There is a long held belief that the night before a big endurance event, such as running a marathon, that carb loading will give you a great deal of benefit in dealing with the exertions of the following day. Many people actually swear by the pasta parties the night before a race, where spaghetti is the order of the day, before pulling on their running shoes the next morning.
But does it actually work? In this article I look at the science behind carb loading and the benefits you might be gaining by doing exactly this. However, we also look at how carb loading in isolation the night before a race can give you little benefit and can actually hinder your performance, and how planning can be of great benefit.
When exercising, both the muscles and the liver use glycogen, or stored glucose for their energy resources. The body will actually find glycogen from a large number of food types, but carbohydrates are converted to glucose easier than any other, so yes, carb loading does actually work, as you’ll gain that energy boost. Carb loading doesn’t just work with running of course, as any long lasting endurance fitness event such as cycling or swimming will also see the benefit of carb loading (triathletes who swim, cycle and run will certainly benefit!).
Carb loading only works if you are performing an endurance event which is over an hour and a half long, as it is only at this point that the body will actually run low on glycogen. So if a 20 minute run or a swift half an hour walk is the order of the day, by all means enjoy that pasta but don’t think it will give you any benefit at all.
The day before the big event you’ll want to increase your carb intake to be a large proportion of your total calorific intake, even as much as 80%. A good guide should be that you’ll intake 4 grams of carbs for every pound that you weigh, so as an example, someone clocking in at 140 pounds should aim for 560 grams of carbs. Your aim shouldn’t be to increase total calorific intake, as any weight gain will have a detrimental effect on your performance.
You’ll also need to manage fiber intake as some high carbohydrate foods can get their carbs from fiber. This can lead to bloating (as these foods can absorb the water) and tummy aches, which will make the endurance event only harder.
Carb loading in isolation the night before the event may actually be detrimental to your performance. This is because you’ll need to train your digestive system and a sudden massive change in your eating habits the night before the race can actually lead to stomach aches and pains the following morning, which is only going to hinder performance.
If you are going to carbo load the night before, you should be doing it to a smaller extent throughout your training. You can do this even if you have just a few days left before the event, ensuring at least 50% of your intake is from carbs.
You also have to be careful about which carbs you actually consume. Yes, pasta parties seem to be all the rage, but a variety of foods will give you the best preparation, including grains, minerals and antioxidants. Fruits are an excellent source of carbs, as they contain fiber and vitamins which will also help. Many people might turn to a pizza, but the variety of ingredients will actually mean that your body will be getting more fat than anything else, which will certainly not give your performance a boost the following day.
If you haven’t planned ahead with the carb loading and left it until the last minute, you’ll be better off eating a high carbs breakfast or lunch which will give your body time to digest it, before eating a normal dinner with maybe a carb based snack before sleep.
It’s clear that carb loading is a good strategy to employ the night before an endurance event, but only if done as part of a longer term plan. Eating a large bowl of spaghetti Bolognese the night before a race with no preparation beforehand may actually have a detrimental effect. However, if you have planned ahead in the days and weeks leading up to the race, carb loading the night before can be ideal and will keep those energy levels higher.
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