Why and how carb loading can put you on top of your game.
Short for carbohydrate loading, carb loading is a strategy used by endurance athletes to increase the amount of energy stored in the muscles to provide the extra fuel needed to finish a long, arduous workout. These workouts are typically endurance races, but the need for carb loading can come about for other reasons as well.
Physical activity of any kind requires energy. With normal activity, your body has enough energy stored for fuel. But if you’re a marathon runner, long-distance cyclist, or swimmer, your body may use up its stored energy, making you feel like you’ve hit a rock wall and can’t move forward. To prevent this from happening, endurance athletes increase the amount of carbs they eat while scaling back their activity in the days leading up to a race. Don’t load up on carbs just yet. Because athletes competing in events shorter than 90 minutes probably don’t need to go on a carb loading diet.
How does carb loading work? Here’s what every endurance athlete should know to make the most of their carbohydrate intake.
Carbs for Stored Energy
Carbohydrates, also called sugars and starches, provide your body with energy. There are two types of carbs: complex and simple. Simple carbs consist of one or two molecules, are low in nutritious value, are quickly digested, and therefore provide a fast burst of energy. Examples include sugars, honey, syrup, jams, candy, fruit, milk, and soda.
Complex carbs, on the other hand, are made of multiple sugar molecules, digest slowly, are high in fiber and nutrients, and keep your blood sugar more stable. Whole plant foods such as green vegetables, starchy vegetables (corn, potatoes, pumpkin), whole grains (pasta, breads, oatmeal), peas, beans, and lentils are all complex carbohydrates.
As you eat carbs, they’re converted to glycogen and stored in your liver and muscles. When you need energy, your body draws on both stored glycogen and then on fat. Fat, however, isn’t burned as easily as glycocen, so your body has to work harder to draw energy from fat. Run out of glycogen, and fatigue may overwhelm you. At this point, your body will turn to fat for energy and your performance will likely suffer.
Load Up with Carbs
How do you avoid depleting your glycogen stores? By filling your muscles full of carbs in the week prior to a race. Seven days before your event, adjust the amount of carbs you consume to be about half of your total calories. At this point, you may need to increase the fat and protein in your diet. Continue to train at your normal pace. By doing this, you’ll empty your glycogen stores to make room for new energy.
Three to four days out, increase the amount of carbs in your diet to take up 70 to 90 percent of your calories. At the same time, reduce the fat in your diet and cut back on training so the carbs will fill your muscles to the brim. The day before your event, rest completely.
The amount of carbs you need depends on your weight, sport, and calorie goal. For most athletes, this equals about four grams of carbs for every pound of body weight. If you weigh 150 pounds, this translates to 600 grams of carbohydrates or 2400 calories of carbohydrates the days before an event.
What to Expect
A carb-loading diet may increase your energy during your performance, you may not experience as much fatigue as usual, and your time may improve. This strategy, however, may not work for everyone. Your performance depends on other factors, including your fitness level and hydration. Additionally, you’ll need to replenish your glycogen stores periodically during and following the event.
Strangely, carb loading seems to be more effective for men rather than women. Planning to load up on carbs? Expect to gain at least four pounds. But don’t sweat it. Much of this is water weight, which will help keep you hydrated during the race.
And don’t hop on the carb-loading train right before a race. Practice carb loading weeks before your event. You may find some foods cause digestive discomfort, and you’ll want to figure that out before you really need to load up on carbs.
Finally, you should recognize that carb loading affects your blood sugar levels. Therefore, if you’re living with diabetes, consult your physician before attempting such a diet.
Not Going Long?
Remember, if you’re not training for some sort of endurance race, there’s no need to carb load. Instead, maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet for optimal health and performance.
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