhat.
This is a quick and easy way of taking a carbohydrate hit. Admittedly there are hundreds of energy bars on the market to choose from. But by and large the carbs tend to come from the same sources in all of them, which are rice, oats, fruit and nuts.
Jacket potato with tuna
Tuna is rich in healthy fats and protein, which helps lower cholesterol as well as helping you recharge your energy batteries. And the jacket potato is a walking carbohydrate machine. So it’s the perfect combination.
Pasta with chicken and asparagus
If we’re talking athlete’s super food, then pasta is probably it. It’s so simple to cook, easy to digest and swiftly turned into energy by the body. Wholegrain pasta is even better than its refined cousin, as it makes you feel fuller. Chicken adds protein and asparagus adds vitamins, all cooked with a touch of garlic, some onion and a tomato sauce. Marvellous.
Porridge with milk topped with fruit
Porridge is a bit of a super food for runners because it provides low glycaemic index carbohydrate, which is released into the body slowly and continues to provide energy throughout the day. It’s full of carbs and can be topped with any fruit of your choice to give it an even healthier twist.
Turkey sandwich on wholegrain bread
Some sliced, lean turkey breast on wholegrain bread, with low fat mayo and a little butter, some sliced tomato and a lettuce leaf or two. It’s the perfect lunch, end of.
Grilled salmon and whole grain rice
Fish is a fabulous source of protein and in combination with whole grain rice, you will feel fuller for longer and be giving your body all the energy it needs. A green side salad is a super healthy option.
Carbo-Loading for the Marathon
You’ve probably heard that you need to “carbo-load” before long races like a half-marathon, marathon or ultramarathon. Here’s my take on carbo-loading, including what I ate before winning the US National Masters Trail Marathon Championship.
Carbo-loading came into vogue after exercise science perfected the muscle biopsy. I’ve had one done and while it’s not that invasive, it does involve the physiologist inserting a large needle into your muscle and pulling out a core sample. The sample of muscle tissue is then “stained” with different chemicals so the physiologist can determine lots of cool things like your percentage of fast twitch to slow twitch muscle fibers, glycogen levels, capillary beds, etc.
Muscle biopsies in exercise physiology corresponded with the first running boom in the early 1970s. Physiologists began testing runners to see what was happening when they were successful and when they were not. From the muscle biopsies of runners who “hit the wall,” muscle glycogen (the stored carbohydrate in our muscles) was low, thus began the quest to see how to increase the muscle glycogen stores to help runners avoid the “wall.”
Early Carbo-Loading Techniques
Coaches (who always seem to figure out what works before physiologists do) had already seen that using long distance runs could help runners avoid the wall and that increasing carbohydrates in the diet was helpful as well. There is even a story of Arthur Lydiard telling his Olympic runners to add another spoonful (or two) of honey to their morning coffee before heading out for their 22-mile long runs because they would perform better. And of course, Lydiard championed the idea that doing regular long runs could help runners of all distances delay fatigue.
Deplete, Deprive, Replenish Method
Taking it a step further, researchers wanted to see if they could really maximize muscle glycogen stores right before a long race by first depleting them and then refilling them. It was known that when muscle glycogen stores are low, there is a really strong stimulus in the body to refill them. (You can read more about this in my Runner’s Ultimate Nutritional Recovery Routine article.)
From this research, the first carbo-loading regimen – deplete, deprive, replenish – was created. It is a logical and simple strategy, but does have some serious drawbacks.
In this strategy, you begin seven days before your race. You first do a big workout to fully deplete your glycogen stores. This is usually a speed workout with lots of repetitions to burn through your carbohydrate stores. But it could be any running that depletes your glycogen stores. Then, and this was the critical step in this method, you avoided carbohydrates over the next three days. That’s right. You purposely ate a low carbohydrate diet so as not to refill your glycogen stores.
Then, three days before your race, you began to eat lots of carbohydrates. Your body, having been deprived, would quickly and maximally restock your glycogen stores and you’d then have a “full tank” of glycogen for the race.
Sure enough, it worked! Research showed that if you followed this regimen, you would indeed have really full glycogen stores.
However, this big glycogen tank came at a cost. First, you had to do a really hard workout just seven days before your big race. This introduced a risk of injury, peaking too soon and was generally worrying for the athlete.
Second, by depriving the runner of carbohydrates for the three days after the glycogen-depleting workout, she would feel very, very bad in the next few runs. No energy. Very tired and often quite grumpy. The legs were dead and heavy and the runner often felt very, very unfit. As you might imagine, this is not the ideal mental state for someone with a big race coming up. I have known runners who tried this original carbo-loading technique and from my perspective, it just wasn’t worth it given the mental beating the runners took.
The Modified Method
Due to the negative issues with the original carbo-loading method, researchers evaluated a modified version that would skip the depletion/deprivation phase and just focus on the loading phase. Luckily for all of us, it worked!
Just like with the deplete-deprive-replenish method, the modified method resulted in a big increase in muscle glycogen. Technically, the depletion method may have resulted in slightly more glycogen storage but the differences were minimal and certainly the ability to avoid the negative physical and mental issues with the depletion-deprecation-repletion method was well worth it!
As a result, the Modified Method has become the go-to method for carbo-loading. You eat your normal diet in the first few days of race week and then simply increase the proportion of calories coming from carbohydrates in the last three days. Because you avoid the depletion and deprivation phase, you feel better in your runs/workouts the last week of your taper and you also avoid the mental issues – grumpiness, loss of confidence due to poor workouts, etc. It’s just a much more manageable strategy.
If you search the internet, you’ll find some really detailed formulae on how much carbohydrate to eat based on your age, gender, etc. but to be honest I find that simply making sure you have a good carbohydrate component in each meal works just fine and is less complicated.
