Carbohydrates often have a poor reputation in the dieting world, but from an athlete’s standpoint, they can be vital for competition and activity. Carbohydrate loading is a dietary strategy typically used by athletes in the days leading up to a competition or endurance event. The primary goal of carbohydrate loading is to maximize the muscles with glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrate, for energy storage to use during the activity.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy in the body and are used during long-duration and/or high-intensity activity.
Carbohydrate loading means eating more carbohydrates than usual for days leading up to a competition or an event.
Carbohydrate loading can help active people delay fatigue and improve performance during their competition or endurance event.
Not everyone needs to carbohydrate load, and individual results will vary.
However, not everyone needs to consume a lot of carbohydrates before exercise. This article will explore carb loading: what it is, how to do it, and who needs it.
Understanding carb loading
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source used by the body. Carbohydrates are best utilized at higher intensities and are the quickest, most readily available energy source. Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrates and is primarily found in the liver and muscles. When we exercise, our glycogen stores become depleted, and we are quicker to get fatigued.
Carbohydrate loading can help athletes and other active people sustain energy and performance for longer periods of time. If one is able to consume enough carbohydrates leading up to the event to keep their glycogen levels full, they may benefit from a delayed onset of fatigue.
Carbohydrate loading is usually done 1–3 days leading up to an event or competition.
Who needs carb loading?
A common misconception is that no matter the activity or duration of exercise, carb loading is for everyone. Carb loading depends on several factors, including the type and duration of activity and individual metabolism. One does not necessarily need to maximize their glycogen stores if the duration of moderate-intensity exercise is below 90 minutes. Carb loading has been shown to improve performance by 2–3% for longer, higher intensity activities.
Carbohydrate loading is not only for athletes. Anyone who engages in exercise may benefit from carb loading. Some examples of activities that may benefit from carb loading include:
- Endurance activities such as cycling, swimming, and running.
- High-intensity activities, such as HIIT training, or activities that require repeated bouts of high-intensity movement for a long duration.
- Team sports such as basketball or soccer, especially during multiple games in a row, like a tournament.
Activities that do not need carb loading include lower-intensity activities like walks, yoga, and golf.
How to carb load
Most research shows that 5–12 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight per day will maximize glycogen stores. It is important to note that eating on the higher end of the carbohydrate range does not necessarily mean better performance. It is advised to limit exercise for 1–3 days prior so the glycogen stores do not deplete.
There are different ways to carbohydrate load, and the different ways vary depending on activity and personal preference. All methods require someone to consume more carbohydrates than they normally do and reduce the amount of exercise they engage in.
Experimenting with different amounts and types of carbohydrates is best utilized during practices and non-competition days to figure out the gold standard approach for you during competition. In addition, it is advised not to consume unfamiliar foods the day of and the day before competition as the body may not respond well. It is always best to experiment with foods on training days.
The best carbohydrate-rich foods to consume are going to be those that are easily digestible. Some examples include refined carbohydrates like white bread, fruit, and canned juices, and starchy vegetables like potatoes. Overall, lower-fat and lower-fiber foods will be the easiest to digest. Alcohol should also be avoided for days leading up to competition.
Common mistakes of carb loading
Here are some common mistakes to keep in mind:
- Eating too many calories. More carbs do not necessarily mean eating more calories. Adjusting the other macronutrients (proteins and fats) while increasing carbohydrates but eating roughly the same amount of calories is the correct way to carb load. Eating too many calories can lead to fatigue and overall heaviness on the day of competition.
- Eating too many fiber-rich carbohydrates. Although this may sound counterintuitive, too much fiber may lead to gastrointestinal upset. Refined/white breads, pastas, and rice are better alternatives in preparation for competition. It’s important to keep note that less processed and refined foods are better outside of training and competition.
- Lack of water intake. It is easy to only focus on consuming enough carbs while neglecting water intake. Water is crucial for keeping us hydrated and can compromise exercise performance if not consumed in adequate amounts. It should be a part of the pre-fueling process.
Is carb loading for you?
Carb loading can be an effective tool for many active individuals for those seeking to optimize their performance. Someone engaging in long, moderate, or high-intensity activity can benefit from carb loading.
Nutrition is extremely individualized, and it is important to gauge the best approach for your unique metabolism and performance goals. With proper dietary habits before training and competition, your performance may improve.
To best understand your individual needs, speak to a sports dietitian for guidance and to develop a personalized nutrition plan.
- Sports Medicine. Carbohydrate loading and exercise performance: an update.
- Journal of Sports Sciences. Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling.
- BBA Clinical. Glycogen metabolism in humans.