If you have ever done an endurance event, or know someone who has taken on that challenge then you have most likely heard about carb or carbo-loading. Carbo-loading is the process by which athletes try to increase their body’s glycogen stores to provide extra fuel for long races. The main fuel for endurance exercise is glucose; however, glucose is stored within the liver and muscles as glycogen. Your body naturally stores enough quick fuel to get through approximately 90 minutes of endurance activity before running dangerously low. It is when the body is running on empty that athletes typically encounter “the wall.” By carbo-loading you can hopefully build up your fuel reserves enough to get you through your race without bonking.
Traditionally, a carbo-loading regimen involved a week long cycle of depletion and supercompensation to boost the body’s glycogen stores. This involved high intensity exercise for three or four days with low carbohydrate intake in order to deplete your glycogen stores followed by three to four days of moderate to light exercise accompanied by high carbohydrate intake. As you can imagine the first half of the process was a miserable experience for athletes. These days the depletion stage is no longer supported by research. Current research indicates that simply ingesting more carbohydrates and lightening your activity load in the three days before your event you can boost your glycogen stores by as much as 20% in the extreme end.
If your race or event is less than an hour and a half carbo-loading is not necessary; however, races longer than this and you’re going to need the extra fuel. One of the quickest ways to do this is by using en energy gel or sports drink on the run. This is good for a while but if you consider that an average energy gel contains 100 calories you are looking at consuming around 10 gels* during the course of a four hour marathon after your breakfast is used up and fuel reserves have run dry. Consuming 10 gels is not an experience my stomach wants to think about! Rather gels and sports drinks should be used for supplementing your energy stores during a race, not replacing them. By properly carbo-loading you arrive at the starting line with maximum energy and ready to go. With proper preparation you can cut back on the extra gels and sports drink that are required for caloric purposes and be nicer to your stomach.
So how do you go about loading up your glycogen stores above what you normally have? The best way is to eat lots of carbohydrates. Ideally when carbo-loading you want to be consuming 8-10 grams of carbohydrates for every kilogram of body weight daily. For instance for a 70kg athlete this means consuming 560-700g of carbohydrates daily for the three days leading up to an event. This gets to be very nauseating and unmanageable if you are eating three large meals a day. Rather, it is more efficient and palatable to eat five or six smaller meals throughout the day that are high in carbohydrates. Pasta, although the most common, is not the only source of carbohydrates, any whole grain is going to be high in carbohydrates; this can mean whole wheat bread, brown rice, porridge etc… It is not only grains either; a handful of dried fruit contains roughly 75g of carbohydrates; jams, jellies and honey are a good source of carbohydrates as well. With a little searching around you can find many sources of carbohydrates that are delicious and won’t leave you eating pasta 5 meals a day.
It’s important that you don’t leave your digestive system’s functioning up to chance the day of a race. Just as important as carbo-loading for a race it is also important to find out if your stomach can handle the large intakes of carbohydrates as well. That is why I recommend carbo-loading for a few of your longer training days beforehand to find out what your stomach is comfortable with and what needs adjustment. And lastly, each gram of carbohydrate holds about three grams of water so it is not uncommon to see the scale go up during your carbo-loading, don’t worry this is only temporary and should be gone by the end of the race!
If you are interested in learning more about Carbo-loading or endurance training in general, feel free to reach us for a customized fitness assessment to help you set some short and long-term goals. Call 1866-EXERCISE (393-7247) or fill in the form below.
*Assuming a 600 calorie breakfast on race day