Carb-loading Myths Debunked: The Carb Loading Strategy

If you are into endurance sport, no doubts you will have heard of the phrase “carb-loading”. It sounds intriguing enough, so what exactly does it entail.

What exactly is carb-loading?

Simply put, it’s a strategy used primarily by endurance athletes to maximise the storage of glycogen (a fancy name for energy) in the muscles and liver. The objective of the carb-loading being one of trying to improve on one’s own performance by making use of these additional energy stores.

Why would one assume carb-loading to be effective and why do it?

If your event lasts longer than 90 minutes, then carbo-loading might be something you want to try. This is the time period it takes for the muscles being worked over continuously to become depleted of their glycogen stores

How do I carb-load?

There are a number of different carb-loading strategies that one can follow. Most importantly to remember, you will only carb-load for an endurance event that spans more than 90 minutes in duration. For the average Joe Bob who is a little slower than the faster athletes, this may mean an event that spans longer than 2-3hrs. It’s not to be performed for the local park run or super sprint triathlon.

The period of loading the body with additional carbohydrate stores will also depend on your level of taper heading into the event you have ear-marked as the target.

1 Week Carb-Loading protocol example

  • This will span 6 days in total with the 7th day being race day itself
  • What you will need to do is perform a muscle glycogen level depleting exercise 6 days prior to race day. This may involve some high intensity sprinting on the run and some hard interval efforts on the bike for example.
  • You then will use the next 3 days to taper. This involves rest and minimal exercise, with longer rest periods and shorter intense effort followed by a normal dietary intake.
  • 3 days before the competition, you then further reduce the amount of training and exercise whilst consuming a low fat higher carb-diet intake.

What can one expect when you carb-load as above?

We recommend you try this in training beforehand.

Any dietary changes can result in intestinal problems and as we all know, this is not something you will want to deal with on race day during an endurance event that spans a few hours – test the process well in advance so you know it works for you

Don’t neglect the protein intake

Protein can act as a secondary source of energy

Expect some water weight gain

This will come with the added intake of the carbs. It’s important not to panic in the know that come race day. all this fuel will be burned up to good effect. Race weight should normalise once the race is done and dusted.

Add in some extra fiber

Too many refined carbohydrates could result in constipation, so you might want to add in some extra fiber to balance this equation out. This is one reason you will need to practice this protocol in training well in advance of race day, so there are no nasty surprises during race week. There is nothing worse than seeing all those training miles logged go down the drain because of the change in your daily diet, 3-4 days out from the end game.


What can I eat as part of my carb-loading strategy?

Besides consuming additional supplements in the form of carb-rich energy drinks which most of the sports nutritional manufacturers cater for, you can use a vast array of food sources to add to the carbo-loading protocol

10 Good Food Sources you can try that are rich in carbohydrates

  1. Toast with honey spread. …
  2. Fresh Fruit (Apples/Banana’s) as well as dried fruit options. …
  3. Energy bars (most of the big players will have these as part of their product selection
  4. Boiled Jacket Potato with a tuna topping. …
  5. Pasta with chicken and asparagus. …
  6. Porridge/Oats with milk topped with some fruit. (Banana slices/strawberries)…
  7. Turkey sandwich on wholegrain bread. …
  8. Grilled salmon and whole grain rice.

Can Carb-loading be bad for me?

For most athletes, no. But, there are instances where carb-loading raises the insulin levels in the blood and this will further aggravate and complicate the symptoms of diabetes. For diabetics, carb-loading should be undertaken with a cautious approach and perhaps with some additional medical advice. This is especially important for insulin users as this can cause hyperglycemia before, during, and/or after exercise if adequate insulin is not taken as part of the loading process.

Rule of thumb: If in doubt, seek some sound additional medical advice before embarking on a carb-loading protocol.


5 Must-Know Myths about Carb-Loading

1. Eat as much pasta as you can the night before the event

We have all been to that event where the pre-banquet pasta dinner is normally part of the entry-price package. The problem with consuming too much pasta the night before a big event is that the body can only absorb X-amount of carbs – what you then find is a lot of food is still sitting in the stomach come race start and this creates that bloated feeling and additional gastrointestinal distress. The recommendation is to consume the carbohydrates gradually over the course of the 6 days prior to race day.

2. You will gain weight

This much is true but its more water weight add-ons than actual weight gain from fat. Don’t stand on the scale leading into race day, this might ease your frustration and discomfort levels. Come the end of race day, you should be back feeling completely normal. Water weight will not slow you down on race day and can, in fact, help you stay hydrated during the race itself

3. I can now eat all the junk food I want

As we know, junk food does not do much for performance or our bodies in general so why load up on pizza, creamy pasta, doughnuts and ice-cream just because they are rich in carbohydrates?

Rather opt for whole carbs from quinoa, brown rice, fruit, sweet potatoes and legumes as additional sources of foods rich in carbohydrates.

4. You need to consume a ton of calories

If carb-loading is done the right way, this should not result in any fat weight gain at all. Keep your calorie intake close to normal – you just eat more carbs in this instance and less fats. Keep the protein intake as per normal as this will ensure the muscles are recovered, stay strong and are ready to go come race day.

5. You can carb-load for short events as well

We all naturally have glycogen stores (energy) within the muscle and any event that takes less than 60 minutes or so will not significantly reduce those glycogen stores. So, don’t go to all the effort of a carb-loading protocol if you are not going to require additional energy supply. Short events = no carb-loading required

In conclusion…

There are a number of ways in which to carry out a carb-loading protocol. What is important to remember is that we are not all the same and will react differently. No two athletes are exactly the same so its highly recommended you do this in training a few times before embarking on it come the all-important race week

Good Luck!