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Everything You Need to Know About Carb-Loading

At some point in your athletic career, and especially if you're a distance runner or endurance athlete of any kind, you'll have come across the term "carb-loading" or "carbo-loading." With it comes the assumption that all you need to do to perform better in long-distance activities is pound carbs. Believe it or not, there's more to it than that — and many incredible athletes have it down to a science, including how much to eat, when to eat it, why, and what the expected outcome is. 

Sounds more complicated than you thought? We've got you. 

"Every triathlete's diet should contain carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, with a good amount of fruits and vegetables to help optimize calorie and nutrient intake." — Emma-Kate Lidbury

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Here is everything you need to know about carb-loading.

A History of Loading Up on Carbohydrates

The original carbohydrate loading studies were from a Scandinavian exercise therapist in the 60s. He determined through muscle biopsy that seven days of a high-carb diet created a "super-compensation" of glycogen in the muscles, resulting in longer cycling time. What's the goal of carb-loading? A buildup of muscle glycogen for prolonged exercise.

These studies pioneered the classic 7-day carb-loading cycle that many athletes still follow: 3-4 days of a depleted carb, high training schedule followed by 3-4 days of elevated carb intake and reduced training. The goal isn't to run faster; it's to run longer, and carb-loading has been shown to do just that.

Why Carbo Load?

Extra energy storage sounds fantastic all around, doesn't it? So, who actually needs to carb-load, and why do they do it?

Generally, excess carbs (aka. glycogen stored in your muscles) come in handy for activities that last longer than 90 minutes. Think of marathon running, triathlons, long-distance swimming or cycling, etc. Activities that require short bursts of energy, like basketball games or weight lifting, don't require the same kind of energy storage.

By storing glycogen, athletes have access to more of their body's preferred energy source for more extended periods, ultimately delaying fatigue. In short, you can run further and longer before you get tired. Carb loading is thought to improve performance in endurance athletes by 2-3%.

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When to Eat Carbs

If you've determined that you're an endurance athlete who wants to give it a shot, there are a few options and strategies to make it most effective for the day of the event, ranging from easy to more stringent. They're laid out in more detail in this Healthline article.

1. The One Day

The easiest carb-loading method involves a single day. You don't train for one day before your event and you load up on carbs — about 4.5 grams per pound of body weight. Is it as effective as building up that glycogen storage in your muscles over time with minimized training? No. However, it's a way to give yourself a bit of a boost.

2. The Three Day

There are a couple options for the three-day program. The first is that you exercise your body to exhaustion at the beginning of your three days. Then, proceed to eat a high-carb diet without further training. The diet for both three-day methods should be around 70% carbs. The second option is to simply stop exercising for all three days while consuming that high-carb diet.

The depletion at the beginning of the process is thought to allow your body to retain more glycogen and enhance the loading stage. However, by upping your intake over the three days before an event, you should still manage to retain excess glycogen (if you've eaten correctly).

3. The Six Day

The six-day or seven-day carbohydrate loading cycle is what we touched on before with our Scandinavian friend. You follow your training regime for the first three days while consuming a low-carb diet (about 15% of your food intake). This sufficiently depletes your stores and readies the body for that super-compensation. Then, for the three days leading up to your event, you don't train at all and consume a high-carb diet — loading for the big day. A modified version of this follows three days of a moderate carb diet (50%) followed by three days of a high carb diet (70%) with a gradual decrease in the amount of exercise you perform throughout the six days. Ultimately, the final three days should see 0-20 minutes of exercise.

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How Much to Eat?

The amount of carbohydrates to eat depends on the athlete, training demands, and a million other factors affecting how your body stores and uses carbs. The general rule of thumb is 3.6 to 5.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.

What Do You Eat?

Not all carbs are equal, so while consuming the right amount of carbs is essential, you also want to ensure you're eating the right kind of carbs.

There are three main kinds of carbs:
1. Simple Carbs
2. Complex Carbs
3. Dietary Fiber

Simple carbs are sugars! These are absorbed and used quickly by the body as energy. Think of foods like fruit, milk products, and a lot of processed foods. Complex carbohydrates are starches — things like potatoes and grains. Complex carbs burn slowly, providing a more prolonged energy release than simple carbs. Finally, dietary fiber is not digested by our bodies. It can be insoluble or soluble and usually comes from fruits and veggies.

You'll want to focus your carb loading on complex carbs for the best results, as our bodies store starchy carbs the best. So, potatoes, pasta, rice, oats, sweet potatoes, etc. are your friends.

Common Carb-Loading Mistakes

If you're keen to give it a try, then it's critical to heed these common mistakes. The number one pitfall? Not trying it out during training! DO NOT try carb loading for the first time before a big event. As you can see, there are a lot of different approaches to this type of diet and strategy, so you need to take the time to find what works best for you and your sport. Practice makes perfect. Try things out and listen to your body.

Here are a few other common mistakes:
👉Not consuming enough carbs.
👉Overeating in calories.
👉Ignoring other crucial nutrients like protein.
👉Forgetting to hydrate.
👉Choosing the wrong foods and type of carbs.
👉Over-consuming fiber.
👉Doing it when you don't need to.
👉Over-exercising.
👉Upping fat intake.

Triathlete does a pretty good breakdown of how to eat, what to eat, why to eat, and what to watch out for — especially for female athletes. Watch for common pitfalls and be patient with finding what works best for you, your body, and your results.

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To Carb or Not to Carb

While it would be incredible to eat a bowl of pasta and call it good, you can see that carbo-loading takes a lot of thought, planning, and practice to get it right (much like any diet). If you have the resources, consult your trainer or dietician before starting your carb-loading journey. Remember, depending on your sport, you may not need to carb load at all. Consider if it's really worthwhile for you before giving it a try.

"Carbs give you strength, and you want to be as strong and as aware as you want to be when you're inside, and you want to push for that extra rep. It helps a lot." — Method Man

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