Pasta, and pizza and pie, oh my! This might sound like any foodie’s dream meal before a long distance event. We often hear how important it is to “carb load” before that big race. But are all carbs created equal for athletes? And how should we properly be carb loading before that endurance event?
Yes, athletes need carbohydrates. Now there are exceptions to the rules and some who prefer following the keto diet and still perform well. There are also those with allergies or other dietary restrictions that mean they can’t consume carbs. However, in general, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel.
What Is Carb Loading?
Carb loading is the practice of consuming rich in carbohydrate foods before an endurance or long distance event. The idea is to have the body store lots of carbs, which then provide energy to fuel and boost their performance.
The “bank” of carbohydrates stores are broken down to glycogen to fuel the muscles during a workout. Filling up on carbs is beneficial because the body can store (in the muscles and liver) 1,800 to 2,000 calories of glycogen in the muscles. These glycogen stories can then fuel up to 2 hours of intense exercise.
Having enough carbohydrates prevents athletes from “hitting the wall,” the popular expression used to describe the feeling that their bodies have shut down and cannot continue with the exercise. What happens is glycogen stores are depleted. The body starts to use fat stores instead of carbohydrates stores. Endurance athletes feel weak, dizzy, suffer from blurred vision, and more.
Hitting the wall can also occur when there is too much lactic acid in the muscle. Lactic acid is produced in the muscles when exercising. A buildup of lactic acid can cause discomfort and even “bonking” or hitting the wall in some cases. This is why it is important to also fuel during an endurance event with sports nutrition like Kramp Krushers, which prevents cramping, hydrates and helps replenish glycogen stores.
In short, carb loading is the nutritional strategy of building up glycogen stores to be able to successfully complete an endurance event like a marathon to prevent "bonking” during an endurance event.
How To Properly Carb Load
Dietary guidelines recommend consuming 45 to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. This translates to 225 to 325 grams of carbs daily. Those who are carb loading want to consume more than this.
Proper carb loading consists of increased carbs and decreasing exercise. But this doesn’t mean simply eating a big bowl of pasta the night before the race.
Endurance athletes should start carb loading up to two weeks before the event. Combined with tapering (scaling back workout mileage leading up to an event), the person needs to consistently add more carbs into their meals.
Some prefer increasing their carbohydrate intake six days out from their event. The threats three days, the athlete goes low-carb (15 % of calories from carbs) with normal exercise. From days four to six, increase carb intake to be 70% of the diet. Scale back exercise on day four and no exercise on days five and six.
Food should be high in carbs, low in fat. This means chocolate cake doesn’t qualify. Instead, options include quinoa, bananas, sweet potatoes, and some beans.
Keep in mind its best to carb load only for exercise lasting 60 to 90 minutes. Anything shorter than that does not require more carbohydrates in order to be able to perform well.
Carb Loading Keto
What about those endurance athletes following the ketogenic diet? The standard keto diet calls for less than 50 grams of carbs per day. This is so the body can enter —and stay in— the state of ketosis. Ketosis is a metabolic state when the body uses fat stores instead of carb stores for energy.
There are many endurance athletes who follow the keto diet and do not suffer performance wise. But there are many who believe that the keto diet is not good long-term for athletes because the body does need carbohydrates in order to function at its best quality.
Carb loading is actually possible as part of another version of the keto diet called the cyclical ketogenic diet. The cyclical ketogenic diet or CKD consists of eating low carb, and high protein and fat for five to six days. Then there is a period of eating high carb, and high portion and low fat for one to two days.
This diet is beneficial for bodybuilding, but since it does allow for replenishing glycogen stores it can also be used as a way to carb load before an endurance event.