What this means is that in each meal in the last three days before your race, you make sure you include carbohydrates. It doesn’t have to be complicated but you simply make sure each meal is rich in carbohydrates. I’ve included what I ate at each meal in the three days leading into my championship race at the bottom of the this article and you’ll see that it wasn’t complicated.
Though the modified carbo-loading method is very simple, there are a few caveats to be aware of.
First, note that this is not overeating. You aren’t “stuffing yourself” to get fuller glycogen stores. You are simply adjusting each meal to have a larger carbohydrate component. Overeating (which is common due to nervousness) is not what you want.
Second, for every gram of stored glycogen there are four grams of water stored along with it. As a result, you may see a slight increase in body weight so don’t worry if you are a pound or two heavier for race morning. That weight is extra glycogen and water and both will help you in the race.
Third, reduce your fiber intake in the last three days. This is the opposite of what you do normally. Normally, you are trying to eat more fiber in your diet but since fiber can be tough on the GI system, in carbo-loading, you reduce fiber intake. That means that instead of whole wheat toast (high fiber) you would select white bread toast (low fiber). I know it sounds crazy but for these three days you want to give your GI system a break and reduce the fiber intake. This is especially true for those that have had GI issues during races.
Lastly, practice your carbo-loading plan on a few long runs. This will help you dial it in just like you dial in your race nutrition by practicing it during some of your workouts. As is always the case, don’t try anything radical. Just eat things you normally eat with the exception of choosing lower fiber options. Then, once you know what works best for you, pre-plan your meals the last three days (especially for when you arrive at the race site) so you can relax and not stress about what to eat.
Because it’s so easy to carbo-load using the modified method, I highly recommend every runner carbo-load before long races. Note that the proper method is NOT just to eat a huge carbohydrate meal the night before the race (i.e., the traditional “pasta dinner”). It is a multi-day method and when done correctly not only results in full glycogen stores – but also boosts your confidence as you are never hungry, feel good on runs and know what will work with your GI system. I’ve seen too many runners wait till the last day, then gorge at the pasta dinner then wake up race morning with an upset stomach.
To summarize: I’m a fan of adjusting the proportion of calories coming from carbohydrates in the last three days before your race but caution runners to not go overboard. You don’t eat more. Let me say this again, you don’t eat more calories but you simply include a bit more carbohydrates in your meals than you might otherwise. Remember, your training volume has reduced in your taper before the race so your stores are already less compromised than usual and I’ve found just a slight increase in carbohydrate intake works well (i.e., you don’t need to pig out on the carbo dinner the night before; just be reasonable.). Most importantly, eat what has worked for you in training and you’ll be fine.
Most runners know they should eat pasta, rice, potatoes, or other high-carb foods before a half or full marathon. After all, carbs are a great source of energy, and you need a lot of energy to cover 13.1 or 26.2 miles. But many runners are far less clear on how many carbohydrates they should eat and when to start loading up.
“When I go to marathon expos,” says Monique Ryan, R.D., author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, “I’m amazed how many people haven’t carbo-loaded properly. Runners train so hard and then arrive with a huge handicap.” Here’s what every runner needs to know about carbohydrates, so you can toe the line fully fueled and ready to go.
When you eat a bowl of spaghetti, most of the carbs are stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver. Glycogen is your body’s most easily accessible form of energy, but it’s not the only source, says Ryan. During a half or full marathon you burn both glycogen and fat. But the latter is not as efficient, which means your body has to work harder to convert it into fuel.
When you run out of glycogen during a race you hit “the wall.” Your body has to slow down as it turns fat into energy. Benjamin Rapoport, a 2:55 marathoner, is intimately acquainted with the wall. The Harvard M.D. student (who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT) hit the wall so hard at the 2005 New York City Marathon he decided to study how to avoid it in the future (his research was published in PLoS Computational Biology in October 2010). “Proper carbo-loading—or filling your muscles to the brim with glycogen—won’t make you faster, but it will allow you to run your best and, if you race smartly, avoid the wall,” he says.
Which carbs should you load up on? “I’m very utilitarian,” says Rapoport. “I eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” But runners don’t need to be so restrictive. Tortillas, oatmeal, bread, pancakes, waffles, bagels, yogurt, and juice are all easy-to-digest options. Many fruits are high in carbs but are also high in fiber—and too much can cause stomach trouble midrace. “Bananas are a low-fiber choice,” says sports nutritionist Ilana Katz, R.D. “And you can peel apples, peaches, and pears to reduce their fiber content.” She also gives her clients permission to indulge in white bread and baked potatoes without the skin since both are easily digested.
Ryan suggests steering clear of high-fat foods—like creamy sauces, cheese, butter, and oils—as well as too much protein. Both nutrients fill you up faster than carbs and take longer to digest, she says. Pick jam—not butter—for your toast, tomato sauce in lieu of alfredo sauce on your pasta, and frozen yogurt instead of ice cream for dessert.
You can’t completely fill your muscles with glycogen from just one meal, “which is why you should start carbo-loading two or three days before your race,” says Ryan. Since you’re running very few miles, the glycogen will accumulate in your muscles. At this point, 85 to 95 percent of your calories should come from carbs, says Katz. Ryan recommends eating about four grams of carbs for every pound of body weight (for a 150 pound runner that’s 600 grams—or 2,400 calories—of carbs per day).
During his research, Rapoport developed an even more precise formula, which runners can access at endurancecalculator.com, that factors in variables including age, resting heart rate, VO2 max, and predicted finishing time. It’s important to keep in mind that you’re most likely not eating many more calories per day than you were during the thick of your training—it’s just that more of those calories are coming from carbs.
