What does it really mean to CARB-LOAD?
When athletes think of carb loading, they often think of shoveling as much pasta as they can into their pie-hole at a pre-race dinner event. What they don’t realize, is that this tactic is setting them up for a miserable race. The main goal of carb-loading is to maximize the storage of glycogen in our muscles and liver, as fuel for our race. More importantly, we want to do this without overwhelming our digestive system in the process. We’re all desperately attempting to avoid “hitting the wall”, when training or racing for an extended duration (90+ minutes for most). So, how do carbohydrates help us avoid the elusive wall? Glycogen is made from carbohydrates and stored in your muscles as fuel. “Hitting the wall” simply means that you’ve run out of muscle glycogen and your body is now using fat for fuel. Sounds great, right? It is, except that you’ll slow down and feel sluggish and heavy. Welcome to Bonktown.
Common mistakes in carb-loading:
The main complication with improper carb-loading, is that your digestive system becomes overwhelmed. Too many athletes spend the night before the race, that they’ve worked so hard to prepare for, stuffing their faces with quantity over quality in calories and carbs. When you eat until you’re so stuffed that you feel sick, a few things happen:
1) Your body will freak out and focus all of your energy on digesting that mess of food
2) You will actually lack the energy to sleep well, due to the fact that your body is working overtime hours to digest your four plates of pasta
3) Your food is not completely digested by race morning. You’ll wake up feeling slow, heavy and bloated and you haven’t felt that awful through most of your training!
Carb-loading for a great race:
- Start increasing healthy carbs in your diet two days prior to the race.
- Eat dinner at an early hour for two nights before your big day, to ensure complete digestion.
- Do not aim for a significantly greater number of calories. Just focus on including a slightly higher number of carbohydrates, with a focus on quality.
- Choose complex, slow-burning carbs (brown rice, whole grain bread and pasta) over simple carbs (the white stuff) when possible. And know your body! If you have a sensitive digestive system, avoid carbs from high fiber fruits, beans and some whole grains.
And a final tip, don’t wait until the last days before your long-course race to dial in your pre-race nutrition! Start practicing and testing various meals in all of your long runs or long brick workouts leading up to the race. I have my clients complete “nutrition simulators” and take notes for several of these workouts. I want their food choices and race fueling plan to feel simple and automatic when it comes to race week!
Christine Lynch is a Holistic Health Counselor and Certified Yoga Instructor. She specializes in creating a healthy diet and lifestyle for runners, cyclists, and multi-sport athletes. Her impressive race resume includes overall wins (including 2x Champ at American Zofingen Long Course), several top 10 full distance triathlon placings, multiple marathons, and she’s a Duathlon All-American. In addition, Christine is a well known triathlon podcast personality, has been published in Triathlete Magazine, and writes frequently for her popular blog.