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Carb Loading Before The Race

Posted on 19th Sep, 2011 by Susan Lacke
Raw Chiocciole Pasta

Go to any Italian restaurant on a Saturday night, and chances are high you’ll see dozens of skinny people in tech tees shoveling fettuccine into their mouths like it’s going out of style. Carb-loading is a legendary race ritual – but are we doing it right?

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Carb-loading serves the main purpose of building up the glycogen stores in our body. Glycogen is produced when your body digests carbohydrates, and is stored in your muscles to fuel activity. The fuller your glycogen stores are, the better your odds of performing well for a longer period of time.

Think of it as filling up your gas tank; While training, you have a cycle of topping off and burning your fuel. During a taper week before the race, your engine doesn’t burn as much fuel, so more stays in the gas tank. By carb-loading, you’re filling up your glycogen stores so it’s ready to go come race day.

Does that mean you need to eat more? Yes and no. You’re burning fewer calories during the taper, but you also need to stockpile glycogen. It’s a delicate balance that is largely contingent on the athlete and the event in which he or she is competing. Rather than solely focusing on quantity, it’s important to pay attention to the quality of food you’re putting into your body.

Timing is Everything

Carb-loading isn’t as simple as inhaling the bread basket and asking for seconds the night before your race. Though eating a carbohydrate-rich meal the night before a race is a good idea, one meal doesn’t always cut it when it comes to building up glycogen stores. This is especially true for those who are training for and racing a long-course event (like a marathon or Ironman triathlon). The body can only process so much at one time.

Instead of relying on one meal the night before the race to fill up your glycogen stores, eat multiple meals with healthy doses of carbohydrates in the days leading up to the race, like healthy pancakes or muffins for breakfast, a great salad for lunch, and pita with hummus for snacking.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Carbohydrates aren’t just found in pasta and baked goods; they’re in almost every food. Most people, in the course of training, have figured out what works for them as far as the carbohydrate source needed to maximize performance. Some people prefer getting their carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables, others eat whole grains, and others still prefer easily-digestible carbs, like rice and pasta.

The days before your race are not the time to make sweeping changes to your diet. If you’ve been eating white grains all along and suddenly decide to switch to fruits and vegetables, the only thing that’s going to get a better workout is your digestive system – while you’re running to the bathroom.

Give Protein & Fats Some Lovin’, Too

Don’t neglect the other essential components of your diet. Protein, for example, often is ignored in the carb-loading frenzy. The magic carb-to-protein ratio is 3-to-1, so incorporate a protein source you like, such as eggs, nuts, tofu, or beans, into your meals and snacks. Additionally, don’t forget small amounts of healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, olive oil, or flaxseed.

Water it Down

Staying hydrated in the days before the race not only makes the digestive system work more efficiently, it keeps your muscles and joints from cramping up on race day. Don’t wait until the last minute to chug water – unless you want to stand in the long line for the porta-potty on race morning! Instead, make a habit of sipping water all day, every day. Avoid excess amounts of coffee, pop, and alcohol – save that for your post-race celebration!

The Bottom Line

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been mentioned more than one time that last-ditch efforts simply don’t work. A last-minute plate of spaghetti won’t suddenly turn you into Ryan Hall. Make good nutrition a part of a solid training plan, and you’ll be ready to crush it come race day!


Photography by Celine Steen

Food, we love you.

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