Does Carb Loading Actually Work?
Most of the runners I know pay attention to nutrition more so than the average person. It makes some sense. Runners are generally aware the foods they eat can impact their performance. This is especially true when it comes to racing. We’re always working to create a pre-race menu that helps us achieve a new PR.
While there are numerous nutrition strategies athletes have tried over the years, carb loading is one of the most popular. Even non-runners are familiar with the terminology. You might even have a few friends who’ve asked if you’re going to load up on carbs the night before a big event.
But what exactly is carb loading? And does it really work? Let’s start with the first question.
A primer on carb loading
This concept is easier to understand if you think about your body as a machine. To function as it should while exerting effort, it needs fuel. Some types help it run better than others. Your body’s preferred source of fuel when exercising is undoubtedly glycogen, a type of sugar your body creates when it digests carbohydrates. It’s the go-to fuel when exercising.
Your body only has so much glycogen on hand, though. This is an issue for endurance athletes. Once you run out, your body has to resort to other energy sources like fat that aren’t as efficient. As a result, you start to feel sluggish and your performance diminishes. Research has demonstrated this.
Here’s where carb loading enters the equation. By altering your diet to consume more carbohydrates, you can maximize your glycogen stores. You’re effectively topping off your tank.
Does carb loading work?
There are a lot of skeptics out there, which is fair. Eat more carbs to perform better? It sounds too good to be true, but runners and cyclists really do seem to benefit from the strategy. One review reports endurance athletes trying to complete a set distance as fast as possible stand to see a 2 to 3% boost in performance by carb loading. That might not be huge, but it could mean the difference between running a goal time and not.
One thing to keep in mind is that carb loading isn’t going to be useful for all types of activities. If you’re exercising for less than 90 minutes, it doesn’t make much sense. Some studies investigating whether carb loading affects resistance training have found there isn’t really any benefit.
Exploring 3 different carb loading methods
Before going for a full-blown carb loading strategy before your next race, test it out first. It’s better to find out it upsets your stomach when you’re just doing a routine training run. And keep in mind that carb loading is based on proportions. You don’t want to stuff yourself. But if you do want to give it a shot, there are a few methods you can try.
The classic carb loading strategy takes place over almost a week. You start out coupling exercise with a diet very low in carbohydrates to deplete your glycogen stores. You then switch to consuming about 70% carbohydrates by the end of the week.
While some athletes swear by this method, it’s definitely not for everyone. I can tell you my father tried it once. He found the low-carb portion so grueling that he never did it again.
This method is probably the most common. You eat as you normally would leading up to the event. Then, a few days before the race, you shift to a diet that’s 85 to 90% carbohydrates. Once again, keep quantities in mind. Runner’s World suggests eating a small meal the evening before to avoid upsetting your stomach.
Rapid carb loading
The final method takes place in just 24 hours. While the thinking has traditionally been to complete a glycogen-depleting workout first, some research has shown it’s possible to top off glycogen stores with relative inactivity while a consuming a high proportion of carbohydrates. Exact figures vary by source, but most recommend consuming 5 to 6 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight.
And if you don’t think carb loading is for you? Just make sure you’re making smart choices leading up to the race. There’s something to be said for sticking with a plate of pasta the night before a race simply because you know it won’t leave you with GI issues during the big event.