If you step on the scale while you’re carbo-loading, be prepared to see a number that’s at least four pounds more than your usual weight. The extra pounds mean you get a gold star for carbo-loading properly. “With every gram of stored carbohydrate, you store an extra three grams of water,” says Katz. That means your body will be hydrated and fueled as you start the race, ensuring you cross the finish feeling strong.
A day of carbo-loading for a 150-pound runner.
1 bagel with 2 tablespoons strawberry jam (71 g)
1 medium banana (27 g)
8 ounces fruit yogurt (41 g)
8 ounces orange juice (26 g)
2 Nature Valley Oats ‘n Honey Granola Bars (29 g)
8 ounces Gatorade (14 g)
1 large baked potato with 1/4 cup salsa (69 g)
1 sourdough roll (40 g)
8 ounces chocolate milk (26 g)
1 large oatmeal cookie (56 g)
1 Clif Bar (42 g)
8 ounces Gatorade (14 g)
1 chicken burrito with rice, corn salsa, and black beans (105 g)
1 2-ounce bag Swedish Fish (51 g)
Carb Total: 611 g
What to do before race day to ensure your tank is full.
6 Weeks Before: Practice loading
Two or three days prior to your longest run, start eating more carbs and less fat and protein. “You’ll get a sense of what foods agree and disagree with your stomach,” says Katz.
1 Week Before: Make a plan
“A plan is especially important if you’re traveling to a race,” says Ryan. Pack plenty of snacks, like sports bars, pretzels, and crackers. Check menus online and make restaurant reservations.
2 or 3 Days Before: Switch to carbs
From now through your race, 85 to 95 percent of your diet should be carbs. Eat after taper runs. “That is when muscles are primed to store glycogen,” says Rapoport.
Night Before: Don’t stuff yourself
Dinner should be relatively small but carb-heavy. Eat on the early side so you have lots of time to digest.
“You want to wake up race day hungry—not full from the night before,” says Ryan.
Race Morning: Have breakfast
Three hours before the start, eat 150 grams of carbs, like a bagel and yogurt or sports drink and oatmeal, says Ryan. Early race? “Get up at 3 a.m., eat, and go back to bed,” she says.
Article credit – https://www.runnersworld.com/nutrition/the-right-way-to-carbo-load-before-a-race
By Tom DiChiara
The Rumor: Carb-loading the night before a marathon will keep you from “hitting the wall.”
There I was, at mile 22 of the 2008 New York City Marathon… and walking. Sure, I’d heard the woeful tales of runners “hitting the wall” or “bonking” at mile 20, but it never occurred to me that I might someday join their ranks. In anticipation of what was to have been my triumphant marathon debut, I’d logged 70-mile weeks, done the requisite 20-mile runs, tapered my training and eaten a gargantuan pasta dinner the night before — everything I thought I was supposed to do.
So where had I gone wrong? As I stood at the mile 23 aid station pounding Gatorade, it hit me: Perhaps I hadn’t properly carb-loaded — which, for the uninitiated, is the process of building up glycogen stores in your muscles so that you can burn those sugars when you need them most (like, say, between miles 20 and 26 of a marathon).
What I’ve learned since, and what has enabled me to successfully finish half a dozen subsequent marathons, is that carb-loading is a far more scientific and complicated process than just shoveling a plate of spaghetti down your gullet 12 hours before a race. So how does it actually work? I did the research, so you’ll be better prepared than I was for my first marathon.
The Verdict: Carb-loading for three days prior to a marathon will help keep the crash at bay
“The biggest mistake marathoners make is eating an extra-large dinner the night before the race,” says Stuart Calderwood, a senior editor with New York Road Runners (the group that puts on the NYC Marathon) and the veteran of some 56 marathons. “What they should really be doing is eating a larger-than-usual percentage of carbohydrates for the whole last three days, and then eating a normal-sized and familiar dinner.”
What is meant by the term ‘carb-loading’?
This is used to describe a period of high carbohydrate eating that maximises the body’s glycogen stores in preparation for an endurance event. The science and practice in this area has shifted a lot in recent years. Previously a ‘classic’ approach involved training hard to deplete the body’s glycogen, followed by a seven-day, high carbohydrate diet to replenish stores.
It is now believed that carbohydrate stores can be maximised over the two days before a race. This is achieved with high carbohydrate intakes – a rough guide equates to approximately 8-10g carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight – so for example, a runner weighing 60kg would aim to consume 480g-600g of carbohydrate each day.
First time marathon runners, or those who find it difficult to eat regularly, may wish to begin three days before the race. There is no need to follow the old seven day approach – it may even increase fat stores in some runners.
How and when should I start to carb-load before a race?
Ideally start to carb-load two days before an event, possibly three days for more inexperienced runners. The overall target is approximately 10g of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight. More practically, this means setting up a schedule of three carb-based meals with three snacks a day (morning, afternoon and evening).
What are some different ways to carb-load?
Increasing your carbohydrate intake doesn’t necessarily mean eating huge volumes of pasta. Firstly, increase the carbohydrate content of meals by adding a bigger portion of your preferred source of carbohydrate. Adding a glass of fruit juice to one of your meals will also help to up your intake.
Snacks will play an important role in reaching your goal – try to eat a high carbohydrate snack 2-3 times a day. Often this gives you an opportunity to eat foods that you’ve previously had to reduce, so enjoy the race preparation! There is no need to eat so much you are uncomfortable – just tailor each meal and snack option towards carbohydrate. Some good recipe options could include:
Rustic oat & treacle soda bread
Kiwi fruit smoothie
Cinnamon apple & raisin porridge
Cranberry & almond clusters
Dark chocolate, banana & rye loaf
Tropical smoothie bowl
What should my portion size of carbohydrates be at each meal?
With each meal, try to aim to fill your plate half full with carbohydrate. Protein is less of a focus at the carb-loading stage, but still important for muscle tissue repair, so fill quarter of your plate with protein. The other quarter should be filled with mixed vegetables.
