Follow the Registered Dietitian approved tips for carb loading for your next half marathon, marathon or triathlon. And grab this sample high carb meal plan to have your best race ever.
The days leading up to a race are crucial for your nutrition. You’ve likely heard that you should carb load, but there are so many questions about why this helps and how to do it properly. Does that mean you have a license to pound pasta, bagels, bananas and rice? Sort of. But there are some carb loading rules to ensure you’re doing it efficiently, so you can reap the most benefits.
Let’s take a look at four questions you might have about carb loading and a sample carb-loading meal plan.
1. WTF is carb loading?
Carbs are the primary fuel source for exercise, making them incredibly important for athletes. [Read more about carbs in this post about tracking macros.] The body actually stores carbs in something called glycogen, which is in the liver and muscles.
During exercise, the body relies on two forms of carbs for fuel. The first is dietary carbs—the ones you ate before the race—and the second is stored glycogen. The point of carb loading is to train your body to store up as much glycogen as possible so you have energy on reserve.
Usually, glycogen stores only last for about 30 minutes during exercise. The purpose of carb loading is to try to extetnd that 30-minuttet window and make sure you have as much glycogen stored as possible. It’s essentially filling up your gas tank with as much energy as possible to reduce time to fatigue.
Well-trained athletes have higher glycogen stores than less-trained athletes.
2. When should I start carb loading?
Although carb loading sounds like an endless pasta party, it’s actually more difficult than you may think. Because of that, you don’t want to start too early. Begin 2 to 3 days before a race to give your muscles time to build their glycogen stores.
The other rule to keep in mind is that exercising depletes glycogen stores, and this counteracts your carb loading efforts. That means you need to rest in the 2 to 3 days leading up to the race.
3. How much carbs should I eat?
About 80% of your daily calories should come from carbs. The average carb is 45-60% of daily calories, so that’s quite a bit more.
Another slightly different recommendation suggests eating 4 grams of carbs per pound of body weight. For a 120 pounds person, that’s 480 grams of carbs per day. That means most of your diet will consist of grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans. Drinking juices, sports drinks or coconut water can also help reach this high level of carb intake.
Avoif the unhealthy types of carbs, like fried food, desserts and soda. That said, it’s not the end of the world if you want to add a cookie or piece of candy to your daily carb loading routine.
4. For what events do I need to carb load?
There’s no need to carb load if you’re participating in a low intensity event or something that is shorter than an hour, such as a 5k run. If you carb load for these events, you won’t burn off everything you consume and might even gain weight.
Carb loading is best before a half marathon, marathon, triathlon, long bike race, long swim or any continuous activity that lasts longer than an hour.
Carb loading meal plan
I’m using a 150-pound person and 4g carbs/pound— around 600 g carbs
- 1/2 cup dry oats, made with 1/2 cup low-fat milk (1%) and 1/2 cup water. Topped with 1/2 cup mixed berries and 1 tablespoon of nut butter
- 1 banana
- 8 ounces orange juice
- Carb total: 125 g
- 2 Nature Valley Oat n Honey Bars + 4 Medjool Dates
- Carbs: 90 g
- Sandwich: 2 slices of white bread, 3 ounces deli turkey, 1 ounce swiss cheese, tomato slices
- 1/2 cup roasted chickpeas
- 1 cup grapes
- 8-ounces chocolate milk
- Carb total: 150 grams
- Medium sweet potato (microwaved), topped with cinnamon
- 1 ounce dark chocolate
- 8 ounces coconut water
- Carbs total: 80 gram
- 1.5 cups cooked white rice + 1.5 cup cooked butternut squash + 4 ounces grilled chicken
- side salad (about 1-2 cups of lettuce and veggies combined)
- 16 ounces sports drink
- Carbs total: 155 g