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Should You Carb Load Before a Race?

Posted 4/24/2017 by UHBlog

Prepping with plates of pasta won’t rev your race. We can help you choose foods that will fuel you for the long haul.

Should You Carb Load Before a Race?

Many runners devour mounds of spaghetti with meatballs in the days leading up to a marathon or half marathon because they believe carb loading – or consuming up to 95 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates – will give them a competitive advantage.

It’s time to rethink the rigatoni, says performance dietitian Katy Meassick, MA, RD, LD/N, CSSD.

“That’s the old science,” says Meassick, who works with the Cleveland Browns to refine players’ diets as a means of improving athleticism. “The new train of thought is that your carbohydrate amount should mimic your training load.”

In other words, consuming potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a few days before a competition won’t get enough carbohydrates into your muscles to promote the storage of glycogen, the body’s main source of energy during exercise. Instead, long-distance runners and other endurance athletes should base the amount of carbohydrates they eat on the duration of each workout – and they should do this throughout their training, not just for a short period before the big event.

According to Meassick, the grams of carbohydrates an athlete’s body requires per kilogram of body weight increase with the length of the training session:

  • 30 – 45 minutes: 3 – 4 g/kg
  • 46 – 60 minutes: 4 – 5 g/kg
  • 61 – 75 minutes: 5 – 6 g/kg
  • 76 – 90 minutes: 6 – 7 g/kg
  • 90 minutes: 7 – 8 g/kg
  • 120 minutes: 8 – 10 g/kg

“When training mimics meals, it allows your body to store and use glycogen when you need it,” says Meassick, adding that athletes typically store twice as much glycogen in their muscles during training as non-athletes. “You can increase the amount of energy (food) as training increases, and you can (even) indulge, but don’t overindulge.”

The above chart only provides guidelines, she cautions, and some athletes will need to adjust their carb intake based on their body’s response to it. For example, individuals who are training for a race in an effort to lose weight may find carb loading has the opposite effect. And if runners aren’t rebounding – meaning they’re sore and can’t increase mileage at their preferred rate – they, too, may need to reduce their carb consumption.

It’s also important to understand that increasing carbs is only advised for endurance athletes who continually perform for an hour or longer. It’s not as effective for those who run shorter distances or participate in sports, like baseball or tennis, that feature repeated bursts of activity followed by periods of inactivity.

Meassick offers other tips for safe and effective carb consumption during training, including:

  • Don’t eat carbs exclusively. Balance your diet with lean protein, fruit and vegetables.
  • When selecting carbs, opt for whole-grain complex carbs – such as wild or brown rice, sweet potatoes, amaranth, quinoa and 100 percent whole wheat pastas and breads. Limit or eliminate less nutritious white rice, potatoes, pastas and breads.
  • Hydrate before, during and after workouts and competitions. Water works well for most people most of the time, but sports drinks are recommended for heavy sweaters, if a run is hard, if the workout lasts more than an hour or during hot weather.
  • Find out what types of carbs will be available during the race, then use them during training sessions to determine how your body responds to them. Common choices include power bars, energy gels and sports drinks.

Katy Meassick, MA, RD, LD/N, CSSD, ATC, is a performance dietitian with University Hospitals and the Cleveland Browns. You can request an appointment with a dietitian or any other University Hospitals health care professional online.

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