Don’t worry about weight gain of a few kilograms during carb-loading. This is to be expected and much will be water weight that is bound to carbohydrate during storage in the body.
Are you training for an event this year? Share your tips and experiences below.
This article was last updated on 25 March 2019.
James Collins is recognised as a leading Performance Nutritionist through his work with Olympic and professional sport. Over the last decade he has worked with Arsenal FC, the England and France national football teams and Team GB. He has a private practice in Harley Street where he sees business executives, performing artists and clients from all walks of life. He is the author of the new book The Energy Plan, which focuses on the key principles of fuelling for fitness.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
10 Tips for Carbohydrate Loading
Ultra endurance athletes such as ironman triathletes manipulate their diet and exercise for approximately one week prior to a race. This is referred to as carbohydrate loading and has been shown to prolong athletic endurance in Ironman races.
There are really two important points to keep in mind for successful carb loading: first, tapered exercise levels and second, adequate dietary and fluid intake. The idea is that you want to maximize your glycogen (sugar) stores in your liver and muscles for race day by eating more calories than you burn. Some people complain that by doing this they feel bloated and feel “like they are gaining weight”. Well, in fact they are. When your body stores carbs, it also stores water and this leads to weight gain. A gain of
about 2 pounds is an indicator that carb loading is occurring. For this reason, you have to listen to your body and do what feels right for you (ie. you don’t have to gain 2 pounds, you may only gain 1, everybody is a little different). After all, it is a week before the race and you want to feel strong and healthy – not heavy and bloated.
Here are 10 tips that you should find helpful for the week leading up to
- Be sure to drink enough non-caffeinated liquids every day during the week prior to the event (ex. skim milk, juice, sports drinks, water, decaf tea). You should be going to the bathroom ~ 1 every 2-3 hours and your urine should be clear or pale yellow.
- Eat at least 6 servings of fruits and vegetables each day (1 serving = 1 medium orange/banana OR 1/2 cup berries/broccoli OR 1 cup green salad). This is how you can get a lot of your carbs, as well as much needed vitamins and minerals. Breads, cereals, pasta, rice, bagels, tortillas, crackers, granola bars, plain cookies, energy bars, juice and sports drinks are vital sources of carbohydrates too.
- Include a source of protein at every meal. In addition to lean red meat, fish and poultry, include foods such as milk, yogurt, almonds, eggs, tofu, shellfish and canned fish.
- Don’t skip meals. Try to eat a small snack after lunch and dinner. Listen to your body – eat if you are hungry and don’t stuff yourself either.
- Remember that it is just as important to taper your workouts in preparation for the race.
- Avoid junk foods such as ice cream, chocolate bars, chips and fried foods because they will fill your stomach, but not fuel your muscles. This is the time to treat your body like a temple. Only put nourishing foods in.
- Lightly salt your food at meal times (just a sprinkle). This will help ensure that your sodium levels are sitting at the higher end of normal for race day. Your body will draw on these stores as you sweat out a lot of sodium during the race.
- Eat a high carbohydrate meal the night before, such as pasta with a tomato-meat sauce, salad and a glass of milk. Follow this with a small snack before bed (e.g. a little cereal and milk, half a jam sandwich, fruit and yogurt, graham crackers and milk).
- Eat a high carbohydrate meal 3 hours before the race starts. Some examples of foods athletes should have are: cereal, milk, toast, pancakes, syrup, jam, peanut butter, juice, banana, peach, nectarine, bagels, English muffins. You should already have tried your pre-race breakfast plan during training.
- Don’t try any new foods or drinks from now until after the race. Even as you wander through the athlete expo, don’t try new bars, drinks or gels. Try to eat at home as much as you can and avoid going out to eat at restaurants and delis.
Copyright held by SportMedBC. For information contact [email protected]
Carb Loading: What Is It & Why Is It Bad For My Diet?
Have you ever eaten a bagel or muffin for breakfast, and then felt either so ravenously hungry or lethargic by late-morning that you wolfed down a sugar-filled energy bar? Now ask yourself why anyone would want to go to the gym in that condition—you’d probably spend the whole workout feeling like you couldn’t get out of first gear. Carb loading causes a rapid rise in blood sugar that produces a very different outcome than most anticipate. It signals the body to release a big spurt of insulin, which actually lowers blood sugar and energy levels—a recipe for a mid-workout crash.
The original thinking behind carbohydrate loading was that it effectively restocked blood-sugar stores (glycogen) in the days before a major competitive event to provide long-lasting energy. But as you can see, carb loading at the wrong time (right before exercise) produces just the opposite outcome, leaving the body with less, rather than more, energy. Consistent energy is the goal, and avoiding sugar spikes and troughs is the answer!
Carb Loading Case Study
In one study, 12 normal-weight men switched from their regular diet (about 48 percent carbohydrate) to a higher protein, low-carb diet (eight percent carbohydrate) for six weeks. Another eight men stayed on the regular carb loading diet plan for comparison. The men were encouraged to eat plenty of calories in order to maintain their weight. At the end of the six weeks, the men who had consumed higher protein and restricted carbs had significantly decreased their body fat by an average of 7.5 pounds and significantly increased lean body mass by an average of 2.4 pounds¹.
What would have happened if those men had also stepped up their exercise regimen during that time? They likely would have seen an even greater increase in muscle-to-fat ratio, because exercise builds muscle tissue when there is adequate protein in the diet.
