When Should I Start Carb Loading for A Race?

I know as a runner you’ve heard, seen about or probably even tried carb loading but you want to know is carb loading the thing you should do before a race?

I know as a runner you’ve heard, seen about or probably even tried carb loading but you want to know is carb loading the thing you should do before a race?

If you haven’t been with me here on the channel before, I’m Jesse Funk. This is a show I call Runner’s High, where we talk about everything running. And today, you want to know, should you and when should you start carb loading before a race. Now, I should preface this with saying I’m not a dietitian. I’m not a nutritionist. But I have lots of lots of history in trying this out talking to experts, which happens every Friday here on the channel, the Smart Athlete Podcast. So, again, hit that subscribe button, stick around. But I will say that carb loading is a long and storied thing in the running community, in the endurance community if you’re a triathlete.

Now, I want to say once and for all, it’s not necessary. We don’t need to do it. You don’t need to do it at all. So, should you start it? When should you start it? And the answer is basically never. Now that comes with a caveat. Now that caveat is that if you are eating enough carbs, normally you don’t need to carb load. So, through the various experts I’ve talked to on the Smart Athlete Podcast, I know from these primary sources, the people doing the research that we basically have enough muscle glycogen from the food we eat normally to not need to do this. There is the idea that you’re going to super load your muscles and you’re going to have all this energy. Well, if you go past the point of saturation for muscle glycogen, it just turns into fat, which we don’t necessarily want, although we can still use that as fuel depending on how fast you’re going. But you’re not going to get an extra amount, like there’s not a super compensation amount of muscle glycogen.

So, if you’re eating enough normally, carbs are something you normally do, then it’s not something that you have to worry about. You just go about your regular diet, and there you go. Done. No need to worry about it. But I have been through this. I’ve done a number of things over the years where I had these rituals that involved carb loading, and they varied from what you would think of as like pasta parties in high school where we would go to somebody’s house, their parents would cook a meal and we’d all eat a ton of pasta the night before the race. That’s a terrible idea because you are going to be so full and still digesting all of that food the next day, you’re probably going to feel terrible for the race. But if you want to carb load, if you still think this has some efficacy, I’m going to give you a couple tips, things you can do instead.

Now these tips like the beginning of it come with a caveat in that extra carbs really aren’t needed for races and exercise under 90 minutes. Now, sugars have gotten a bad rap, carbs have gotten a bad rap, and there’s a lot of low carb information out there that says don’t ever eat carbs. As endurance athletes, that’s simply not true. We need them. We can use them for glycogen. But under 90 minutes, it’s not really necessary to carb load. That’s why consequently, I’m actually working on a next generation sports drink that does not involve carbs because even for me, the vast majority of my workouts are going to be under 90 minutes. So, you don’t really need to be taking in sugars for workouts like that.

But back on track, if you want to carb load, do it two or three nights before your race. And this is basically just insurance, right? It is insurance to make sure you’re going to get enough muscle glycogen and be topped up all the way. You’re going into your taper. And you want to avoid that scenario I mentioned earlier, when we’re talking about high school and pasta parties. You want to avoid having all this food in your gut still digesting the morning of the race, especially because you’re going to get nervous, you’re going to need to go to the bathroom a bunch of times. It’s really uncomfortable. You want something easy to digest as your pre-race meal.

Now, what are you going to eat for your carb loading? I’ll give you a couple suggestions that I’ve had, things that I’ve eaten, but things that you should look at as well. Of course there is the tried and true pasta dinner. This could be anything. It could be white pasta, wheat pasta, it runs the gamut. I will say if you’re not used to eating wheat pasta, first, you have to be careful that you’re actually getting wheat pasta. But second, it has more fibers so it can potentially cause GI issues.

That’s why, especially, you don’t want to try that the night before a race. Again, a mantra I say all the time, nothing new on race day. Well, that goes for the night before the race as well. It’s all kind of lumped together, nothing new. Don’t try this right before a race. But pasta is a tried and true carb, we can dress it a hundred different ways. More than that, obviously, I’m under exaggerating somehow with a hundred. But it is a thing you can go to.

