How to carb load

Carb or carbo loading, is a method of ensuring you have enough energy for an endurance event. It is a technique that has been used to decades and is still used all the time for marathons, races and sportives. Whatever type of event you’re entering or trial you’re planning to undertake, it may have a part to play in your preparations.

Do I need to carb load?

The need to carb load depends on what you’re planning to do, your condition and what side of the carb loading fence you sit on.

On one side, you have those that eat buckets of pasta the night before to ensure they have enough glycogen to help see them through whatever they are facing. On the other, you have those who think cramming the night before doesn’t work for exams so why would it work for fitness?

The case for carb loading

Your body stores energy in the form of glycogen which is stored in the liver and muscles. The average male has between 1500 and 1800 calories stored this way. That is enough to fuel a runner or cyclist for around 90 minutes at a good pace. When you have used up this store, you bonk or “hit the wall.” We have covered bonking before and it isn’t a pleasant experience.

The principle of carb loading is to ensure your tanks are full before the race. Then, you can exercise for longer before that supply runs out and your body has to switch to metabolising fat for energy.

The case against carb loading

There is an equal movement against carb loading before an event and it revolves around metabolic efficiency. We covered this recently in “The benefits of fasted riding“. The idea is to teach the body to metabolise fat more efficiently to provide the energy for the event.

Glycogen stores are ready energy, quick to be converted and used by the muscles. Fat takes longer and needs to be metabolised before it can be used. This needs energy to do and takes time. The upside is that even the fittest of us has enough stored fat to fuel several hundred miles of cycling.

So before eating those bowls of pasta the night before an event, you need to decide which way you want to go. If you want to carb load, here’s how.

How to carb load

Ideally, you would begin loading 72 hours ahead of an event. You would taper your training in preparation and begin filling up on nutrients and carbs. The current thinking is to eat 10g of carbs for every kilo of body weight each day before the event.

During this time, around 85% of your diet should be carbohydrate. Drop the protein as you won’t need it in the run up to the event. Make sure you complement that carbohydrate with enough nutrients, vitamins and minerals you need to remain healthy too.

The night before, don’t eat a huge bowl of pasta. That will just make you feel bloated and could get in the way of a good night’s sleep. Eat a lighter meal, still heavy on carbs, earlier in the evening. Have a couple of light snacks before bed if you have to.

On the day of the event, have a good breakfast two to three hours before. Make sure to keep it still carb heavy but don’t eat so much that you will be exercising on a full stomach.

That’s all there is to it. Plan ahead, taper your exercise a few days ahead of the event and eat well. Don’t overdo meal sizes and you should have all the energy you need to accomplish your goals.


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