Carb Loading vs. Protein Consumption
Proteins, in fact, are the building blocks for muscle tissue. During exercise, the muscles are stressed—essentially causing dozens of tiny tears in the tissue. Proteins subsequently repair and rebuild this tissue, which is how your muscles maintain themselves and grow stronger. If you’re an active person, this occurs underneath your skin every day. In fact, protein actually improves sports performance. Carbohydrate Loading has been the norm, but it appears that drinks or bars with a more balanced mix of protein and carbs deliver much more benefits than carbs alone. Researchers from James Madison University reported that, when compared to carbohydrate-only drinks, protein and carb mixtures increased the parameters of exercise performance, decreased muscle fatigue, improved exercise endurance (by 19 percent), decreased muscle damage (by 75 percent), and even improved muscle functioning measured 24 hours later (by 16 percent). Impressively, for NCAA Division 1 cross-country runners, a protein/carb mix reduced muscle damage by 27% and muscle soreness by 30%.
Water remains the best drink for exercise, as even a small amount of dehydration can seriously decrease performance. But all-carb beverages (or bars) don’t offer nearly the benefits that protein-carb mixes do. You can get an ideal blend of protein and carbs by either drinking an Atkins shake along with a piece of fruit like an apple, or by consuming an Atkins bar. The Carmel Chocolate Peanut Nougat bar, for example, offers a terrific blend of 9 grams of protein together with 2 grams net carbs, not to mention 11 grams of fiber, no trans-fats and 1 gram of sugar.
When Carbs and Exercise Go Together
There are some times when increased carb consumption does make sense and can enhance exercise performance. To get the greatest benefits and biggest results, combine exercise with a controlled-carb eating program full of good carbs.
- During a workout of an hour or more. In contrast to research suggesting that consuming a carbohydrate snack one to two hours prior to exercise can result in lowered blood sugar levels, some carbohydrate intake can be beneficial and result in greater exercise tolerance. For those performing aerobic exercise lasting 60 minutes or more, consumption of a carbohydrate and electrolyte-replacement drink during exercise can enhance performance².
- During preparation for longer-duration exercise events such as 20-mile runs or races. One study demonstrated that individuals who normally control their carbs and then consumed a high-carbohydrate diet in the days before an event increased glycogen storage and had much higher rates of fat oxidation than individuals who regularly consume a high-carb diet³.
- When recovering post-workout. This recovery period is an important time to fit in at least a portion of your daily carb consumption to maximize muscle recovery and to aid the process of preparing for your next exercise session (carbs consumed immediately after exercise begin to replenish glycogen stores).
Whether you’re running your very first marathon or you’re trying to improve your personal best, getting your nutrition right is key to maximising performance on the day.
We’ve worked with James Collins, elite performance nutritionist, to bring you a marathon meal plan aimed at the seven days leading up to race day.
Below you’ll find links to each of the days explaining suggested nutrition strategies, as well as meal and snack recipes and ideas to help you stay on top of your nutrition all week.
We’ve also included some training suggestions from the Virgin Money London Marathon beginner’s training plan, which gives you an idea of how much running and rest you should be getting in the week leading up to the marathon.
Try our other marathon meal plans:
Vegetarian marathon meal plan
Vegan marathon meal plan
Gluten-free marathon meal plan
Marathon meal plan – Monday
It’s the final countdown! Get your pre-race nutrition right with our week of meal plans from sports nutritionist James Collins…
Monday’s meal plan
Marathon meal plan – Tuesday
It’s the week before the marathon and getting your nutrition right is key to peak performance. Sports nutritionist James Collins shares his pre-race meal plan for Tuesday…
Tuesday’s meal plan
Marathon meal plan – Wednesday
Make sure you’re giving your body all it needs in the week leading up to an endurance event. Sports nutritionist, James Collins explains why by Wednesday your carbohydrate intake should be on the rise…
Wednesday’s meal plan
Marathon meal plan – Thursday
Sports nutritionist, James Collins shares his meal plan for the week before a big race – Thursday is all about high quality protein and increasing your carbohydrate intake…
Thursday’s meal plan
Marathon meal plan – Friday
48 hours of carb-loading begins on Friday. Get ready for your big race with our expert’s week of meal plans…
Friday’s meal plan
Marathon meal plan – Saturday
Be sure to eat lots of easily digestible carbohydrates the day before your event, says sports nutritionist James Collins…
Saturday meal plan
Marathon meal plan – Sunday
Race day is here and it’s time to put all that training to the test. Stick to your nutrition strategy before and during your run then replace fluid, carbs and protein once you cross the line…
Sunday’s meal plan
The truth about carb loading
Let’s clear up the carb controversy.
Unless you’ve been living on a desert island for the last decade, it’s likely that you’ve heard of carb loading.
But is gorging on a whole loaf of bread before going for a run really a healthy approach?
We chatted to Alex Dreyer, accredited Sports Dietitian, to set the record straight.
So, what is carb loading?
Carbohydrates are our body’s primary energy resource. They are broken down into sugar during digestion, which is then stored in our muscles as glycogen.
Our muscles store only enough glycogen to provide 90-120 minutes of high-exertion energy. So, the theory goes: the more carbs you eat, the more glycogen your body stores and the better you avoid fatigue.
But is carb loading the right strategy for everyone? If you’re doing the 4km, should your carbohydrate intake differ from that of a half marathon participant? In short, yes.
Let’s break it down in more detail.
For 4km participants and those walking the 12km:
Do I need to carb load?
Generally, carb loading is something only longer distance runners need to worry about.
Unless you’re doing multiple long training sessions per week (lasting 90-120 minutes), your carbohydrate intake doesn’t need to change.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news – we know scoffing down that huge bowl of pasta is tempting!
Even the day before HBF Run for a Reason, you shouldn’t consume more carbohydrates than normal, as it will be extra bulk in your gut that you won’t use.
Focus instead on eating familiar foods and staying hydrated, as well as getting a good night’s sleep.
Are there certain types of carbohydrates I should be eating?
