How To Know If You Should Carb-Load Before Your Big Race

should i carb load before a race

Unsplash/Keri Liwi

Long-distance runners and novice joggers alike have heard the phrase “carb-loading,” and many of them have attempted it before lacing up and pounding the pavement. But it turns out that a lot of people don’t know when it’s best to use this energy-sustaining strategy and how exactly to go about it. So we’re here to clear up the confusion.

What Is Carb-Loading

When you eat carbohydrates, your body digests and stores them as glycogen in your liver and in your muscles. Glycogen is the primary energy source for your muscles. When they’re fully loaded, you feel stable and sustained during exercise. But when those stores are depleted, you hit the proverbial wall because your body then has to switch gears and begin burning stored fat in lieu of glycogen while also exerting itself. That’s a lot of work.

Here’s where the concept of carb-loading comes in. Your muscles can retain a surprisingly high amount of glycogen when you temporarily increase your overall carbohydrate intake and decrease your level of physical exertion. Carb-loading allows you to take full advantage of energy storage in your muscles before an athletic event so you can avoid losing steam before you cross the finish line.

When You Should Carb-Load

Just because you’re about to throw on some leggings and head out for a run doesn’t mean you need to employ this glycogen-hoarding tactic. In fact, research suggests that unless your planned activity is going to take a minimum of 90 minutes, it’s very unlikely that you’ll deplete the energy stored in your muscles to warrant a carb-load plan in the first place.

Half-marathoners and marathoners, as well as long-distance cyclists, can benefit from a carb-loading plan a few days before a race, but if you’re tackling a 5K or 10K (depending on how fast you are), you should probably just stick to your typical eating patterns and down a few extra bottles of water in the 24 hours before your run.

should i carb load before a race

The Best Way To Do It

There are a handful of methods out there that vary the number of days you carb-load, the macronutrient ratios you follow and the amount of time you exercise while carb-loading. And at the end of the day, you need to experiment with the various formats (well before your race day!) to see which one feels best in your body. But regardless of the carb-loading plan you decide you follow, there are a few tips that will make your race prepping a lot more successful.

Keep an eye on your fat intake. When you carb-load, it’s very easy to overdo it with fat at the same time. You want butter on your bread, right? Or how about a cream sauce on top of that big plate of pasta? That’s what we thought. Well, eating too much fat as you carb-load can leave you feeling really sluggish and out of sorts rather than full of energy and ready to go.

Skip high-fiber foods. This is one of the few times when we’ll tell you to tip the nutritional scales in the direction of white bread, white rice and white potatoes instead of toward complex carbohydrates. While fiber is healthy for you and an important component of a balanced diet, too much of it can lead to gastrointestinal distress, which is something you definitely don’t want to experience before, during or after your big race. What’s more, high-fiber carbohydrates take longer to digest, and the entire goal of carb-loading is to break down carbohydrates and store them as energy relatively quickly.

Stick with what you know. Don’t wait until you’re wrapping up your marathon training program to start experimenting with new foods. You never know what might not sit so well with your stomach, so reach for familiar eats until after race day. And remember: The simpler, the better.

Now go enjoy a French baguette for us!

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