How to Carb-load the Right Way

By Elizabeth Jarrard on May 6, 2014 , categorized in Endurance

If you’ve ever registered for a race (or known a serious runner), you’ve probably had (or heard stories about) an epic pasta-filled meal the night before the starting gun fires. Carbohydrates are the primary way to top off your glycogen stores. But there are other ways beyond just white bread and pasta to get the energy you need to reach the finish line strong.

Why carb-load at all?

Consuming carbohydrates before exercise tops off the stored glucose in your muscles and liver—also called glycogen—and helps reduce the chances of premature fatigue for athletes of all types.1 Muscle glycogen is the primary source of energy during endurance activity, so you definitely don’t want to run out. While all athletes can benefit from carbs in the 30 minutes before exercise, endurance athletes competing in a longer event (half-marathon or greater for runners, long distance bike race or triathlon) should focus on carb-loading the week before race day.

The right way to carb-load

While there is emphasis on the meal immediately before you start off from the gates, your carb consumption the entire week leading up to your race should be higher than normal. While it may seem counter-intuitive to eat more, when you’re training less (if you’re tapering correctly), it is actually the best way to get race-day ready. Beginning one week before a sustained endurance event over 90 minutes (such as a half or full marathon), increase your carbohydrate and fluid intake gradually.1Bernadot, D. (2012). Advanced Sports Nutrition. Human Kinetics. 2nd ed.This can also be achieved simply be eating the same amount of carbs you were eating while you were training, but since you’re tapering, it helps to increase glycogen stores. You can start by adding one more serving of fruit, grain or starchy vegetable to a meal or snack. Focus on getting enough water and rest in the days leading up to your event to ensure the highest rate of glycogen storage. A good goal is to avoid feelings of hunger and thirst the week before your event. The two days before your race should be the highest in carbohydrates, with moderate protein intake, and slightly lower fat and fiber intake.2American College of Sports Medicine, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Dietitians of Canada. (2016). Joint Position Paper: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. MEDICINE & SCIENCE IN SPORTS & EXERCISE. Accessed on 4/19/16 from: http://www.eatrightpro.org/~/media/eatrightpro%20files/practice/position%20and%20practice%20papers/position%20papers/nutritionathleticperf.ashx

Don’t worry if you jump on the scale and discover that you’re a couple pounds heavier. If you’ve carb-loaded properly you’ll gain 2 to 4 pounds of water weight, because for every ounce of stored glycogen, you store an extra 3 ounces of water.3Clark, N. (2008). Nancy Clark’s Sport Nutrition Guidebook. Human Kinetics 4th ed. This water weight will drop away as soon as your done with your race.

Carb-load deliciously and nutritiously

White pasta, you bore me. Beyond fresh fruit and whole grains, why not try out some of these recipes instead?

Like anything in your training plan, it’s best to try a pre-race meal during training, rather than for the first time the night before your big day. No one wants a last-minute stomach surprise!

How do you carb-load?

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endurance exercise race training

Elizabeth Jarrard

Elizabeth Jarrard is a registered dietitian in Denver, CO who specializes in medical nutrition therapy and plant-based nutrition. She educates clients and consumers on how to optimize their health through nutrition.

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