We’ve heard about distance runners loading up at pasta parties — and it’s not just because they want to fall into a food coma to get a good night’s sleep. Carbohydrate-loading — aka “carb-loading” — before an event can give us more energy during an intense workout by increasing the amount of glycogen, or stored glucose, in muscles
Pasta and Performance — The Need-to-Know
During exercise, our muscles and liver use glycogen, or stored glucose, for energy
Load Up — Your Action Plan
It’s rarely a good idea to carb-load for the first time the week before a race, so start a carb-loading regimen during training or try carb-loading before a smaller-scale athletic event. (For example, if training for a marathon, test out carb-loading before a half-marathon.) Endurance athletes often start their carb-loading session by keeping carbs to a minimum. During training, a lower-carb, higher-fat diet can help train the body to use fat for energy and reduce its dependence on carbohydrates
Chowing Down: How to Carb-Load
- When to eat: When approaching a peak endurance performance day (like a race), do a high-intensity workout three to four days before the race to clear out glycogen stores
Muscle glycogen synthesis before and after exercise. Ivy, J.L. Department of Kinesiology, University of Texas, Austin. Sports Medicine. 1991 Jan;11(1):6-19.. Then it’s time to hit the cereal aisle in the supermarket and immediately increase carbohydrate intake.
- What to eat: Just before game day, the goal of carb-loading is to increase carbohydrate intake relative to the intake of proteins and fats — carbs should comprise between 63 and 81 percent of total calories
Effects of carbohydrate supplementation on force output and time to exhaustion during static leg contractions superimposed with electromyostimulation. Wax, B., Brown, S.P., Webb, H.E., et al. Department of Kinesiology, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2012 Jun;26(6):1717-23.. As for mid-workout fuel, It may be tempting to stock up on expensive “performance gels,” but multiple studies have found no difference in performance from loading up on natural carb sources (like sun-dried raisins) compared to the manufactured stuff Sun-dried raisins are a cost-effective alternative to Sports Jelly Beans in prolonged cycling. Rietschier, H.L., Henagan, T.M., Earnest, C.P., et al. Department of Kinesiology, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2011 Nov;25(11):3150-6. Natural versus Commercial Carbohydrate Supplementation and Endurance Running Performance. Too, B.W., Cicai ,S., Hockett, K.R., et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2012 Jun 15;9(1):27.. Sports drinks can also help fill up muscles and don’t require cutlery or chewing — look for those that contain a mix of carbohydrates (e.g., dextrose, fructose, and maltodextrin) in the ingredients list Muscle glycogen loading with a liquid carbohydrate supplement. Lamb, D.R., Snyder, A.C., Baur TS. School of HPER, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH. International Journal of Sport Nutrition. 1991 Mar;1(1):52-60. Ingesting a high-dose carbohydrate solution during the cycle section of a simulated Olympic-distance triathlon improves subsequent run performance. McGawley, K., Shannon, O., Betts, J. A Human Physiology Research Group, Department for Health, University of Beth, Claverton Down, Bath, UK. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism 2012; 37(4):664-71..
- How much to eat: Nutritional requirements during carb loading depend on the individual person and the type of training. In general, endurance athletes should consume about four grams of carbohydrates per day for each pound of body weight
The efficacy of carbohydrate supplementation and chronic high- carbohydrate diets for improving endurance performance. Jacobs, K.A., Sherman, W.M. Department of physical activity, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH. International Journal of Sport Nutrition. 1999 Mar;9(1):92-115.. (For a 150-pound person, that means two cups of cereal, one banana, four pieces of bread, and four cups of pasta, or any combination of foods that comes out to 600 grams of carbs.) It’s important to keep calories consistent with normal eating habits in order to avoid weight gain. The key is to increase the ratio of carbs to proteins and fats, and not to increase total caloric intake. (Increasing body weight can hinder performance even more than skimping on carbs!)
Caution: Carb Crossing
Before embarking on a carb-loading bonanza, keep in mind a few notes of caution:
- Take hormones into account. Changes in women’s menstrual cycles can affect not just overall performance but also the effectiveness of carb loading. During the follicular phase, which begins the day after your period stops and lasts for two weeks, researchers found carb-loading didn’t actually improve performance
Carbohydrate-loading during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle: effects on muscle glycogen and exercise performance. Paul, D.R., Mulroy, S.M., Horner, J.A., et al. Diet and Human Performance Laboratory at the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, ARS, USDA, MD. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism. 2001 Dec;11(4):430-41.. If possible, try to time races to fall in the luteal phase, or days 14 through 28.
- Manage fiber intake. Some high-carbohydrate foods may get their carbs from fiber, which can contribute to bathroom issues and causes fullness by absorbing fluid that your body needs to perform. Try to keep fiber levels consistent with what you’ve eaten during training to avoid any mid-race pit-stops or uncomfortable tummy aches and bloating. (The miles only seem to go by slower when you’re desperate for a porta potty!)
- Watch out for weight gain. No matter how you try to justify it as “a race necessity” (we’ve been there!), excess eating is just that, and can quickly lead to weight gain. While athletes like Michael Phelps can supposedly eat 12,000 calories a day, someone with a lower-intensity training schedule or someone who’s trying to lose weight will need to eat a lot less. There are complicated calculations to help figure out the right amount of carbs for each person; for the mathematically challenged, simply experiment to see what’s right for you and your body. However, note that glycogen gains come with water retention of three to four times normal levels — so don’t be afraid of a bit of extra water weight on race day
Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition. Kreitzman, S.N., Coxon, A.Y., Szaz, K.F. Howard Foundation Research, Cambridge, UK. American Journal of Clincial Nutrition. 1992 Jul;56(1 Suppl):292S-293S..
- Balance blood sugar levels. A spike in blood sugar can result from eating high-glycemic, sugary carbs (like white potatoes, un-enriched pasta, and white bread). To avoid the spike and slump, combine carbs with fat and protein and eat carbs that vary on the GI scale — those combinations will give you a nice kick at the start but also provide a slow burn of energy to get you through the race. Sweet potatoes are one option for carbs that provide lasting energy. And one favorite pre-race breakfast: wheat toast (low GI) with peanut butter and a sliced banana (high GI).
This article was approved by Greatist experts Terra Castro and Joe Vennare. Have you tried carb-loading before a big athletic event? Did you notice any difference in your performance? Let us know in the comments below!