So imagine this, race day is approaching and you’ve been training hard and so far you feel great about your condition coming into the race. Then you hear a buddy mention that it is now time for the “carbo-loading” phase and because you have stuck to your diet like glue you are now fantasizing about the 6 plates of pasta you are going to eat the night before the race, sounds nice right? Wrong. Well, you could eat 6 plates of pasta the night before your race but I wouldn’t recommend it. Today I am going to teach you about carbo-loading and the right way to do so effectively.
What is carbo-loading?
Carbo-loading in general is often misunderstood and is more than just eating a ton of food despite what it sounds like, and there are lots of ways to do this wrong that could hinder your performance at the beginning stages of a race. In a previous blog I discuss how to not “hit the wall” during a race scenario and this is what could be considered the precursor to a proper nutrition cycle while in a race or training situation. Carbo-loading at the basic level is increasing your intake on carbohydrates in order to store a little more glycogen in the body that can later be turned into energy.
Remember when you hit the wall, what’s happening is your body switches from using glycogen which is stored sugar that is housed in the muscles and liver to fat. Now there are healthy ways to train your body to use fat for fuel and that is a topic for a later discussion but hitting the wall is not the ideal way to go about making the transition.
Does carbo-loading affect my hydration cycle?
The answer to this question is absolutely. For each gram of glycogen we store, we also store 4 grams of water. What happens a lot of the time at the beginning of a race is people feel the urge to pee which also leads them to believe that they don’t have to drink because they aren’t thirsty. This water that is being released isn’t being utilized as hydration and is simply being released into the bladder, this process can often lead to dehydration. So when carbo-loading and storing more glycogen it is crucial to maintain your hydration cycle at the beginning of a race.
So if I carbo-load I can eat less food during a race?
This is also false. When carbo-loading it is important to know that the body can only store so many carbohydrates. Most people can store enough glycogen for about 2-3 hours, carbo-loading can help you store more but not by a large margin, 10-15% more glycogen can be stored typically using this technique. Because our bodies burn more calories than we can intake if you don’t maintain a proper nutrition cycle during a run you are inevitably going to experience hitting the wall or a bonk.
What is the best way to carbo-load?
During my time at the university of Colorado I was pursuing nutrition as my minor and did a research project on carbo-loading. During this time my professor taught me that the best way to carbo-load and I have stuck to it ever since, it is to continue eating your normal diet and 2 days before the race increase the percentage of carbohydrates that you consume rather than the volume. So if your normal diet is protein, fat, and carbs with every meal, lower down slightly on the protein and fat and up your intake of carbs for your carbo-loading period.
The problem that people often run into is that they think they need to increase the volume of food eaten. In our last blog we discussed tapering and the importance of ensuring that your diet transitions cohesively with the taper and so this approach of carbo-loading where you consume a much higher volume of food would not be beneficial for you. Some of the things you could expect to see with this tactic would be bloating or that dreaded feeling of being lethargic off the line until you can work it through your system. Understand that on top of the carbs you could intake you are also storing those grams of water which give additional water weight.
What is good to eat when carbo-loading?
There are 2 types of carbs you can eat, simple and complex. Simple carbs are things like soda, white bread, candy bars, simple sugars etc and all that is going to do is cause an insulin spike which inevitably results in a sugar crash. For obvious reasons this is not something you want do deal with during a race.
So when you increase the amount of carbs you are eating, be sure they are complex carbs and some examples of those would be fresh fruits, whole grains, fresh vegetables, whole grain rice and things like that. When eating these carbs remember you are lowering your intake of other things like proteins or fats to make room for the extra carbs.
So the key things to remember here are this:
- Don’t go to the local buffet and grab 4 plates during a carbo-loading phase, keep the volume of food down but the percentage of carbohydrates intake up.
- Glycogen as it is released can make you feel the urge to pee, so don’t let that stop you from beginning your hydration cycle from the start of the race.
- Carbo-loading is not a substitute for a good nutrition cycle during a race or training scenario.
- Choose to eat complex carbohydrates during this phase
- Make sure your diet flows with your taper schedule and carbo-load accordingly.
- Your body can only store so much glycogen at a time.
What are some of your favorite pre-race meals? Drop some comments below and lets discuss!