If you are an endurance athlete, it is common knowledge that nutrition is an extremely important part a training schedule leading up to an event. Inadequate nutrition can seriously affect performance on race day. There are several things that can be done in terms of nutrition to improve performance. One of the most effective, but misunderstood, and underutilised strategies that can be used is carbohydrate loading.

What is Glycogen?

The primary source of energy for your body during exercise is carbohydrate and fats. For long, hard exercise, the muscles mostly rely on carbohydrate fuel reserves in the form of glycogen. These stores, unfortunately, are naturally in short supply and after around 90 minutes of exercise, these can be depleted. This can seriously affect your performance in a race, or even end it.

What is Carbohydrate Loading?

Carbohydrate loading is the process of fuelling the body with excess carbohydrates in the days leading up to an event where you will be racing for 90 minutes or longer. This process consists of a very high carbohydrate diet (around 10 grams per kg of body weight per day), resulting in saturated glycogen stores in the muscles within the next 24-48 hours depending on your conditioning. These can remain high for up to 5 days after carbohydrate loading.

How Much and What? 

It is important that a high amount of carbohydrates is consumed in this period. The average athlete (68 kgs) should consume around 3000 calories a day from carbohydrates alone during carbohydrate loading. As this is a relatively high amount, it is easier to eat 5-6 meals per day than 3 large meals. It is important to choose good carbohydrate sources. These can be items such as bread, pasta, cereals and grains, starchy vegetables such as potatoes, and some fruit such as bananas, pineapple, pears. This doesn’t always have to be solid food however. Carbohydrates can also come in liquid form such as glucose and maltodextrin-based gels which are quick and easy to consume. Drinking carbohydrates can help up your intake without the feeling of being uncomfortably full or bloated.

Cut it out

During carbohydrate loading, it is important that fibre and fat consumption is kept at low levels. While these are essential for a healthy diet, fibre absorbs fluid in the body and can swell up and form a gel, taking up space in the body which is needed for carbohydrates during this period. Fibres and fat can also leave you feeling full, adding unnecessary calories and possible weight gain- which is undesirable in the days leading up to a race. Fish, lean meat (beef, chicken) and eggs can also be added in small quantities (1/4 of your plate) for a bit of balance, but you want to be reducing the total amount of protein in your diet during this period.

Try it Out

It is important to test out carbohydrate loading during training, and not to try this out for the first time in the days leading up to a big event. This way you can adjust the carbohydrate loading plan to what works best for you and how it affects your performance.

The Cons

There is a downside to carb loading, although it can also be a benefit. When you generate the extra glycogen stores, you will take on a little extra water, which means extra weight that you have to carry around at the start of the race. This is less important for swimming and cycling than it is for marathon and ultra-marathon running. The benefit is that water may be available to you later in the day to replace the water you have sweated out and you don’t have to consume as many carbs when racing.

Are there other approaches

Yes, you can try a fat-adapted diet, but this requires an incredible amount of effort over weeks, whereas with carb loading, you can do it over just a few days.

Reload Gels

To help your carb loading for your next big event, try our Reload gels as a way to increase carbohydrate intake. These come in 5 flavours- Raspberry, Blueberry, Orange, Lemon-Lime and Feijoa, and come with a free sipper flask that lets you choose how much you want to take with you on a training session or during a race. https://rline.co.nz/all-products/