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You may have heard about high-profile athletes loading up on carbohydrates before competition, but do you know all the “complex” details? If you’re a competitive athlete or runner, find out how to play your carbs right!

What is carb loading?

The term “carb loading” refers to a dietary strategy used by runners and endurance athletes to prepare their bodies for a long race or high-intensity competition.

What is the science behind carb loading?

Carbohydrates are an important and efficient source of fuel for exercising muscles. Your body breaks carbs down into glucose, which can then be either used for immediate fuel or sent to the liver and muscles to be stored as glycogen for later use. 

When and why would I need to practice carb loading?

The goal of carb loading is to maximize the glycogen stored in your body before the start of the race, in turn, supplying your body with the amount of energy necessary to sustain prolonged activity.

Focused nutrition in the days leading up to a race is crucial. A higher carbohydrate diet should be started 2-3 days prior to the race or competition. Additionally, it is generally not necessary to carb load before a short race, so I would reserve it only for exercise that will last for more than 90 minutes.

How do I carb load?

This is the part that generates a lot of misconceptions. The goal of carb loading is to increase your percentage of carbs consumed, not to increase your overall calorie intake. In other words, carb loading doesn’t mean that you should binge on gluttonous amounts of pasta and an entire loaf of bread for dinner. Percentage-wise, strive to ensure that 65% of your total calorie intake is coming from carbohydrates in the 2-3 days prior to your race. 

What kind of carbs should I be consuming?

Stock up on complex carbohydrates, such as rice, pasta, potatoes, whole grains, and fruit, and avoid gas-inducing foods, such as beans, as these can upset your stomach and, subsequently, have a contradictory effect on your running performance.

I recommend experimenting with different complex carbohydrates during the weeks of training prior to the race so you can fine-tune a diet plan to help you set a new personal best.

If you want to see more health news, tips, and advice on women’s health, diet, and exercise, follow me on Twitter @MicheleSchulzMD!