The term carb loading gets thrown around as a joke on pizza and pasta night but what does it actually mean for athletes? Is it a real thing?
Why carb load? What’s the science?
Carbohydrates are you body’s favourite source of energy. When you eat carbs, they are broken down into sugars and used by your muscles for fuel. Extra sugars are stored for later in your liver and your muscles, to be used at a later point. Generally, your body only stores enough carbs to last you 90mins of exercise.
Carb loading enhances your body’s capacity to store carbs and significantly improve performance!
Be aware that carb loading can lead to a weight increase – but this is normal and okay! When your body stores carbs as glycogen, it traps water in the bonds and can contribute around 2kg of extra weight. A weight gain is just a sign that you have carb loaded effectively but won’t negatively impact your performance.
Who should carb load?
If you’re competing in an endurance event lasting >90mins, you will benefit from carb loading. This includes events such as triathlons, iron man, marathons etc.
Men vs Women
Unfortunately, most of our research has been conducted among men! The research is conflicting as to whether carb loading has the same benefits among women.
How do you carb load?
The carb loading process has taken a turn for the better. In the past, athletes were required to deplete their carb stores through intense training on a low carb diet for 3-4 days. They would then commence the loading phase. That was basically torture!
Fortunately, science has found the depletion phase to be unnecessary and all we now require is the loading phase.
During the loading phase it is critical that you taper your activity right down! This is one of the key challenges for many athletes, but is critical for your performance on the day.
What do you need to do?
Start loading ~2-3 days prior to competition. If you’re a first time athlete it may help to start 3 days prior as getting in enough carbs can be difficult and your first day may be more of a practice day.
Men: Consume ~7-12g of carbs per kg of body weight. Eg an athlete weighing 80kg would need to consume 560-960g of carbs per day… which is ALOT.
Women: Consume ~5-8g of carbs per kg of body weight. Eg an athlete weighing 65kg would require 325-520g of carbs per day.
What foods contain carbohydrates?
Yes, you have more options than pasta!
Making it happen
We all love carbs, so carb loading sounds like a great time but it can actually be really difficult. Over these 2-3 days you will be eating much more than you do on a typical training day and won’t always be hungry for the meal. In terms of amounts, 2 slices of bread contain roughly 30-40g of carbs, which isn’t much if you need around 600g! It will be worth working with a sports dietitian to ensure you can get enough carbs in.
Here are some helpful tips:
Eat regularly – try to get in 6 meals per day.
Pair food with a high carb drink e.g. juice, cordial, soft drink etc
Minimise the fibre, fat and protein content of meals. These nutrients will fill you up too quick! Choose white grain products and low fat dairy items.
Hit the sugar! Soft drinks, lollies, juice, dried fruit and jam can be extremely helpful in increasing the amount of carbs you consume.
See below an example of what a day could look like for a Male athlete who weighs 80kg.
Porridge topped with dried fruit with 1 glass of fruit juice.
English muffin with jam and a banana with 1 glass of juice.
2 cups of Mexican rice and beans with salad and a 375mL tin of soft drink.
600mL sports drink with dried fruit and a muesli bar.
2 cups of pesto pasta with sweet potato. As well as garlic bread and 2 cups of cordial.
3 fruit-based bliss balls with a smoothie.
This plan contains ~15,000kJ & 700g carbs.
All the best to everyone competing in the Noosa Tri this weekend!