Carbo-loading: Tips for Endurance Athletes
By Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD
Does carbo-loading mean stuffing myself with pasta?
While carbo-loading sounds simple (just stuff yourself with pasta, right?), the truth is many endurance athletes make food mistakes that hurt their performance. The last thing you want after having trained for months is to ruin your performance with poor nutrition, so carbo-load correctly!
The biggest change in your schedule during the week before your event should be in your training, not in your food. Don't be tempted to do any last-minute long sessions! You need to taper your training so that your muscles have adequate time to become fully fueled (and healed). Allow at least two easy or rest days pre-event.
You need not eat hundreds more calories this week. You simply need to exercise less. This way, the 600 to 1,000 calories you generally expend during training can be used to fuel your muscles. All during this week, you should maintain your tried-and-true high-carbohydrate training diet. Drastic changes can easily lead to upset stomachs, diarrhea, or constipation. For example, carbo-loading on an unusually high amount of fruits and juices might cause diarrhea. Too many white flour, low fiber bagels, breads, and pasta might clog your system. As Marathon King Bill Rodgers once said "More marathons are won or lost in the porta-toilets than they are at the marathon..." Fuel wisely, not like a chow hound.
Be sure that you carbo-load, not fat-load. Some athletes eat gobs of butter on a dinner roll, big dollops of sour cream on a potato, and enough dressing to drown a salad. These fatty foods fill both the stomach and fat cells but leave muscles poorly fueled. The better bet is to trade the fats for extra carbohydrates. That is: instead of devouring one roll with butter for 200 calories, have two plain rolls for 200 calories. Enjoy pasta with tomato sauce rather than oil or cheese toppings. Choose low-fat frozen yogurt, not gourmet ice cream.
NYC Marathon Queen Grete Waitz once said she never ate a very big meal the night before a marathon, as it usually would give her trouble the next day. She preferred to eat a bigger lunch. You, too, might find that pattern works well for your intestinal tract. That is, instead of relying upon a huge pasta dinner the night before the event, you might want to enjoy a substantial carb-fest at breakfast or lunch. This earlier meal allows plenty of time for the food to move through your system. You can also carbo-load two days before if you will be too nervous to eat much the day before the event. (The glycogen stays in your muscles until you exercise.) Then graze on crackers, chicken noodle soup, and other easily tolerated foods the day before your competition.
You'll be better off eating a little bit too much than too little the day before the event, but don't overstuff yourself. Learning the right balance takes practice. Hence, each long training session leading up to the endurance event offers the opportunity to learn which food-and how much of it-to eat. I repeat: During training, be sure to practice your pre-event carbo-loading meal so you'll have no surprises on the day of the event!
Athletes who have properly carbo-loaded should gain about one to three pounds-but don't panic! This weight gain is good; it reflects water weight and indicates you have done a good job of fueling your muscles. For every ounce of carb stored in your body, you store almost three ounces water.
Be sure to drink extra water, juices, and even soda pop, if desired. Abstain from too much wine, beer, and alcoholic beverages; they are not only poor sources of carbs, but are also dehydrating. Drink enough alcohol-free beverages to produce a significant volume of urine every two to four hours. The urine should be pale yellow, like lemonade. Don't bother to overhydrate; your body is like a sponge and can absorb just so much fluid.
Many endurance athletes eat only carbs and totally avoid protein-rich foods the days before their event. Bad idea. Your body needs protein on a daily basis. Hence, you can and should eat a small serving of low-fat proteins such as poached eggs, yogurt, turkey, or chicken as the accompaniment to most meals (not the main focus), or plant proteins such as beans and lentils (as tolerated).
Carb-loading is just part of the fueling plan. What you eat on the day of the event is critically important and helps to spare your limited muscle glycogen stores. So fuel yourself wisely both before and during the event-and hopefully you will enjoy miles of smiles!
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD is Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics. She counsels casual and competitive athletes in her private practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Cyclist's Food Guide, and Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for everyday Champions all offer additional information about how to prepare for endurance events. See www.nancyclarkrd.com and www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com for more details.
Tools for Carbo-loading
When carbo-loading, you want to consume about 3 to 5 grams carbohydrates per pound of body weight. (This comes to a diet with about 60% of calories from carbohydrates.) Divide your target grams of carbohydrates into three parts of the day (breakfast+snack; lunch+snack; dinner+ snack),and choose foods to hit our target! You can find carbohydrate info on food labels and www.fitday.com
7:00 a.m.-noon; noon-5:00 pm; 5:00-10:00 pm
100 lbs 300 to 500 g 100 to 175 g
Breakfast: 830 cals, 75% carb
Lunch: 970 cals, 65% carb
Apple, 1 large 120 30
Snack total: 240 cals; 90% carb
Chicken breast, 5 ounces 250 --
Dinner: 800 cals; 60% carb
TOTAL Menu #1 3,200 547 g
Breakfast: 800 cals; 75% carb
Lunch: 980 cals; 80% carb
Snack: 480 cals; 85% carb
Dinner: 940 cals; 80% carb
Snack: 200 cals; ~100% carb
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