Now, I will tell you that my ritualistic carb of choice for a long time was actually ice cream. Now, ice cream, the reason I got into doing this was because in college, I ate basically a half gallon of ice cream the night before I broke 16 for the first time, which was like a 32nd PR for me at the time. And you know how we do where we try to lump things together and say this is the thing that made me go so and do this thing. And now there may have been some efficacy to it.

I was eating cheap ice cream and that’s an important distinction. Now I make ice cream now like this super delicious toasted marshmallow s’mores ice cream, but it has a much higher fat content. So, you don’t want to get good ice cream because that extra fat again, can cause GI issues and that is what we do not want. But when you’re talking about carb loading, carb sources are carb sources, basically.

When you’re replenishing muscle glycogen, your body’s going to use whatever is available. So, in my case, I loved ice cream. I had that superstition going on that if I ate the ice cream, I would be as fast as I could possibly be. And I eventually got out of that in part because milk also has an inflammatory response, which is not great for racing.

So, there’s lots of things to take into consideration. But the point really is pick what you think you want to eat. If you want to eat pasta, great. If you want to eat cheap ice cream, great. Don’t overdo it. When you feel full, stop eating. That’s your body saying I’m done. Because you’re going to get plenty of carbs if you’re eating a well-rounded diet to begin with.

Now, you may be wondering, is there anything else you can do nutrition wise, that’s important to make sure you perform at your peak level? And the answer is yes. This is actually a tip that comes from a friend of mine, Todd Buckingham, or Dr. Tom Buckingham, as I refer to him on the Smart Athlete Podcast. I know Todd for a number of years and he is the head of the sport performance lab at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Center. Todd works with athletes and people of all capacities in his lab.

But he is also amateur national and world champion in triathlon. So, he’s got the credentials to go with his suggestion. And his suggestion to me in particular, because I have such a hard time in heat, is that you can preload electrolytes. That is that you’re going to take in up to 1,500 milligrams of electrolytes the day before a race to make sure you’re retaining enough water to get the most out of your body.

There is mixed results in various studies about this. But it often replies just to the race itself, because you’ll see there are often top performers who become dehydrated throughout the race. And this more so has to do with you don’t want to enter a state of hyponatremia versus being dehydrated. If you have to pick of the two, dehydration is probably the way to go. People can often perform at better levels there. The two states are basically hyponatremia where you are drinking water, you’re not drinking an electrolyte of some sort and the volume of water in your body versus the amount of sodium has become too high. So, there’s too little sodium and other electrolytes in your body.

Versus dehydrated where it goes the other direction where the amount of water content has gone down so the concentration of electrolytes has gone up. That’s why it’s very important to in a longer setting, again, we’re talking definitely over 60 minutes, but 60, 90 and beyond to be drinking some kind of electrolyte during your race to continue to perform at optimal speed.

But you can preload, especially for those shorter races, you can preload anything under an hour, you know, 5K, 10K depending on your speed. You preload the day before and then know that hey, I’ve got this stuff ready to go for the race in that shorter duration, you’re going to be fine, because you’re not going to lose enough water in that period of time to really negatively affect your performance. So, I would focus more on preloading electrolytes than I would on carbohydrates if you’re having normal meals, you’re eating normally, and you’re eating a wide, varied diet. It’s really not going to be a huge deal to try to get those extra carbs in. But as mentioned earlier, if you want to use it as a little excuse to have a treat, go ahead. You’ve worked hard, you’re getting ready to race, it’s fine to do that.

Are there any other long-held rules of running you want to know, are they real? Do they have any efficacy? Do they actually make sense, and should we follow them? Leave them down in the comments below, let me know what you want me to do a video on in the future. I’ll see you next time on the next episode of Runner’s High.


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