Not all carbs are created equal! Although you don’t need to carb load if you’re participating in a shorter distance, you should prioritise quality carbohydrates that will keep you full for longer.
Aim to include wholegrain and high-fibre carbs in most meals, as well as carbohydrate-rich vegetables.
Think wholemeal bread and pasta, brown rice and quinoa, rolled oats, legumes, lentils, sweet potatoes and all fruit and veggies with the skin left on.
How much carbohydrate should I eat?
As an adult, you should aim for three to six serves per day, spread out over three meals and two snacks (you’ll need more if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding).
A serve is roughly equal to one slice of bread, half a cup of porridge, rice, or pasta, or three medium crackers.
For 12km and half marathon runners:
Good news – if you’re running in one of the longer distances, you can slide that gigantic bowl of pasta over!
Carbohydrate is your body’s primary fuel for hard exercise. Nourishing your body with high-energy food can increase your training volume and allow you to reach your potential in harder sessions.
Research suggests that fuelling with carbohydrates can improve your performance by anywhere between 2 per cenup to more than 10 per cent.
- Pick out the 2-3 hardest training days in your week and aim to fuel as best as possible in the 24 hours before them.
- Before these hard training days, aim to slightly increase the carbohydrate you have at meal times so that the body stores more fast-burning fuel and you can go longer without fatiguing.
- Some examples: going from ½ cup to ¾ cup rolled oats in the morning, from ½ cup to ¾ or one cup of brown rice at lunch, and one baked sweet potato to one cup of wholegrain pasta at dinner.
Before event day:
- In the two days before the race and the morning of, try the same strategy as outlined above. However, replace all wholemeal carbs with ‘white’ versions to avoid digestive discomfort.
- Trade out the high fibre options with simple carbohydrates, like white sourdough bread, white rice and pasta, and quick oats or a low fibre cereal.
- Remember that these aren’t the healthiest options, so go back to the higher fibre alternatives once the race is over.
On event day:
- Take a carbohydrate rich snack with you to the start area the morning of the race. This could be a single slice of bread with jam, a muesli bar, or a small pack of sultanas or a handful of dates.
- Consume this snack around 20 minutes before the start time, as this will get your blood sugar and energy levels up before the run.
- Those running the half marathon could also consider using gels, chews, or liquids during the run, if you are planning to be running for 90 minutes or more. You shouldn’t need more than one gel (roughly 25-30g of carbohydrate).
Beware of the risks
Even if you are running in the 12km or half marathon, carb-loading might not be the best plan for you.
The high-energy diet doesn’t suit everybody and can cause some negative side-effects, especially if you have diabetes.
It’s a good idea to consult your GP or meet with an accredited dietitian to receive personalised advice.
This content is provided by Alex Dreyer, an accredited Sports Dietitian based in Perth.
Carb Loading Explained
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on October 1, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on April 20, 2016
You’ve probably heard the term carb loading thrown around, especially around athletes right before a big race as they stuff their faces with mountains of bread and spaghetti.
Carbohydrate loading (commonly known as carb loading) is when bodybuilders and endurance athletes eat a high number of carbohydrates in a single day or over a series of days in preparation for a competitive event.
Conceptually, carb loading is the same for endurance athletes (runners, cyclists, etc) and bodybuilders. It’s about planning periods of high carb and low carb intake to balance energy stores. However, each group has a drastically different reason for loading up.
Endurance competitors carb load to increase the amount of fuel available to their muscles. According to the theory, this extra energy storage helps them improve their endurance during a long run, bike ride, or swim.
On the other hand, bodybuilders go through a carb loading cycle as part of their pre-competition routine. Why?
Because they believe carb loading (at the right times and with the right balance of macronutrient and electrolyte consumption/depletion) can lead to a bigger, stronger, tighter looking physique.
But what does the science say about carb loading? Does it work? Is it safe?
In this article, we’ll explore those topics in more detail.
Let’s get started.
Why carb load?
Carbohydrates are macronutrients that serve a very important function in your body: They are the body’s main energy source.
Your body breaks down carbohydrates into sugar that enters your bloodstream and gets stored for energy use in your muscles and liver as glycogen.
Your muscles usually only store small quantities of glycogen. And when you exercise, you deplete your energy storage.
In men, a carbohydrate-loading diet can raise glycogen storage levels in your muscles from 25 to 100 percent of their normal amount. Studies on carbohydrate loading in women have shown mixed results … women may need to take in more calories than men during carbohydrate loading to experience the same gains in glycogen.
So theoretically, the reasons certain people carb load are either because they want to a) “build up” stores of glycogen so they can use this extra energy storage to help improve endurance during long sessions and/or b) fill their muscle with glycogen so they pull water into the muscle, helping them gain mass and tone.
Let’s scrutinize each of these a bit further.
Who is carb loading for?
As we mentioned, carb loading is a strategy employed mainly by two groups of elite athletes:
- Endurance athletes, who use it to help them increase their energy storage for long runs, bike rides, swims, etc. For these types of athletes, when timed effectively, carb loading has been shown to increase muscle glycogen, which can, in turn, lead to improved performance.
- Bodybuilders and fitness athletes, who use carbo-loading to gain size and mass before bodybuilding competitions. However, some researchers advise exercising caution. A paper published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition stated that “If carbohydrate loading is utilized, a trial run before competition once the competitor has reached or nearly reached competition leanness should be attempted to develop an individualized strategy.” In other words, the timing and efficacy of a carb loading vary greatly from person to person. Make sure experiment before the next big bodybuilding competition.
How to carb load (and what to eat)
How you carb load will depend on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Bodybuilders and fitness competitors
If you’re a bodybuilder or fitness competitor who is prepping for a contest or photo shoot, try carb loading roughly 2-3 days before your event. (again, it may take some trial and error to get the timing right, depending on your current body composition and metabolism).
