Carb Loading: Doing It Right
Carb loading has been a pretty standard feature of the athletic landscape for decades for two very simple reasons. First, it works. Second – and perhaps more importantly – it’s a ridiculous amount of fun. Unfortunately, the straightforward, brutal and unpleasant truth is that the vast majority of people who cram down their body-weight in carbs in the days leading up to their competition are probably doing it wrong.
But… how? How is it possible that something that seems so easy in theory could be flawed in practice? To understand that – and how you can personally avoid the common misapplication of this strategy – let’s get into some of the details of carb loading.
What’s The Point?
Despite their waning reputation as of late, carbohydrates are a vital nutrient, providing your body with a ready source of fuel. Specifically, the carbs that you eat are converted into glucose for immediate energy. Any glucose that isn’t needed that very moment is then turned into glycogen and tucked away in either your liver or your muscles for later use.
It should be said that fat is generally burned in equal measure with carbs, but for different reasons. Fats do contain more calories, about 9 per gram compared with the measly 4 calories in each gram of carbs. These calories, however, are a little harder to get to because the most complex chemical structure of fats. So, carbs are the preferred fuel during short, intense activities whereas fat burn tends to increase during longer, less challenging workouts.
Why, though, does any of this matter? Because your body can (somewhat unfortunately) store a seemingly unlimited amount of fat and therefore power the appropriate forms of exercise. But you’re pretty limited in the amount of carbs that you can store. The exact number depends on your body composition, fitness levels and a host of other individual features. Still, most people can tuck away enough glycogen to fuel them for about 90-minutes of intense activity, according to the Mayo Clinic.
By strategically increasing your carbohydrate intake, though, you should be able to maximize the amount of glycogen that you have stored up – even surpassing that standard amount.
In the most basic terms, then, carb loading is all about ensuring that you have as much glycogen stored up as you possibly can.
Right. So, what are some of the most common mistakes people make when it comes to carb loading? More importantly, how can you avoid them?
Mistake #1 – Unnecessary Loading
Now, you might have noticed something key in the above rant: the typical individual can carry enough glycogen to last 90 minutes. That was mentioned in passing, but deserves a more thorough consideration.
Why? Because it translates to an incredibly important principle to keep in mind when determining whether or not to carb load. Is the activity going to last more than 90 minutes? If not, you likely do not need to make any major changes to your carbohydrate intake. So, shorter events, like 5Ks – which don’t normally last more than about 30 minutes – you don’t need to carb load. In fact, doing so could even be detrimental. (More on that later.)
Also, remember that your body primarily relies of glycogen during high-intensity activities. For low-to-moderate intensities, fat tends to get burned in higher concentrations. If the event doesn’t require you to go beyond about 65 percent of your maximum effort, then, you’ve already got enough glycogen squirrelled away and no special effort is necessary.
Mistake #2 – The Wrong Carbs
At this point, the typically all-important glycemic index doesn’t really matter at all. The speed at which a carb is absorbed and it’s impact on your insulin levels has very little to do with how much glycogen gets stored up for race day. Instead, what you really want to be concerned with is digestability.
Many high-carb foods, like apples, are also high in fiber. And while that’s usually a great thing, you’re going to want to limit your fiber intake in the days leading up to your event so as to reduce your risk of dealing with any… digestive discomfort. Remember, you’re going to be eating quite a bit of carbs. So, if they come paired with fiber, it could easily add up.
The same can also be said of fat and even protein. Both of these nutrients increase your feelings of fullness, possibly making it more challenging for you to binge to your for potential. Again, both fat and protein could cause digestive problems and make race day less than enjoyable.
Mistake #3 – Not Eating Enough
If you plan on carb loading, you’re going to need to accept something awful: You will gain weight. On average, you’ll probably gain about 5 pounds through the process.
Perhaps because of this, those who are unfamiliar with proper carb loading sometimes hold back from eating enough in an effort to reduce any unwanted weight. Doing this, though, also means that you’re probably not going to have enough glycogen stored up when you need it.
In general, you should be eating about 4g of carbs for every pound of your body weight. Which is a lot. To make room in your caloric budget, remember that you should be cutting back on your total fat intake.
Still afraid of gaining weight? Don’t be. Each gram of glycogen that you stuff into your muscles brings three grams of water, meaning that all of those extra pounds are likely just fluid. After your event, when your diet returns to normal your weight will, too.
Mistake #4 – Bad Scheduling
This can go either way; athletes sometimes start carb loading either too soon or not soon enough before game day. If you load for too long, you can easily go too far with all that food and end up adding more than water weight to your frame. Or, if you don’t give yourself enough time, you won’t have enough fuel save up.
To get right in the sweet spot, began loading three days before your event. And this pairs nicely with the next point for consideration…
Mistake #5 – Working Out Too Much
It’s tempting to ramp up your training as race day approaches, I know. But don’t. Experienced athletes know the importance of the taper – a steady decline in exercise frequency and intensity as the event gets closer. This allows your muscles to fully recovery while still being active so that you are fully prepared to compete and perform your best.
Interestingly, this strategy works beautifully with carb loading – when it’s done properly. As your activity level decreases, you use less fuel. Which means that more glycogen will get stored as intended. Otherwise, all that extra fuel could be used up and do nothing for you come race day.