Why Carb Load?
Choosing what and how much to eat before race day is a challenge for most endurance athletes to prevent "hitting the wall" during the last few miles of their race. The traditional pasta dinner the night before a race doesn’t qualify as proper carbohydrate (carb) loading. Eating a majority of your calories (about 70-80%) from carbs 2-3 days prior to endurance races (longer than 90 minutes) is a way to maximize your glycogen stores (stored carb). This can improve race performance by 2-3%, translating to running 5-7 minutes faster for a 4-hour marathon. As a marathoner, that’s a lot to shave off your time!
Details of Carb Loading
Carb loading doesn’t mean you stuff yourself with ice cream, cookies and pasta all day long. Since you will be eating more carbs, you will need to eat less calories from fat to prevent consuming excess calories. Some athletes also cut back on high fiber foods for a few days to prevent frequent pit stops on race day. Instead of eating a meal containing fiber-rich beans, bran cereals and salads, shift your calories to eating a diet including juices, grains, and fruits. You may also notice that you may gain a few pounds of water weight prior to the race since carbs aid in fluid absorption. This weight gain shouldn’t concern you. You will use this fluid and glycogen during your race, and it won’t hurt your performance.
Tips for Carb Loading
· Make sure you are tapering when carb loading to maximize the benefits.
· Limit eating high fiber foods to avoid GI distress. Still eat whole grains in moderation and a small amount of vegetables in your diet to avoid constipation.
· Eat less fat. Avoid fried meats, alfredo sauces, ice cream, and high fat desserts. Choose healthy fats in small amounts (oil, nuts, avocado, nut butter).
· Eat frequently throughout the day to help you reach your carb goal.
· Drink juice or chocolate milk to boost carbs without having to eat more.
How many carbs?
If you want to be more scientific with carb loading, you can count the grams you eat at meals and snacks. Most certified sports nutrition experts recommend eating 8-10 grams of carb per kg (kilogram) body weight, 2-3 days before race day to maximize glycogen stores.
You can calculate your weight in kg by dividing your weight in pounds (#) by 2.2.
For example: 160#/2.2= 72 kg.
If you weigh 120#, you should be eating about 440-550 grams of carb a day; where as if you are 160#, try to aim for 575-730 grams a day. Before endurance races, eating closer to 8 g carb/kg may be more realistic to meet your carb goal if you are not used to eating larger amounts of carbs regularly.
So, what does a day of eating 440 grams of carb look like?
Each meal: 100 grams carb
Each snack (twice per day): 70 g carb
Breakfast 100 g carb:
· 1 cup cooked oatmeal made with 1 low fat cup milk, add 1 T. brown sugar, 2 T. raisins or dried cranberries, 2 T. slivered almonds + 8 ounces juice
· 1 large whole grain bagel with 2 T. peanut butter, 1 large banana, 1 cup low fat milk
· Smoothie: 1 cup low fat milk, 1 cup mango, ½ cup pineapple, 6 ounces Icelandic or Greek yogurt, ice + 2 slices avocado whole grain toast (1/2 avocado)
Lunch/Dinner 100 g carb:
· Turkey sandwich on 6-inch hoagie roll or medium bagel, 1 large piece of fruit, 16 ounces chocolate milk
· Rice bowl: 3-4 ounces baked or grilled chicken or salmon (about the size of a deck of cards), 1 cup brown rice, small amount of vegetables, 1 medium piece of fruit, 10 ounces chocolate milk
· 1 ½ cups cooked pasta with 1 cup marinara sauce, 3 lean small meatballs or 3-4 ounces chicken, 1 slice of bread, small side salad with oil-based dressing
· 3-4 ounces lean meat, small amount of vegetables, 1 large baked sweet potato, 2 slices bread, 8 ounces chocolate milk
Snacks 70 g carb:
· Granola bar (low fat/fiber) + large piece of fruit
· 1 large banana + 2 ounces pretzels
· 2 cups cereal (low fiber – less than 3 grams fiber/serving) with low fat milk
· 8 ounces juice + 3 fig bars
Day Before Race:
· Eat a larger breakfast and lunch and a smaller dinner to prevent fullness and bloating the next day.
· Snack frequently to eat enough carbs throughout the day.
· Avoid spicy, greasy, high fiber foods day before race.
Carb loading can be a helpful tool to enhance your racing performance, but it’s important to eat foods that you are familiar with and to never try anything new near race day!