Carb Loading for Success: What You Need to Know
By Alison Patterson, AdvSD.
Carbohydrate loading, or carb loading, is a key sports nutrition practice that has permeated public consciousness, gyms, and sports clubs. And then got lost along the way.
While the concept remains sound, the application and the science behind the need for carb loading haven’t followed through. Your running club regulars may have heard about or tried carb loading, but they might not have the answers for why it’s not working for you. Google ‘carb loading’ and a whopping 2 million results come up!
So, with all these mixed messages about how carbohydrate loading works it’s a good time to answer some of the most common questions that get asked.
Is carb loading really that important?
Your body can only store enough fuel (glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrate) to sustain around 90 minutes of exercise. Beyond this, without sufficient fuel, energy levels drop and fatigue sets in.
Events such as marathon and ultra-distance running, half and full Ironman, and long distance cycling are all situations that would benefit from carb loading to boost muscle (and liver) glycogen stores to optimise performance. In fact, carbohydrate loading has been shown to improve performance over a set distance by 2-3%!
Do I need to deplete my carbohydrate stores before I can load them?
In the past, carb loading strategies included a 3-4 day depletion phase that included hard training and low carbohydrate intake, followed by 3-4 days of carbohydrate loading. Fortunately, we’ve discovered that this depletion phase is no longer necessary and provides no additional benefit to carbohydrate loading. Phew!
It is important to keep your activity fairly light over the 2-3 days that you’re carb loading though – luckily, your pre-competition taper usually ticks this box.
How much carbohydrate do I need and how long do I need to load for?
Carbohydrate loading should take place over the 2-3 days leading up to race day (there’s no benefit to doing it any longer). The exact quantity varies between individuals, but typically on each day of loading, male athletes require ~7-10g of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight (~525-750g carbohydrate per day for a 75kg athlete).
Females generally require slightly less, usually ~5-8g of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight each day that they are loading (~300-480g carbohydrate per day for a 60kg athlete).
What if I don’t want to eat pasta?
In recent years, carbohydrate loading pasta parties have become synonymous with long distance events (especially in the lead up to Ironman races!!), but there are numerous ways that you can meet your carb targets beyond pasta. Bread, rice, noodles, potato, yoghurt, creamed rice, custard, juice, yoghurt and even ice-cream are just some of the many options you could consider as part of your carb loading plan. Choosing foods lower in fibre will help to minimise your chances of gut discomfort on race day.
Remember – carb loading is a specific plan to meet performance goals and does not represent healthy eating for training!
What if I struggle to get enough to meet my carbohydrate loading goals?
Carbohydrate loading typically means you’re eating a lot more than you would during a normal training day. This can make it difficult if you struggle with poor appetite, pre-race nerves or feeling full. An Accredited Sports Dietitian can help you find compact forms of carbohydrates that appeal to your taste buds and also meet your body’s needs, without needing to eat a huge volume of food.
Is it true that carb loading makes you gain weight?
Carbohydrate loading can lead to a short-term weight gain of 1-2kg. Don’t panic! This weight gain is from the extra glycogen and water stored in your muscle and can be a good sign that your loading is on track.
I’ve heard that females can’t carbohydrate load – should we bother loading?
Early research suggested that females were less efficient at carbohydrate loading than males but it has since been discovered that this was because they were not eating sufficient amounts to load the muscles.
So if you’re female, never fear! You can still carbohydrate load efficiently – just make sure you’re eating enough total energy and carbohydrate over the loading period.
Can I carb load on beer?
Sure beer has plenty of carbohydrate, but it’s definitely not the ideal pre-competition carb load. The alcohol content of beer can in fact impair your performance more than the carbs may benefit it!!
Carbohydrate loading is not an excuse to gorge on everything in sight. Eating large amounts of high fat foods can compromise your carbohydrate intake leading to suboptimal fuelling, gut discomfort, and poor performance.
Since the ideal carb loading plan depends on your event, body composition, and typical eating patterns it’s best to seek advice from an Accredited Sports Dietitian for the perfect plan for you.