Have you wondered whether you should carb load before your race? Not sure if it’s for you?
In this article, we’ll review what carb loading is, when, why, and how to carb load, the best foods for carb loading, and we’ll share a sample carb loading meal plan.
We will also explore some important considerations if you decide to try carb loading.
What Is Carb Loading?
Carb (carbohydrate) loading consists of consuming a very high amount of carbs in the 36-48 hours prior to your event, with the goal of super-compensating your muscle glycogen stores. This enables you to have more fuel in the tank come race day.
At first glance, carbohydrate loading may not seem very healthy, as it involves eating a large volume of low fiber carbohydrates. However, when used correctly, it can be a useful strategy for endurance athletes to have more energy for longer races.
When & Why to Carb Load
Carbohydrate loading is only recommended for endurance races lasting longer than 90 minutes. This is because our bodies can store enough glycogen for races less than 90 minutes, so it won’t give you any additional benefit.
Running races to consider for carb loading:
- Ultra-distance races
Triathlon races to consider for carb loading:
- Olympic distance
- ½ ironman distance
- Full ironman distance
The greatest benefits will be seen for the longer duration events.
Research shows that carbohydrate loading can provide a 2-3% performance benefit (1). This can be valuable if you are racing competitively, but may not be worthwhile for recreational athletes who are getting started in competition.
How to Carb Load
To carb load you should eat a very high carbohydrate intake for 36-48 hours prior to your event (1). This means consuming 10-12 grams per kilogram of body weight (~4.5-5.4 g/lb). For a 150 pound person this is approximately 675-810 grams carbs on a carb loading day.
Best Foods For Carb Loading
The best foods for carbohydrate loading include grain products such as bread, rice, pasta and cereal, fruit and fruit juices, starchy vegetables like potatoes, and can also include sweets and baked goods in moderation.
Contrary to healthy eating advice to choose high fiber, whole-grain products, the opposite is true when carbohydrate loading, as we don’t want to overload our guts with fiber, along with the increased carb intake. To reach carbohydrate intake goals, it may be helpful to consume foods not typically recommended for everyday health, such as juice and lower fiber white foods.
Remember that this is a short-term strategy to enhance performance and not the recommended everyday way of eating.
Sample Carb Loading Meal Plan
To put together these recommendations, it can be helpful to see what a day of eating could look like, to meet this carbohydrate goal. This sample plan provides approximately 661g carbohydrate, which is about the right amount for a 150 pound person.
1 bagel with 1 tbsp each of jam and peanut butter, 1 cup Cheerios with 1 cup milk, 1 banana, and 1 cup Orange juice (161g carb)
Sandwich with 2 slices of Italian bread with 2 oz of turkey and tomato, 1 cup grapes, 1 chocolate pudding cup, and 1 cup of juice (119g carb)
2 cups of pasta with 1 cup of tomato sauce, 1 breadstick, 1 cup of fruit cocktail, 1 cup of milk, and 2 chocolate chip cookies (228g carb)
1 cup of applesauce, 1 strawberry of yogurt cup, 24 mini rice cakes, 1 energy bar, and 1 20z bottle Gatorade (153g carb)
While this plan may seem unhealthy, remember the goal is maximizing carbohydrate stores so fiber is minimized and easy-to-digest carbs are the focus for these 1-2 days.
Other Considerations When Carb Loading
While carbohydrate loading offers a potential performance benefit there are some cautions and considerations before you try this approach:
- Be sure to practice carb loading before a test event or less important race, so that you can see how your body and gut react.
- The benefit of carbohydrate loading can last up to 3 days (1), so if you’re prone to GI distress with this technique, consider carb loading two days before your race, and then consuming a moderate intake on the day before the race to minimize GI distress.
- Don’t focus on protein and fat when carb loading. It’s ok to eat some protein and fat as part of meals, but the focus should be on carbohydrates.
- Contrary to general health eating advice to eat whole grains and high fiber foods, this is one time you’ll want to look for lower fiber “white” food options. If you try to load with high fiber foods you’ll likely experience bloating and gas due to excessive fiber intake.
- Drink plenty of water to aid with the digestion of the increased carb intake.
- If you have diabetes, consult with your health care provider before attempting carb loading.
Lastly, whether you carb load or not, you’ll still want to consume a pre-race carbohydrate-rich meal the day of your event. This should be consumed 1-4 hours before race time. An additional carbohydrate top-up 15-30 minutes prior to race time, can be useful when the morning meal was more than 2 hours prior. For ideas on what to consume race morning, check out the pre-training section of our Nutrition for Triathletes article.
Carb loading consists of eating high carb foods 36-48 hours before longer races. It can help by enhancing muscle glycogen stores and provide a 2-3% performance benefit. You should practice carb loading just like you practice any other race strategy.
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