By Debbie Perry
A Pocket Guide to Pre race Carbo-Loading
Most endurance athletes have heard of something called carbohydrate-loading. If you’re new to the endurance world and don’t know much about this concept, it’s an important one if you are going to attempt any endurance event lasting over an hour. Carbo-loading is when you eat more carbohydrate-rich foods than you normally do in the last days before a race as a way to extend your endurance.
Simply put, carbohydrate-loading with the proper foods can help you maintain your goal pace longer in the race than if you didn’t load. The reason this works is that muscle glycogen—which, provides from 50-90% of the energy needed for running, biking, swimming—can be loaded up in your body to almost twice their normal level. Normally, you can only store enough glycogen in your muscle tissue to last 2 hours. Even if you take in carbs during the race, but start with a glycogen depleted body, you will most certainly “hit the wall” much sooner. When that happens, you will experience a huge drop off in your ability to move. So, the more glycogen you have stored in your body through proper carbo-loading, the longer and more comfortably you can go.
Remember that storing enough fuel in your muscle tissues is a big priority. Believing in the idea that starving yourself or taking diuretics the week of the race to be a pound or two lighter will only send you straight to the medical tent…if…you have finished the race. Do not be scared of a pound or two of fluid gain the couple days prior to the race. This is not bad for races an hour or longer. You do need the extra water in your tissues, but feeling lethargic and bloated from eating too many processed flours and sugars is different and not good. So, if you want to arrive at the start line feeling energetic, fueled and hydrated, here are a couple of rules to follow in the week before your race.
1. Eat a normal, healthy diet for the first four days with carbs making up approximately 50 percent of your total calories. There is no need to start pigging out the whole week of the race. Too many people show up to the start line feeling bloated and sluggish because they simply ate too much all week. So, the first part of the week should still be good clean eating without tons of processed high glycemic carbs. Focus on lots of lean protein, good fats, fruits, starchy produce, green veges and water.
2. In the final three days before you race, keep workouts short, but refuel big. This is key! As you probably know, you should be tapering your workouts during this time anyway to no more than 30 minutes. The trick is to still refuel yourself immediately after the workout with a liquid replenishment drink like you have exercised for an hour or more. That means drinking at least 1/2 gram of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight within 15 minutes of finishing your workout. Using a recovery drink with protein in it has repeatedly shown that it will help your muscle absorb a higher percentage of those carbs. Then follow that up within the next hour with a solid meal that has the same amount of moderate to high glycemic carbohydrates and more protein. This is where you are okay to eat whole grain pastas, brown rice and such. Count your carbs for both of these meals. Make sure you get a total of 1 gram of carb per pound of bodyweight between the two. And drink a lot of water since that water gets pulled into your muscle tissue along with the carbs.
3. Besides post workout food, eat normally. Even the night before.
Plenty of endurance athletes think that carbo-loading means they have to stuff themselves at every chance, especially the night before. But you don’t need to and you shouldn’t eat more than normal during the daily meals. Also, eating too many carbs, far away from exercise has been proven to add fat not fuel to your body. And this is where you get that bloated and lethargic feeling again. So, for the rest of your meals, focus on high quality, low to moderate glycemic carbs evenly spaced throughout the day. That way, you will be slowly feeding your muscles without disturbing your insulin levels. For the most part you need to focus on eating high quality, nutrient dense complex carbohydrates such as veggies, fruits, sweet potatoes and others nutrient dense carbs. Just say no to the simple and calorically empty high glycemic carbohydrates like bread, bagels, white rice, cookies, cakes and candy. And remember, you still need some protein and fat with those carbs.
4. Make sure to drink extra water during the carbo-loading phase. It takes 2.7 grams of water to store every gram of glycogen. Even slight dehydration will reduce the loading response you are trying to get. So remember to drink water along with those carbohydrates. Drink until you pee clear and often. If you pair water with the right food, then you will be locked and loaded come race day!