In the lead up to a race, one of the first questions I get is “will you have pasta the night before the race?”
It’s the standard fare for all runners to carbohydrate load, right? Not any more.
After my first few races, I realized that for the most part carbo-loading left me feeling groggy, bloated and lethargic on race day.
As it turns out this is a rather common feeling among many runners, but they don’t realize that the cause is the long running lore of carbohydrate loading that has been passed around from runner to runner. Not to mention that 1 plate of pasta isn’t carbo-loading.After personal experimentation, research and yes using my willing athletes as test subjects too I’ve found that avoiding these carbo-loading mistakes can make for a much better race day.
First for those new to the concept, carbohydrate loading is:
Carbohydrate loading is a strategy involving changes to training and nutrition that can maximize muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores prior to endurance competition. Athletes believe that by loading the muscles with glycogen, they can prevent hitting the wall and thus allow us to run at our desired pace for a longer duration.
It has the potential to improve performance by 2-3%. For a 2 hour half marathon that is an improvement of roughly 2.4 to 3.6 minutes or nearly 7 minutes for a 4 hour marathon.
AHHH now we see why people are so excited to try this. A 2 to 3 minute change in time is the difference between making that sub 2 hour half marathon goal and being just over it once again. Unfortunately, most of us don’t fully understand what carbohydrate loading is and our well intentioned pasta dinner leaves us with a 2% decrease in performance instead!
Mistake #1: Skipping carb depletion phase.
This is the one area that many folks never hear about because we want to get straight to the part about eating! Here is the process as described by The Complete Nutrition Guide for Triathletes
- Seven days prior to the event do a long or strenuous workout which will deplete your body of glucose.
- For the next 3 days maintain a lower carb diet of 35-50% of total calories
- For the final 2 days prior to the race switch to 75% of calories from carbohydrates, while dramatically decreasing overall work volume (the other 25% is largely protein)
Mistake #2: Simple carbs.
We’ve heard it a million times “not all carbs are created equal” and yet somehow in the lead up to race week we toss aside our normally good habits for junk food carbs.
Taper crazies, race day nerves and emotions are running high, which is part of what leads us to sugary treats. Do your best to save those as a post race refuel (along side that green smoothie) and think of race week as your time for the best optimal nutrition. This is your chance to give your body all of the nutrients it needs to repair from the training cycle and fill your muscles with fuel that will get you to the finish line.
Ideal carbo-loading foods: potatoes, fruits, vegetables, whole grains – a huge pasta dinner only works for a few folks…sorry!
The one caveat here is if you have trouble with high fiber causing you to experience runners trots, look for options like sourdough bread with honey or sweet potatoes which are lower in fiber. Sourdough also has the benefit of aiding digestion!Did you know carb-depletion is required to make carbo-loading effective?! Learn more >> Click To Tweet
Mistake #3: Loading unnecessarily.
If you’re doing a 5K or 10K, stop green lighting a week of carb-binging. If you’re doing a race that will take you longer than 90 minutes, then you can start to add in extra carbs per the above process.
Additionally, very few runners are training on a true low carb diet, with the exception of my CrossFit Endurance friends. In their case, adding in some sweet potatoes during race week is enough to stock glycogen stores.
Checkout these energy ball recipes for some treats that will give you energy pre, during or post race>>
Mistake #4: Loading too long.
Carbohydrate loading needs only to be done for about 2 days prior to the race, not 7. The entire process is up to 2 weeks long, but the part which we hear about so much…yup only 48 hours or so.
We want a week of morning bagels and afternoon granola bowls, but in reality you only need a couple of days after the depletion mentioned in mistake #1 to optimally fuel your muscles. However, in those 2 days you do need to ensure you’re getting the recommended 75% of calories from carbohydrates to see the effects.
Mistake #5: Weight gain freak out.
Carbs make you retain water…this is actually a blessing on race day to help you prevent dehydration! So just remember you’ll be losing most of that water and if you’ve been loading on good carbs you haven’t put on any actual fat in those 2 short days, no matter what the scale might tell you.
If you’re going to undertake carbohydrate loading, then do it all the way and don’t let the scale stop you from getting race day results. Unless of course you’re ignoring mistake number 2 and gorging on pre-race cookies.
Mistake #6: Skipping your last load.
Nerves result in stomach issues for a lot of runners/triathletes, so they try to skip out or skimp on race morning fuel. You must give your muscles this last boost of glucose to help you prevent energy lulls, mood swings and obviously fatigue.
When you eat a meal high in sugar it releases insulin, which tells the body to start storing glucose for later because it has sugar available for energy at that moment. So your 2 days of carbo-loading is now being stored in your muscles instead of freely available when you start the race. Aim for 1-3 grams (depending on how far in advance you eat) of high quality carbs, low fat and low fiber – oatmeal with banana or yogurt w/ fruit if you can stomach it.
Read more on the best fuel pre-race for digestion and performance>>
Mistake #7: Pasta Dinner.
As noted earlier, one large meal of carbohydrates is NOT carbo-loading and for many people has the opposite effect of what they desire.
If you haven’t been following the depletion, taper and refueling method described in the first step then you are more likely to experience a sugar crash, which could leave you with night sweats (hmm that sleepless night might not just be nerves) and a race morning feeling lethargic and tired as your body continues working to balance your blood-sugar.
There’s nothing wrong with the pasta, but maybe not 2 servings, plus bread and a slice of cake. A smaller meal (with some protein) is going to digest easier, allowing you to sleep better and wake up ready to get in that last bit of fuel.
Having gathered all of this information, I will still say that as with all racing techniques, I think it’s personal. You have to find out what works best for you! I personally love eating veggies the day before a race even though everyone says not to…and I don’t drink 10oz of water every 10 minutes because that makes me want to hurl. But if you are considering carbo-loading now you have more info to get the most out of it!
If your focus is getting to racing weight then checkout the book Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald which also talks about fueling and the impact of carbs.
Have you ever tried carbohydrate loading?
What was your experience?
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