Every athlete knows the importance of a proper diet: you can’t train until you give your muscles the fuel they need. Carbohydrates are especially important for runners because your body converts carbs into glycogen, which it stores as energy to burn during exercise. While it’s important to get enough carbs at every point in your training, following a carbohydrate loading (carb-loading) diet in the week before an endurance event like a marathon can boost your energy during the race.
This carb-loading definition should help you figure out how and when to use this diet for race day performance.
Your body maintains reserves of glycogen like a gas tank for your muscles – during exercise, your muscles burn the stored glycogen. When you compete in a marathon, though, your body burns through your stored reserves of fuel before the race ends, leaving your muscles fatigued.
A quick Carbohydrate Loading definition: carb-loading works by training your body to store as much glycogen as possible thus increasing the size of your gas tank to give you a competitive edge in the race.
The first stage of carb-loading starts the week before your race. In this first stage, you intentionally burn through your glycogen reserves: it sounds counterintuitive, but you have to do this before you replenish them. Start by lowering your carbs; at this stage, carbs should only be about 50% of your diet.
Don’t decrease calories, though – be sure you make up the difference with protein and fat. Keep training at your normal level – remember, the goal is to use up as much of the glycogen in your “gas tank” as you can.
The next stage is the fun part: this is when you get to eat mounds of pasta and piles of baked potatoes and justify it all as part of your training. Between three and four days before your race, increase your carb intake to 70% of your daily calories.
To maintain your overall health, focus on healthy, complex carbohydrates like whole-wheat bread and sweet potatoes – Snickers bars might have a lot of carbs from all the sugar, but they aren’t healthy food! Cut down on the fat and protein to keep your calorie intake roughly the same, but don’t be alarmed if you gain a little weight anyway at this stage, since carbs cause your body to retain more water.
The extra weight will disappear after the race when you go back to your normal eating patterns. In the second stage of carb-loading, you should also cut back on your training. In this stage, you’re trying to fill up your “gas tank” of glycogen as far as you can, and when you run, you use that glycogen for fuel right now, instead of saving it for race day.
Don’t stop running entirely, but go easy on the long runs. You’ll be running long enough in a few days.
After carb-loading intensively for a couple of days, you’re ready to race! Your body is storing as much glycogen as it can, to maximize your performance for the long haul. Even the most intense of carb-loading diets can’t carry you all the way through a marathon, though, so make sure to bring along some gels, bars, or sports drinks to power you through the last few miles.
No Carbohydrate Loading definition would be complete without a necessary warning: before you try a carb-loading diet, use some common sense and make sure it’s right for you. If you’re diabetic, carb-loading can do more harm than good.
Since carbs affect your blood sugar much more intensely than protein or fats, be careful about carb-loading if you have a history of blood sugar problems. It’s a great tool, but it’s not worth sacrificing your health for.
Carbohydrate Loading can help all runners, but especially marathon runners, boost their endurance and performance for an important race. While it isn’t for everyone if you don’t have any medical problems that would make carb-loading an issue, consider using this diet to give you that extra push for your next endurance event.
Read also: Best Marathon Training Diet