The Facts on Carb Loading

Senior marathon runner refreshing herself with water during a race.

The single most important nutritional factor in athletic performance is, you guessed it, carbohydrate intake.

As we dash into marathon and track season, many athletes are looking for ways to fuel their bodies properly and have an edge over the competition. Carbohydrates are indispensable to athletes; they are nature’s high-octane fuel for the body. Implementing carbohydrate loading is a relatively simple way to maximize performance. However, despite what your high school coach might have told you, it’s not just eating spaghetti the night before the event.

Here are some tips for doing it right:

Start early. Effective carb loading begins about seven days before the competition. Think of carb loading as “nutrition conditioning.” You can’t get results at the last minute. The basic technique is to maintain high carbohydrate intake each day to maximize glycogen storage in the muscles. One key to achieving this is frequent eating intervals.

Seven days before the competition should include a complete, exhaustive workout, followed by at least 100g (400 calories) of carbohydrate immediately after the workout. Over the next several hours, an additional 200g, or 800 calories of carbohydrate should be consumed. Plan on having a high-carbohydrate meal about 90 minutes pre-exercise and eat energy gels or sip on a carbohydrate-containing sports drinks throughout long or intense training sessions.

The remaining six days leading up to the competition should follow a similarly high carbohydrate intake, while tapering off exercise. The day before, focus on starchy foods with less fiber, like pasta, rice or bread to avoid bloating.

So how many carbohydrates will you require in a day? The exact number depends on training type and intensity, as well as gender and body mass, but the amount generally recommended for athletes is 55- 65% of total calories. Serious athletes should work with a registered dietitian to create an individualized nutrition plan. Visit findanrd.eatright.org to find a dietitian near you.

Marathon

Reduce training volume and increase rest. Gradually reducing exercise intensity and duration leading up to the competition maximizes muscle glycogen storage and avoids overtraining. By three days before the competition, exercise should be low-moderate intensity. One day before the competition, you should focus on rest, relaxation and mental preparation.

Don’t forget hydration. In order to store glycogen, the body requires extra water in a ratio of 3:1 to glycogen. Therefore, it is important to stay well hydrated. This is difficult when you are working hard and sweating, but sipping water and sports drinks throughout training sessions can help. Remember: thirst is not a good indicator of when to drink, as the body has already lost large amounts of water before the thirst sensation is felt. In fact, serious athletes should never feel thirsty or hungry.

The day of the race. Get up at least two-to-three hours beforehand, even if it’s an early morning race. This gives you time to eat your carbohydrate meal, get some water and still have at least 1.5 hours after eating so you don’t feel full. After eating, continue to sip on sports drinks leading up to the competition. Plan your food ahead for this day, for both pre- and post-event.

Whether you’re a serious athlete or running your first 5K this spring, these tips and techniques can be implemented to help you perform up to the best of your body’s abilities. Have a great race!

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