by Cassie Bjork in Health + Nutrition, image by David Goehring

How Carbo-loading can improve your running

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Many are familiar with the massive pasta dinners the night before a big sporting event, but it may actually be a mystery as to what carbo-loading really is and whether or not it actually works.

Carbohydrate-loading or “Carbo-loading” refers to the process of increasing energy in endurance activities by maximizing the amount of glycogen reserves in the muscles. In Layman’s terms, it means storing up extra energy in the form of glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates), which will kick in by giving you an energy boost when your body would normally begin to hit a lull.

This “lull”, which usually happens after 90 minutes of endurance activity, is when the glycogen storage in your muscles begins to run low.  For events shorter than 90 minutes, carbo-loading likely won’t aid in improving performance because glycogen depletion hasn’t yet become a problem.  A carbo-loading diet consists of roughly 75% carbohydrates, consumed 1-3 days prior to the endurance event.

Let’s talk carbs

Although all nutrients are necessary, carbohydrates are the body’s most efficient form of fuel.  Athletes in particular benefit from eating a high-carbohydrate diet to prevent using protein for fuel (protein is needed for muscle repair and rebuilding). There are two types of carbohydrates: Simple and complex. Simple carbs include things you might think of as “quick-energy” such as candy bars, white potatoes and other processed sugary foods.  Fruit is an uncommon example of a simple carbohydrate that is high in sugar— but also high in nutrients.  Complex carbohydrates are most effective in carbo-loading and consist of your whole grains (brown pasta, rice, bread, oatmeal) vegetables and milk products.

Do extra carbs mean extra calories?

Yes. During your period of carbo-loading it is much better to err on the side of over-consuming verses under. Carbo-loading is certainly not the time to cut calories, and your body may actually benefit from the extra calories prior to your event. So, to be safe, consume more rather than less.

But won’t I gain weight?

Yes, but only temporarily. When your body stores carbohydrates, it also stores extra water (3 parts water for every 1 part carb), which makes carbo-loading beneficial for hydration purposes too. And because your body is hanging onto this water and energy, it is normal to gain a few pounds— the weight gain is reflective of successful carbo-loading.  Besides, once your event is over and your glycogen reserves and H2O have been used, your weight will return to normal.

Let’s talk numbers

If you are going to follow the three-day carbo-loading regimen, you should aim for 3.5 to 5.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day.  For a 150-pound athlete, this amounts to 543-825 grams of carbohydrate each of the three days. Carbohydrates have four calories per gram, which gives a total of 2200-3300 calories from carbohydrates alone during each day of loading.  If you are going to carbo-load for a day or two, you should aim for the higher end of the range: 4.5-5.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound daily.

And note that it is important to rest during your carbo-loading days, or you will just be burning the energy you are trying to store.

Plan smart

Effective carbo-loading requires effective planning. You should make sure you have plenty of high-carbohydrate foods on hand ahead of time.

Stock your kitchen with these foods:

  • 100% whole grain bread
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Whole grain pasta and rice
  • Whole grain pancakes and waffles
  • Skim, low-fat or soy milk
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Beans and peas
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Sports bars and sports drinks
  • Granola bars and cereal bars

Beware: If you are not used to a high fiber intake you may want to start by consuming more simple carbs over complex ones. Simple carbs are found in foods your body can easily digest: think whites verses browns and more liquids (smoothies, juices and milk).  As runners, we know how uncomfortable it is to try to push through with an upset digestive system, so be sure to listen to your body as you load up.

If you have a difficult time coming up with enough carbohydrate sources (or get sick of the staples), take advantage of on-the-go foods such as sports bars, granola bars and cereal bars. Also, use toppings on your potatoes and bread such as dressings, sauces and jams, which are generally loaded with carbohydrates, helping you meet your target.

List of carbohydrates (in grams) found in basic foods

  • Oatmeal (1 cup cooked): 26
  • Granola (Regular, 1 cup): 64
  • Yogurt (flavored, 1 cup): 25
  • Bagel (small, 3 ounces): 45
  • Medium apple or orange: 20
  • Medium banana or pear: 25
  • Raisins (15 oz box): 25
  • Macaroni and cheese (1 cup): 44
  • Rice (1 cup cooked): 35
  • Spaghetti (1 cup cooked): 40
  • Tomato sauce (1/2 cup): 10
  • Corn (1 cup): 40
  • Green beans (1/2 cup): 7
  • Baked beans (1 cup cooked): 53
  • Baked potato (large): 50
  • Graham cracker squares (4): 22
  • Gatorade (1 cup): 14
  • PowerAde (1 cup): 19
  • Milk,skim (1 cup): 12
  • Milk, soy (1 cup): 12
  • Milk, chocolate (1 cup): 25
  • Orange juice (1 cup): 25
  • Strawberry jam (1 Tbsp): 13
  • Honey (1 Tbsp): 15
  • Maple syrup (2 Tbsp): 25
  • Ice cream (1 cup): 25
  • Toaster pastry: 37

Lastly, remember that as beneficial as carbo-loading may be, nutrition on race day is just as important.  Do whatever normally works for you on long run days and stick to the runner’s rule: Don’t try anything new on race day!

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