Carb Loading for Endurance Events

Yesterday afternoon, just when I was about to post this piece, I found out that tragedy had struck the Boston Marathon. I have always loved this race having grown up in the area and had spent the morning glued to the television watching race coverage with my boys. I still cannot believe that something so beautiful, and joyful has been spoiled for thousands of people in such a senseless way. Marathoners and Bostonians have a lot in common; we are tough, proud and don’t believe in the word can’t. I have no doubt that the city of Boston and the Boston Marathon will come back stronger than ever after this. I have decided to go forward and post what I wrote yesterday while thinking of those runners on the Boston Marathon course. I’m guessing that there might be even more people now inspired to run a full marathon in the wake of the tragedy yesterday. My heart goes out to everyone affected by this senseless act.

When it comes to nutrition before a big endurance event, there is a lot of room for confusion, nerves and second guessing. You’ve been training for many weeks/months. You’ve nailed all of your long runs, hill repeats and tempo runs (or century rides, hour plus swims and brick workouts). You’ve been right on top of your nutrition, making sure to fuel your body while it’s been working so hard. Seemingly out of the blue it’s taper time, with more time to think (read worry) you start second-guessing everything you do, including what to eat.

During the taper, it’s more important than ever to consume nutrient dense foods. Since you are decreasing your training time, you will need slightly less in terms of calories, but at the same time you want to support your body’s ability to repair and heal. Pack your plate with lots of colorful vegetables since they are naturally lower in calories and high in nutrients and phytochemicals. Make the majority of your grains whole grains and spread high quality protein throughout the day. If ever there was a time to become careful about what you eat, it’s now!

As the last few days prior to your event approach, it’s time to start thinking about carbohydrates. There have been numerous studies showing the benefits of carbohydrate loading prior to endurance events. How do you load? Many people think a big plate of pasta the night before is all it takes, but it’s a little more involved than that. For the last 2-3 days before race day, the percentage of carbohydrates (compared to fat and protein) should increase and become the majority of your diet. It’s especially important to have a high carbohydrate meal following your last few workouts because this is when your muscles will be primed for storage.

The entire day before the event will be focused on getting in lots of carbohydrates; this will take some planning because it’s not as easy as it sounds! The research shows that about 10g of carbohydrates per 1 kg of bodyweight, is most effective; for a 150-pound person, that would be about 680 grams or 2720 calories of carbohydrate in one day! Consuming high carbohydrate beverages (such as juices and sports drinks) throughout the day, and choosing lower fiber foods such as potatoes, bananas, pretzels, and white rice instead of higher fiber vegetables, fruits and grains will also help because you don’t want to load up your GI with fiber the day before your big event.

If you load correctly, you will gain about 3-4 pounds and feel very bloated and sluggish. This is due to water being retained along with the glycogen in your muscle tissue and will diminish once you begin to utilize all of this stored energy. Just remember, one day of carbohydrate loading cannot make up for poor nutrition during your training; feed your body well and it will reward you!

Don’t Dig Yourself into a Hole

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to a group that is training to run their first marathon; they will be running the Boston Marathon one of the most famous and exciting marathons in the world! While we were talking about the importance of fueling and hydrating adequately during endurance sports, one of the participants made a statement which I think pertains to athletes and non-athletes alike. He said, “Sometimes during a long run, I feel like I’m digging myself into a hole that I will then need to go back and fill in later.” A great analogy. The best thing to do is to prevent digging ourselves into this hole in the first place!

Do you try to run on empty?

Many people think of food and calories as something we need to fight against. A lot of people try to restrict their calories early in the day in order to lose weight. They might tell themselves that if they limit how much food they eat in the morning, they can then eat what they like in the evening at a party. Some might also say that they ‘deserve’ a donut after going to the gym, or that they will work out the morning of [insert holiday here] in order to eat goodies later.

Repeat after me: Food is not the enemy! Food is fuel!

Why doesn’t restricting calories early in the day work? Simply put, your body will function best if you fuel it properly. For those engaging in general activities of daily living, make sure you spread your intake throughout the day. Eat breakfast when you wake up, don’t wait until you are ravenous to eat lunch at 3:00 in the afternoon; plan ahead and feed yourself before you feel out of control. The longer you delay your meals the hungrier you get, the hungrier you get the less control you have over what and how much you eat which will lead to overeating the types of foods that won’t help us nutritionally.

Fuel your body well for the best results!

What does this mean for endurance athletes? Make sure you fuel yourself early and often so that you will be able to perform at an optimum level. If you are planning an intensive training day, prepare by eating plenty of nutritious foods well beforehand. During your workout (if it is going to last more than an hour) make sure to have a fuel and hydration plan so that you will have all of the energy you need to make it to the end in good shape. Lastly, make sure you continue to fuel and replace what you have burned after your workout so that your body has the fuel it needs for proper recovery.