2.10.2009

Carbo-Loading

Introduction
Does carbo-loading mean stuffing myself with pasta? Should I avoid protein the day before the marathon? If you are an endurance athlete who is fearful of hitting the wall, listen up: proper fueling before a marathon, triathlon, century bike ride or other competitive endurance events can make the difference between agony and ecstasy.

If you plan to compete for longer than 90 minutes, you want to maximize the glycogen stores in your muscles because poorly fueled muscles are associated with needless fatigue. The more glycogen, the more potential endurance.

While the typical athlete has about 80-120 mmol glycogen/kg muscle, a carbo-loaded athlete can have about 200 mmol. This is enough to improve endurance by about 2-3%.

While carbo-loading sounds simple, the truth is many endurance athletes make food mistakes that hurt their performances. The last thing you want after having trained for months is to ruin our performance with poor nutrition, so carbo-load correctly.

Training Tactics
The biggest change in your schedule during the week before your event should be in your training, not in your food. Do not be tempted to do any last-minute long sessions. You need to taper your training so your muscles have adequate time to become fully fueled (and healed). Allow at least two easy or rest days (48 hours) pre-event.

Fueling Tactics
You need not eat hundreds more calories this week. You simply need to exercise less. This way, the 600 to 1,000 calories you generally expend during training can be used to fuel your muscles. All during this week you should maintain your tried-and-true high carbohydrate training diet.

Drastic changes can easily lead to upset stomachs, diarrhea or constipation. For example, carbo-loading on an unusually high amount of fruits or juices might cause diarrhea. Too many white flour, low fiber bagels, breads and pasta might clog your system. Trade the fats for extra carbohydrates. Instead of devouring one roll with butter for 200 calories, have two plain rolls for 200 calories. Enjoy pasta with tomato sauce rather than oil or cheese toppings. Choose low-fat frozen yogurt, not gourmet ice cream.

It is often recommended to avoid eating a big dinner the night before an event. Instead, try eating a big lunch the day before and a small meal for dinner. This may work much better for your intestinal tract as it allows time for the food to move through your system.

You can also carbo-load two days before. The glycogen will stay in your muscles until you exercise. Then you can graze on crackers, chicken noodle soup and other easily tolerated foods the day before your competition. You will be better off eating a little bit too much than too little the day before the event, but do not over-stuff yourself. Learning the right balance takes practice.

Thus, each long training session leading up to the endurance event offers the opportunity to learn which food (and how much of it) to eat. During training, be sure to practice your pre-event carbo-loading meal so you will have no surprises on the day of the event.

Fluids
Be sure to drink extra water and juices. Abstain from too much wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages. They are not only poor sources of carbohydrates, but also they are dehydrating. Drink enough water to produce a significant volume of urine every two to four hours. The urine should be pale yellow. Do not bother to over-hydrate: your body can only absorb so much fluid.

Protein
Many endurance athletes eat only carbohydrates and totally avoid protein-rich foods the days before their events. This is a mistake. Your body needs protein on a daily basis. You can and should eat a small serving of low-fat proteins such as poached eggs, yogurt, turkey or chicken as the accompaniment to most meals (not the main focus), or plant proteins such as beans and lentils (as tolerated).

Summary
Event day carbo-loading is just part of the fueling plan. What you eat on the day of the event is critically important and helps to spare your limited muscle glycogen stores. So fuel yourself wisely both before and during the event. When carbo-loading, you want to consume 3-5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight (this comes to a diet with roughly 60% of calories from carbohydrates). Divide your target grams of carbohydrates into three parts of the day (breakfast+snack, lunch+snack, dinner+snack) and choose foods to hit your target.

Sources

Golds Nutrition: Carbo-Loading: Tips for Endurance Athletes, Nancy Clark
http://www.goldsnutrition.com/0209carbo.html

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