How to Carb-Load: to improve performance without feeling bloated

The training is done and you’re in the middle of tapering. What else is there left to do?

Check out the podcast HERE of me (a sports dietitian) speaking with an athlete before his 100 mile Ultramarathon on Carbo-Loading!

I like to think of carbohydrate loading as the equivalent to the portion of the Indy 500 when all the pit crews are filling up the gas tanks. If they don’t fill them to their potential, the car is going to have to stop before all of the other cars. Food is your fuel. Glycogen stores are your gas tanks.

As you train, your body uses the muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores and even the liver glycogen stores, if your training session is long and intense enough. Prior to a race, carbohydrate loading 1-3 days out is important to saturate not only your muscles with fuel, but your back-up liver stores too! This will allow you to maintain blood sugar levels. The best effects of carb-loading can be seen with an event 90 minutes or greater.

Studies show that glycogen depleted athletes can push to fatigue for less than half of the time of their carb-loaded counterparts!! That seems like a significant sacrifice to make.

Make a large batch of overnight oatmeal at the beginning of the week or another carb-heavy treat you like to have as an easy grab-and-go during race week!

So now that we have established that it is beneficial, how do you properly load? A common concern is wanting to feel light and lean when you step up to the start line. Here is how you do it:

  • Don’t start off behind! If you have not been replenishing daily, it can take over 5 days to replenish your energy stores if you are still training during your taper. Start to consider this during your entire training cycle and really dial in in the 2-3 weeks leading up to your big race.
  • Continue to consume the same amount of calories that you have been. If you eat way more because you’re “carb-loading” this will leave you feeling sluggish and bloated. Your body will be able to use the calories you are not burning due to taper for your race. So if you eat much fewer calories, your body will use them up for normal body function and not store them in preparation.
  • Do not eliminate protein and fat! Carb-loading does not mean only consume carbohydrates. You should consider intaking the following leading up to your event:
Trail mix is a great way to get a mix of carbs, protein, and fat. Making it yourself can help determine what ratio you want and can also be a healthy road or plane snack if you’re traveling to your event.

2.5 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight

0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight

The remainder (~20%) of your diet should be fat intake

  • Balance both complex and simple carbs. If you eat too many refined carbohydrates, white bread, bagels, packaged products—you may become constipated. If you consume too high of fiber, such as bran cereal, lentils, and whole grains—you may experience gastrointestinal distress. And we have all had too much fruit juice, sports drink and/or gels and have experienced the port-a-potty dash….
  • Plan your meal times! If you are fearful of feeling bloated at the start line, have a large carb-filled lunch the day prior to the race and a smaller portioned and balanced dinner. Just do not skip breakfast the day of! This allows the body to have available glycogen in the blood stream and can postpone having to use the muscle and liver stores.
  • Expect some weight gain! Now don’t worry, this is not body fat. For every 1 ounce of carb you store, there are 3 ounces of water that come along with that. Remember, this is a good thing! While you should still consume fluids during a race, this fluid store can help delay dehydration.

If you have carbohydrate loaded appropriately, you will have gained 2-4 pounds prior to the race start. Think of it as just carrying your extra fueling with you, but you don’t have to choke it down during the event! If this number scares you, think about how much bonking will slow you down.

There you have it. The simple way to carbohydrate-load for your next race! Don’t forget to calculate your needs and to PRACTICE this during training for a time trial or for one of your longer, more intense sessions. As always, nothing new on race day!

Try to use beer to replenish your glycogen stores AFTER your race and not to carbo-load…. 😉

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