Would you go on a 4-hour road trip with a half-tank of gas? Chances are your car would run out of gas before you reached your destination. Four hours is what it would normally take for runners to finish their first marathon. If you run a marathon without enough glycogen, you may hit “The Wall” before the halfway point. Proper carbo loading will give you enough energy to finish the race strongly.
What Is Carbo Loading?
Carbo loading is the process of filling up your muscles with glycogen to their maximum capacity. Glycogen is stored muscle energy and is derived from carbohydrates.
When you eat a carbohydrate, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin which drives the carb into your muscle cell where it is converted to glycogen. Can your body convert protein and fat into glycogen? Yes, but the process takes longer.
Carbohydrate is easily broken down into glucose which is why it is the preferred macronutrient of runners and other endurance athletes. You have to make sure your muscle cells are fully-saturated with glycogen before the race. Otherwise, you’ll hit the dreaded “Wall”.
“Hitting the wall” is a metaphorical term used by runners to describe the experience of losing energy during a race. The run becomes a great struggle as the body looks for new sources it can convert to glycogen.
The next available macronutrient is fat. However, your body has to work so much harder to convert fat into glycogen. The body’s stored calories are pulled in two different directions: to support your run and to convert fat into glycogen.
According to research, runners need 30 to 60gms of carbohydrates for every hour they are in a race. This is the reason why you see race organizers set up tables stocked with glycogen drinks at key points of the course. Sometimes, runners pull out carbohydrate gel packs which they chew on and wash down with a bit of water.
Carbo loading will not make you a faster runner. Properly done however, carbo loading can help become a stronger and more resilient runner.
What Are The Best Carb Foods To Eat When Carbo Loading?
There is only one rule to follow when it comes to choosing the best carbs to eat when carbo loading: Avoid high-fibre carbohydrate sources.
We all know how important fibre is to the body. It aids in digestion and keeps our gastrointestinal tract healthy and clean. When it comes to endurance tests, fibre can be detrimental to the desired outcome for the following reasons:
- Absorbs water; fills you up easily and keeps you fuller longer. Carbo loading requires you to eat frequently in order to hit your target number of carbohydrates.
- Fibre can lead to “unpleasant” conditions during the run.
- Fibre-rich carbs take a long time to be converted into glycogen.
For carbo loading, go for high-glycaemic sources. These are carbohydrates that are easily converted into glycogen. Grains are just the best source of carbohydrates. Here is a list of best carb foods to eat while loading:
- White rice
- White bread
- White Potatoes
- Apples (without skin)
- Pears (without skin)
- Fruit juice
- Electrolyte drinks
When eating these types of carbs, do not pair them with fatty sources. For example, instead of spreading butter or margarine on your white bread toast, use jam. Choose roasted or baked chicken as the viand for rice instead of steak or salmon.
Pasta is a good source of carbohydrates. If you want to eat pasta, mix it with a tomato-based sauce. Do not use cream based sauces such as Alfredo or Carbonara. Again, pair the pasta dish with a lean source of protein like skinless chicken breast or tuna.
When Should You Start Carbo Loading?
Runners need to eat 4 grams of carbohydrates per bodyweight pound for proper carbo loading. For a runner who weighs 135 pounds, that means he/she needs to eat 540 grams of carbohydrates per day. This is the equivalent of eating 8 to 9 cups of rice or 16 slices of white bread.
You should not have all of your carbs in one meal. A better approach would be spread it out over 5 to 6 meals.
Most importantly, carbo loading should start at least six weeks before the race. Basically, this is a “test run” for carbo loading. Two to three days before your longest run, start loading up on carbohydrates and cutting back on protein and fats. The idea is to find out which carbs work best for you.
Once you’ve taken note of the carbs that best support your longest run, prepare a carbo loading schedule the week of the race. Every day is important when you are carbo loading. You cannot miss out on a day because you had to travel somewhere or was caught up in work:
- Buy all if your carb sources one week before the race.
- If you have to go out-of-town, pack in snacks for carbo loading purposes and take note of restaurants in the area which serve the carbs you need.
- Make sure you are back home three days before the race for proper carbo loading.
Start out your carbo load week with a glycogen depletion phase. For the first 3 days of the week, carbohydrates should only consist of 35% to 50% of your total calorie intake.
The purpose of the depletion phase is to make your muscle cells more sensitive and receptive to glycogen when you begin to increase carbohydrate consumption.
Two days out from the race, 85% to 95% of your calories should come from carbohydrates. You cannot fully saturate your muscles with glycogen by carb loading for one day. Keep in mind that you will still do light runs three days before the big race. These runs will deplete your muscle cells of much-needed glycogen.
Here’s a sample carbo load program for a 135 pound runner made with the right carbs to eat:
1 cup fruit yogurt
1 glass fruit juice
2 Breakfast Bars
500ml Electrolyte Drink
1 Large Baked Potato
1 Bagel with 2 tablespoons jam
1 glass Chocolate Milk
1 Breakfast Bar
500ml Electrolyte Drink
¼ Roasted Chicken
2 cups white rice
Total Carbohydrates – 540 grams
The night before the race, have an early dinner and keep it light. You should be hungry when you wake up so you can eat at least 150gms of carbs.
How does 150gms of carbs look like? You can have 1 bagel with jam and 500ml Electrolyte Drink.
Another common question is, “How long before a race should I eat?” Have the 150gms of carbs at least three hours before the race.
Conclusion – 5 Carbo Loading Mistakes
Carbo loading will make or break your performance. Done right, you could set a new personal record. Done wrong, you could have the worst experience of your running career.
Here are 5 carbo loading mistakes that you should avoid:
- Not Doing the Glycogen-Depletion Phase – The glycogen-depletion phase will have your muscles soaking up the carbs like a sponge. Skipping this phase will make your carb loading more difficult and ineffective.
- Unnecessary Carb Loading – If you’re only doing a 5km or 10km run, you can load up on carbs a day before the race. You don’t even have to eat 4 grams of carbs per pound. 2 grams of carbs per pound should be enough. The carb loading process we described is best suited for longer runs or those above 10km.
- Carbo Loading Short Cuts – Pasta is perhaps the most popular carbohydrate for carbo loading. Some runners believe they can get by simply by gorging on a gigantic plate of pasta the night before the race. Pasta is good but as we mentioned, you cannot saturate your muscles with glycogen overnight. Carbo loading must start at least 1 week before the race.
- Getting Side-tracked By Weight Gain – Some runners get shocked when they step on the scale the day of the race and see they’ve put on four or five pounds. Instead of getting side-tracked or dismayed, pat yourself on the back for a job well done! One gram of carb carries three ounces of water. So when carb loading, expect to put on water weight.
- Letting Your Pre-Race Nerves Get The Best of You – Whether you are anxious or nervous, the days leading up to the big race can be quite unsettling. For some, they lose appetite and start skipping a few meals. Stay focused when carb loading and don’t miss out on opportunities to bring up your glycogen stores. Cutting out meals due to nerves will bring you closer to achieving your least desired outcome.
Success in sports comes down to checking all the boxes. It’s not just about putting in the training time every day. You should get enough rest; at least eight hours of sleep every night and effectively manage stress levels.
Most of all, don’t neglect your diet. People think a diet is eating to lose weight. A diet is eating to achieve a goal. In running, you may just want to complete your first marathon, record a personal best or perhaps take the gold home.
Whatever your goal is, what you eat will help you accomplish it. Carbo load properly and you will get the result you want from the race.