Should cyclists even bother with Carbohydrate loading?
The widely held longtime belief in the benefit of gorging on pasta the day before a big race is highly overrated, poorly understood, and deeply misguided. I know, I know, I KNOW…big killjoy here!
But please let me explain why the ‘pre-race banquet’ pasta dinners may not be the best option for you.
The Logic Behind the Theory of Carbo-Loading
Many cyclists in the virtual and real world prepare for big cycling events by loading up on carbohydrates. The belief is that this fueling strategy will maximize their body’s carbohydrate stores, known as glycogen, and provide a physiological advantage throughout the race.
Like many nutritional interventions, the premise behind carbohydrate loading is sound – build up your natural glycogen stores so that you have more energy during a race – but the application and practical implications fall short.
The Sports Nutrition Application of Carbo-Loading
For many of us who love breads, sweets, and noodles, carbo-loading seems to occur more naturally than perhaps desired. There exists, however, a sports nutrition application.
Some of the more popular strategies of carbo-loading include eating 9-12g/kg of carbs per day for 2-4 days prior to an event. This can be done by increasing dietary intake of carbohydrate rich foods, such as rice and breads, or even via supplements like maltodextrin powder.
Others may choose to carbo-load by consuming as many carbohydrates as possible the night before a race or big training day. Still others may reduce training while increasing carbohydrates in hopes of not utilizing the stored energy, and in turn, maximizing fuel availability.
These methods vary slightly from one to another, but do any of them actually work?
Research on the Effects of Carbo-Loading
Most of the research does in fact support an increase in glycogen levels following a carbo-load. Unfortunately, very few studies support any meaningful increases in performance, despite the increase in storage.
As reported by Burke et al. in a recent article published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, following 3 days of 9g/kg carbohydrate load, muscle glycogen levels increased in trained cyclists, but failed to show relevant effects on performance.
Negative Consequences of Carbo-Loading
Not only do cyclists not achieve better race finishes, many experience negative effects.
Carbo-loading often leads to gastro-intestinal distress, primarily bloating, because carbohydrate ingestion stores water, causing athletes to experience an undesirable ‘heavy’ feeling.
It also, like many parents of young children probably can attest to after feeding their youngsters pasta, carbs can bring on a ‘carb coma’.
Carb Coma (NOUN)
“the slow and ever increasing nodding off of children at the dinner table while concurrently forcing more and more spaghetti noodles into (and onto) their faces.”
None of these conditions are appealing physiological changes conducive to feeling ‘ready’ to ride or race. If you are like most cyclists looking for those marginal gains to secure podium finishes, however, there is a preferred way to take in more carbohydrates while minimizing the undesirable side-effects.
Steps to Take to Decrease the Negative Effects of Carbo-Loading
If you are an average cyclist who trains regularly with a mix of zone 2/3 and higher threshold efforts, and takes in 3-5g of carbs per day as part of their normal diet, increasing carbohydrate intake by 200-300 grams per day for 2-4 days will sufficiently boost glycogen stores.
This may potentially give you the added energy boost required to storm past those lead riders at the end of a race.
A Sensible 7-Day Carbo-Loading Meal Plan
Below is an example of a 7-day meal plan to prepare you for that big Sunday race.
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday: track and record (if not doing so already) your total net carb intake (this includes legumes, vegetables, grains, sugars, and fruit, but minus the fiber.)
Thursday and Friday: Based upon your previous 3 day carb totals, add an additional 200-300g of carbs each day.
Saturday: Continue adding 200-300 extra grams as the past two days, and have a normal dinner the night before the event.
Eating a ton of Carbs the night before the race will not improve your performance and may cause undesired stomach issues!
Sunday: Pre-race nutrition should consist of 1-3g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight ingested a little more than 90 minutes before race time. Then you are good to go!
The Carbo-Loading Key Takeaways
You do not need to gorge yourself! You do not need to necessarily eat just pasta! Most importantly, you certainly do not need to worry about being ‘depleted’!
As far as carbohydrate loading goes, it really is simple; eat a few more carbs for a few days and you are good to go – from a muscle glycogen perspective at least.
You should be aware, though, that the potential minor advantages gained by carbo-loading are only realized with moderate to high intensity efforts during events lasting at least 80 minutes or more.
Take comfort in the fact, however, that even if it does not improve your performance on the bike, carbo-loading can make you a star on the couch. The post-race carb-coma nap is glorious!