Shoot for 3-4 grams per pound of body weight, according to Jim Stopanni, Ph.D.
Bodybuilders looking to attain that “shredded” look right before a competition are known carb load with foods that are low fat, and high carb, like potatoes and sweet potatoes, as opposed to oatmeal and pasta, which retain more water and may decrease vascularity (bodybuilders avoid water right before a show to achieve a tighter, more toned looking appearance).
If you’re an endurance athlete prepping for an event, increase your consumption to about 4 to 7 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight at least a couple days before your race. Endurance athletes, unlike bodybuilders, can load up on pasta and grains. Other good sources of low fat, carbohydrate-rich foods for marathon runners, triathletes, or endurance athletes include fruit, sports drinks, quinoa, beans, lentils, oats, corn, and potatoes (although be careful with the fiber-rich foods like beans and lentils if they cause digestive discomfort … you don’t want to be racing toward the toilet on game day).
Researchers have also found that eating a high carb meal 3 hours before exercise, increases muscle glycogen levels by 15%.
Remember, for endurance athletes, it’s still important to replenish your body’s energy during the actual event to maintain your blood sugar levels (any triathlete can attest to this).
One easy way to do this is by periodically eating and drinking sports drinks, gels, or bars, fruit, or candy (30 to 60 grams an hour should suffice).
Eating a meal rich in carbohydrates after your race is important too to replenish those glycogen stores.
Don’t underestimate the importance of rest either.
The combination of carb loading and decreasing activity appears to improve retention of glycogen leading up to an endurance event.
Foods High in Carbohydrates
Here are some nutritious foods high in carbohydrates:
|Food||Portion Size||Carbs (grams)|
|Oatmeal, cooked||½ Cup||15|
|Pasta, cooked||1 Cup||45|
|Rice, cooked||1 Cup||45|
|Potatoes (hashed, mashed)||½ Cup||15|
|Squash (winter type: acorn, Hubbard, etc)||1 Cup||10-30|
|Sweet Potato/Yams-plain cooked||10oz||60|
|Cow’s milk (fat-free, 1%, 2%, Whole)||1 Cup||12|
|Rice Milk||1 Cup||20|
|Soy Milk||1 Cup||8|
|Yogurt (plain)||1 Cup||12|
|Banana||6” – 9”||30-45|
|Blackberries, Blueberries||1 Cup||20|
|Cantaloupe, Honeydew Melons||1 Cup||15|
Side effects and risks of carbo loading
As we’ve seen, carb loading may help you, increase your glycogen levels, increase endurance and mass, and improve performance. However, carb loads aren’t effective for everybody.
Whether you’re a triathlete or aspiring bodybuilder, other factors come into play that may impact your athletic performance and/or the effectiveness of your carb-load strategy (e.g., your current fitness level, how much water you drink, and the intensity of your exercise sessions).
Carb loading isn’t a silver bullet against muscle fatigue … if you run/bike/swim for over 2 hours straight you’re going to get tired.
There are some inherent risks that come with eating mass quantities of any macronutrient, including carbohydrates. You may experience side effects such as GI discomfort, cramping, and gas. Temporary weight gain is also another side effect. Carbohydrate loading can also affect your blood sugar levels, which may be troublesome for those with pre-diabetes or diabetes.
The bottom line: carb loading isn’t for everyone.
Carb loading is a dietary strategy that can yield better results for endurance athletes, bodybuilders and fitness competitors.
However, we should note that carb-restricted, high protein diets have been shown to be the most effective for decreasing fat mass while simultaneously increase lean muscle mass (which is the goal of most of our readers).
If weight loss or fat loss is your goal, a low carb diet might be better for you.
But if you are a runner looking for a boost in your next race or a bodybuilder looking to make noise in the world of bodybuilding, carb loading may be right for you.
Scott Christ is a health and wellness entrepreneur, writer, and website strategy consultant. He’s also the creator of the world’s healthiest plant-based protein powder.
If like most of us, you treat filling up on bread, Dominos and pasta like some kind of calorific religion, then you’re in luck. Because there are some occasions where this obsession could come in handy (and be deemed healthy).
But before you go steaming ahead and, ahem, ‘accidentally’ fall into a pizza coma, you should probably hear exactly how it works. We hit up registered associate nutritionist and MyProtein.com ambassador Jennifer Blow to find out the dos, the don’ts and the details on carb loading.
“Carbohydrate loading is a tactic mostly used by endurance athletes. The strategy maximises the amount of glycogen available in the muscles and liver, which is a stored carbohydrate used by the body for energy,” says Jennifer. “This increases time to fatigue and enhances exercise performance.”
When should I be carb loading and what types of activities might benefit from it?
“Typically, carb loading is meant for endurance activities that last more than 90 minutes, most often used by runners, cyclists and elite sports players like footballers or rugby players,” explains Jennifer.
Sadly that means your quick sprint to Greggs at lunch time isn’t quite as valid, but don’t let that stop you eating carbs at all – you need carbs for energy! – just maybe not as many as a marathon runner.
When should I avoid carb loading?
“Carb loading isn’t necessary for exercise that lasts much less than 90 minutes, especially for activities like weightlifting, sprints, and other short-term exercise,” the expert says. But that doesn’t mean you should cut out carbs altogether if you exercise for less than 90 minutes at a time, remember. You just have to eat them in moderation.
No carb loading necessary here Getty Images
How can I calculate how many carbs I should be eating?
“There are a number of carb-loading regimens, but the most current guidelines recommend consuming 10-12 grams of carbs per kg of your bodyweight in the 36-48 hours prior to workouts or events lasting longer than 90 minutes,” explains Jennifer. “In any regimen, for the 24 hours leading up to endurance exercise, carbohydrates should always be the main component of each meal, making up 60-70% of your total calories,” she adds.
