Carbohydrate Loading to Improve Athletic Performance
Carbohydrate loading prior to a competition is a strategy that many athletes employ to maximize glycogen stores in their muscles. Glycogen is a long chain of glucose molecules that the liver creates from any blood glucose molecules that aren’t utilized immediately following a meal. Glycogen can then be stored in the body for future use when extra energy is required. It is estimated that this carbohydrate-loading approach helps to improve performance by approximately 2-3%, and is suitable for endurance sports lasting longer than 90 minutes.
Carbohydrate loading may provide results for competitors engaging in any sport where you perform at high intensity for an hour and a half or longer. Cyclists, marathon runners, kayakers, triathletes, cross-country skiers, and endurance swimmers can all benefit from carbohydrate loading.
How is it done?
Carbohydrate loading has two elements.
First, the athlete will need to reduce, or taper off, training from one to four days prior to the competition. Some people have found that a longer period of tapering off provides better results, while others find that they only need to taper off exercise for a day or two. Testing this out for yourself, well before a major competition, as a part of your training, will indicate what works best for you.
Second, the athlete will want to follow a high carbohydrate diet, consuming between 7-12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight for up to four days prior to the competition event. During this time, athletes should stick to a low-fat, moderate protein diet where carbohydrates make up 70% of total calorie intake.
Many are unaware that the fuel for muscles is provided for by the meals that are consumed 2 to 3 days prior to the event as opposed to the food that is eaten immediately before the competition itself.
How Does it Work?
Usually, the glycogen that is stored in your muscles is used up after you exercise for about 90 minutes. The carb loading approach is designed to store extra glycogen in your muscles so that you can continue to perform at peak levels following the 90-minute mark.
It is important to try out the carbohydrate diet as a part of your training, to test out how it will work for you before a major competition.
- Most research on carbohydrate loading has been done on men, and some studies suggest that the method my not be as effective for women.
- Carb loading often causes a 2kg weight gain (mostly glycogen stored in muscles and water).
- Carb loading should be done as a part of a well-balanced sports diet containing adequate complex carbohydrates. Many athletes do not eat sufficient carbohydrates, or choose to eat simple carbs (high in sugar) as opposed to a recommended diet high in pasta, potatoes, breads, brown rice, and whole grains.
- Be sure to also drink plenty of water through the carb loading diet. Furthermore, it is recommended that athletes drink one ounce per ten pounds of body weight within four hours of the competition event.
Additional Resources, Including Suggested Meal Plans
Carbohydrate Loading. Australian Sports Commission, Australian Government.
Training Diet. Human Sciences Department, Iowa State University.
Carbohydrate Loading: 3 Effective Methods to Increase Your Chances of Marathon Success. Emily Brown for Runners Connect.
Nutrition for the Athlete. Anderson, J., Young, L., and Prior, S. for Colorado State University.
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