Beer and Burgers or the Michael Scott Style?
Is Michael Scott onto something with his ‘carbo loading’ fettucine? Or are beer and burgers a better choice? Which carb loading style can be beneficial for an endurance athlete and their overall performance?
Let me answer all your questions, so that you can have a strategy like Pam where you’re “gonna start fast, then run fast in the middle, and then gonna end fast.”
The concept of carbohydrate loading has been studied for decades. One of the first recorded instances of carb loading being used by a professional athlete was in the 1969 European Athletics Championships marathon by a runner named Ron Hill. He used a high carb diet right before the race in an effort to avoid the ‘bonking’ a runner experiences when their glycogen stores run out and consequently their physical performance suffers. He was able to come from behind and win the race with an exceptionally strong finish. From there, the word spread of Hill’s carb loading diet and has since spurred on the famous ‘pasta parties’ the night before a race.
Sounds fun to me, but what do we know now?
Carbohydrate loading aims to maximize an athlete’s muscle glycogen stores prior to an endurance exercise that lasts longer than 90 minutes. Research has found this to have some significant benefits. Carb loading delays the onset of fatigue by about 20% which can be the difference between finishing the race strong and running out of energy. It can also improve your overall performance by 2-3%. The key here, is that these benefits are found in athletes competing in events that last longer than 90 minutes (ie: marathon running, triathlons, distance cycling). The same is not observed in events shorter than 90 minutes nor necessarily with stop/start activities like hockey or soccer. In these cases, performance level will remain the same as if they didn’t carb load to begin with. However, tournaments are a different barrel of cookies where start/stop athletes could possibly benefit their performance from loading up their stores with carbs before the big weekend. But that’s a different story for another day.
How does one achieve the all-mighty carb load?
The ‘classic’ regime takes place in the week before an event and involves a three-day glycogen depleting phase where intense exercise is paired with very low carbohydrate consumption. This is followed by a loading phase that includes three days of reduced training with high carbohydrate intake right before the competition. This isn’t ideal for all athletes and some studies have indicated that athletes can achieve maximized glycogen stores without the need for the depletion phase; rather, just tapering exercise and eating a high carb diet. Further research has also indicated that 24 hours may be sufficient for some athletes to maximize their glycogen stores and make them race ready. However, the current recommendation suggests to increase carb intake (10-12 g/kg body weight per 24 hours) for 36-48 hours prior to an event while also tapering training.
The benefits of carb loading have the potential to far outweigh the risks, but I will tell them to you anyway. Carb loading can result in some weight gain (more carbs mean more water retention!) which can be uncomfortable come race day. Higher amounts of carbs can also cause digestive upset if too much fiber is consumed within the 48-hour period. Take caution in your choices and eat foods you know your body can handle. Some common high carb, lower fiber foods that you can use are: bagels, banana, pasta, fruit juice, oatmeal, rice, potato, milk, corn, yogurt, cereal and meal replacement liquids.
So, you’ve come to race day and you’re wondering if you should or shouldn’t have breakfast, right?
Again, this is going to be based on individual preference and what you know your body can handle. On the up side, carbohydrates eaten within 1-4 hours prior to an event have been shown to increase muscle glycogen stores, increase carbohydrate oxidation, delay fatigue, and improve exercise performance. Depending on your tolerance, 1-4 g/kg BW is recommended. Choose foods that are high in carb and low in fat, protein, and fibre to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal problems during your race. This is the only time I will tell you that fruit juice and white bread can be used, so take advantage!
To round this out, I want to bring you back to Mr. Scott’s race day nutrition. Eating a bowl of fettucine alfredo minutes before the race is not ideal and will likely result in you getting a second chance to taste it as it comes back up. However, he is right about wanting to ‘carbo load’ to help him perform at his best and sadly, beers with burgers doesn’t count (Sorry folks!). Choosing high carb, easy to digest foods are going to be your best bet and don’t forget about the importance of timing. I can’t stress enough to try out your nutrition strategies before race day so that you know exactly how your body will react and there are no surprises that may compromise your performance.
Follow the guidelines I have outlined above or come see me at STRIDE for a more in-depth, individualized plan that fits your goals.
- Solga, Christopher (MS, RDN). 2015. Basics of Carb-Loading for Sports Performance. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. http://www.eatright.org/resource/fitness/sports-and-performance/fueling-your-workout/basics-of-carbohydrate-loading-for-sports-performance
- Beck, K. L., Thomson, J. S., Swift, R. J., & von Hurst, P. R. 2015. Role of nutrition in performance enhancement and postexercise recovery. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. 6: 259–267. doi 10.2147/OAJSM.S33605
- Hawley JA, Schabort EJ, Noakes TD, Dennis SC. 1997. Carbohydrate-loading and exercise performance. An update. Sports Med. 24(2):73–81. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4540168/#b7-oajsm-6-259
- AIS Sports Nutrition. 2014. “Carbohydrate Loading”. © Australian Sports Commission. https://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/sports_nutrition/fact_sheets/carbohydrate_how_much
- Burke LM, Hawley JA, Wong SH, Jeukendrup AE. 2011. Carbohydrates for training and competition. J Sports Sci. 29(Suppl 1):S17–S27. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2011.585473