“Within the final 1-4 hours before exercise, you should aim to eat 1-4 grams of complex carbohydrates and carbohydrate-rich protein sources per kg of bodyweight. This is mainly to prevent hunger before a race, as muscle and liver stores will already be at their peak.”
What sorts of carbs should I be eating?
“When carb loading, most people choose low-glycaemic index foods for their minimal impact on blood sugar levels. Complex carbohydrates and starchy carbs like pasta, bread, rice and potatoes are ideal. Foods such as fruit and other high-fructose foods like sugary drinks and snacks are much less effective at increasing muscle glycogen levels specifically, so should be avoided for carb loading,” the nutritionist advises.
“A good source of protein should also be eaten alongside carbohydrates when carb loading, as amino acids are important during endurance exercise, too.”
Bogdan Dreava / EyeEmGetty Images
Will carb loading make me gain weight?
“If you’re carb loading unnecessarily , you’re less likely to burn off the extra calories consumed during carbohydrate loading, and are therefore likely to gain weight,” warns Jennifer.
“Temporary water weight gain is known to occur sometimes during carb loading, as muscles store 3 grams of water for every 1 gram of carbohydrate, which can lead to a bloated feeling during exercise. To combat this, a high-carbohydrate diet can be consumed (55-70% of total calories) daily, rather than just in the lead up to a race, so that muscles are constantly ‘topped up’.”
I have witnessed many endurance athletes over the years who have failed to successfully carbohydrate loading prior to their big event. To help you avoid the common pitfalls I would like to share with you the following background on the technique and tips:
What is carbohydrate loading and Who does it benefit?
It is a strategy involving changes to training and nutrition in order to maximize muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores prior to endurance competition.
It is likely to benefit anyone exercising continuously at a moderate to high intensity for 90 minutes or longer . Examples include sports such as cycling, marathon running, longer distance triathlon, cross-country skiing and endurance swimming. Shorter-term exercise is unlikely to benefit as the body’s usual carbohydrate stores are adequate. In team sports where games are played every 3-4 days carbohydrate loading is generally not practical to achieve as it may not be possible to achieve a full carbohydrate loading protocol within the weekly schedule of training and games.
The technique dates back to the late 1960’s . Originally it involved a 3-4 day ‘depletion phase’ of hard training plus a low carbohydrate diet. This “depletion” phase was considered necessary in order to stimulate the enzyme glycogen synthase. This “depletion” phase was then followed immediately by a 3-4 day ‘loading phase’ involving rest combined with a high carbohydrate diet. The combination of the two phases was shown to boost muscle carbohydrate stores beyond their usual resting levels. Studies since this time have clearly demonstrated that the “depletion” phase is not necessary to achieve successful carbohydrate loading.
Top 5 mistakes made when carbohydrate loading
Failure to adequately taper. If an athlete finds it difficult to significantly back off training and taper for 1-4 days before competition carbohydrate loading will be compromised.
Failure to eat enough carbohydrate. If the athlete does not have a good understanding of the amount of food required to carbohydrate load I strongly suggest they work with a sports dietitian/nutritionist . Using a carbohydrate counter can be useful.
Not cutting back on fibre and fat. In order to consume the necessary amount of carbohydrate, it is necessary to cut back on fibre and make use of compact sources of carbohydrate such as sugar, sports drinks, FLY, jam, honey, maple syrup, jelly, ‘dried’ fruit and tinned fruit. Athletes who include too many high fibre foods in their carbohydrate loading menu are likely to suffer stomach upset or find that the food is simply too bulky to consume.
Fear of weight gain. Body mass will usually increase by approximately 1-2% of your normal weight, when effectively carbo loading. The extra weight is due to extra muscle glycogen and water. Weight gain fears prevent some athletes from carbohydrate loading adequately.
Binge Eating. Some athletes see Carbo loading as an excuse to eat anything they want in unlimited quantity. Consuming too many high fat foods makes it difficult to consume the amount of carbohydrate necessary. It may also result in body fat increase. A high-carbohydrate, low-fat approach is fundamental to the success of carbohydrate loading.
How much will carbohydrate loading improve my performance?
Muscle glycogen levels are normally in the range of 100-120 mmol/kg ww (wet weight). Carbohydrate loading enables muscle glycogen levels to be increased to around 150-200 mmol/kg ww. This extra supply of carbohydrate allows athletes to exercise at their optimal pace for a longer time. It is estimated that carbohydrate loading can improve performance over a set distance by 2-3%.
What does an effective carbohydrate loading diet look like?
The following diet is suitable for a 70kg athlete aiming to carbohydrate load:
3 cups of low-fibre cereal with 11/2 cups of reduced fat liquid
toasted white bagel with honey or jam or maple syrup.
2 sandwiches (4 slices of white bread) with filling as desired
banana smoothie made with low-fat rice milk
1 cup of pasta sauce with 2 cups of cooked pasta
toasted muffin and jam/honey/maple syrup
This sample plan provides ~ 14,800 kJ, 630 g carbohydrate, 125 g protein and 60 g fat.
Are there any difference in the effects of carbohydrate loading in males compared to females?
Further research needs to be conducted on females. Most studies of glycogen storage have been conducted on male athletes. Some studies suggest that females may be less responsive to carbohydrate loading, especially during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle. This appears to be, at least partly, because they have difficulty consuming the larger amounts of carbohydrate required for a complete CHO load. This problem may be solved in part by using highly concentrated liquid carbohydrate sources.
Douglas W. Stoddard MD, M Sport Med, Dip Sport Med, ES
Medical Director-Sports & Exercise Medicine Institute (SEMI)
Medical Director-e load Sport Nutrition