Carbo Loading: Fact or Fiction

carbsmainSeems spring has finally arrived here in southeast PA and after the winter we had it couldn’t have come soon enough! Grass in green again, flowers are blooming, and the trees are budding back to life. Other than the obvious indicators of spring returning one of the not so obvious signs to some is the return of outdoor athletic events that take a small hiatus over the winter, such as charity walks, 5Ks, half marathons, marathons, triathlons, etc. For some, these types of events were perhaps the goals of their training over the winter; or maybe they represent a chance to improve upon last year’s time; or maybe they’re just something fun to do for the physical activity. Whatever the reason and like most topics surrounding exercise type events, there are usually some circulating tales and myths of how to prepare and train properly. None of which could be any bigger than the concept of carbo loading.

What Does It Mean To Carbo Load?

When talking about nutrition as it pertains to weight loss, one can get swept up easily into the poor common fad diet recommendations such as fats are bad, carbs are bad, etc. However, when talking about physical performance, nutrition is all about fueling; fueling to provide enough energy for the physical work ahead. Is there really a difference between fueling to live versus fueling for performance? Yes, but it’s a lot simpler than you may think. At the cellular level, the body’s primary fuel source is glucose. It can get that by ingesting it (i.e. sugar); it can get it by breaking down stored glucose, otherwise known as glycogen; or it can get it through the costly negative effect of breaking down protein. In an athletic event such as a run or bike ride, the body’s primary fuel source remains glucose. Problem is, what do you do when it runs out? Hence the theory of carbo loading was born. In 1969, Ron Hill won the European Championship marathon having employed a technique termed carbohydrate loading which involved complete depletion of stored carbohydrate (training with little to no carbohydrate ingestion taking place) before entering a “loading” phase days prior to event to rebuild or “supercompensate” (eating primarily carbohydrates above normal rates) the body’s ability to store carbohydrate. Science has come a long way since then but the carb loading theory still exists. So is it a myth or does it have merit?

Pasta, Bread, Rice and Bagels, Oh My!

Carbo loading is not a myth but like most things nutritionally it can be taken to extremes. Research has shown there is little evidence to support carbohydrate loading for any event less than 60-90 minutes. In a well-structured training plan that has included sensible nutrition allowing for adequate carbohydrate AND fat and protein consumption, there’s no need to bolster carbohydrate intake. To be more specific, you wouldn’t get the most out of your physical training plan if you weren’t ingesting adequate carbohydrate during that time. Participating in an event that you poorly prepared for isn’t going to be magically rescued by “carbing” up days or the day before the event. Furthermore, the night before pasta dinners or bread fests that usually accompany these types of events have little to no effect physically and often times can cause more gastric distress issues. For events longer than 90 minutes, properly planned carb loading goes something a little more like this. About 3 – 4 days out from the event as the physical training should begin to diminish, carbohydrate intake should be increased a little bit more than what you would normally consume, approximately anywhere from 300 – 600 calories extra daily. That can easily be accomplished by adding a bowl of cereal at breakfast, or snacking on bagel during the day, an extra portion of pasta or rice with lunch or dinner. It isn’t necessary to overload your body with carbohydrate. All that matters is that you “top off” with what you might normally consume and make it a point to replenish carbs if and when possible during the event with portable fuel sources, such as fruit, gels, bars, or drinks. Understand that with increased carbohydrate intake comes increased water retention and that can certainly slow things down a bit.

Whether you participate in one of the mentioned events or not, the important message to understand is that food is fuel, whether just living or playing, and when taken to extremes can be detrimental to both arenas. If mentally you believe what you do works for you, then keep doing it. Just know that there is another level to reach, another minute to shave off, and another goal that can be achieved. Be smart and treat your body like the amazing machine it deserves to be treated.

Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.


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