Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Four Myths about Carbohydrate Loading

Photo credit: gotosira (Flickr)

In my work with athletes, I find that one of the most often misunderstood areas of nutrition for physical performance involves carbhydrate loading.  The goal of carbohydrate loading is to maximize glycogen stores, a major source of fuel in the muscles during endurance activity.  Optimizing these glycogen stores, in turn, allows an athlete to compete at his/her goal race pace for a greater duration during the event.  Unfortunately, there is often some confusion about the who, what, when, and why of carb loading.  Athletes whose performance could benefit from carb loading are either not doing it or their method of implementation is improper.  On the other hand, some athletes who are not likely to benefit from carb loading are doing it anyway.  Today, I bust four of the most common myths about carb loading.  Tell me if you've heard any of these.  

Myth #1:  Make sure you load up on carbs the night before the event.  
Fact:  While a pasta party may be fun to attend the night before an event, it is not the ideal protocol for carbohydrate loading before endurance training or competition. Carb loading involves a gradual increase in carbohydrate intake along with a tapering down in physical activity within several days before the endurance activity.  The best carb loading regimen will depend on the athlete's individual needs and training plan.  It's also important to keep in mind that maintaining an optimal performance diet throughout training is one of the best ways to prepare for competition day.

Myth #2:  Training for a 5K?  Make sure to carb load before your event.  
Fact:  Carb loading optimizes performance for athletes participating in intense, continuous exercise that lasts greater than 90 minutes.  Most athletes competing in 5K's, 10K's, or shorter, less intense activities will not necessarily experience improved performance from carb loading.  Carb loading is effective in endurance-trained athletes since training stimulates the activity of the enzyme used to support the formation of glycogen.  Also, carb loading may hinder performance of some athletes due to stiffness or heaviness as the body's glycogen stores increase.  

Myth #3:  Eat all the carbs you can because you're going to need it.  
Fact:  Athletes competing in endurance events or repeated bouts of continuous activity over a long period of time do need to consume enough carbohydrate to fuel their activity.   However, it does not mean this is a free ticket to eat any and every source of carbohydrate you can get your hands on.  Quality and quantity do make a difference.  It is essential to include high quality sources of carbohydrate, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, since these foods also offer a score of other nutrients necessary for promoting physical performance.  At the same time, it's also not time to go overboard on cookies, donuts, and ice cream as these foods are not the highest quality sources of carbohydrates.  They may also contribute more to "fat gain" than "glycogen storage" as well as undesirable visits to the Port-o-Potty on race day.  The body still needs the right balance of high quality sources of protein, fat, and other nutrients for the best performance nutrition.

Myth #4:  If you're going to carb load, you need a supplement.
Fact:  While the amount of carbohydrate needed for carb loading is higher than usual for the athlete, it is usually an amount that can be consumed through high quality sources of carbohydrates.  Not only will these foods provide carbohydrate, but they will also provide other valuable performance nutrients.  So supplements are probably not necessary unless the volume of food needed to meet carbohydrate needs may be more than the tummy can take. For example, I worked with a triathlete who could not tolerate the larger amounts of food needed for carb-loading.  So, we included carb supplements in her nutrition plan.

Have you carb-loaded for an event?  If so, what works for you?  


Tiffany The Dietitian said...[Reply to comment]

Good info! I'm a dietitian too and frequently see people (not clients) carbo-load improperly. Thanks for the summary!

Michelle Loy, MPH, MS, RD said...[Reply to comment]

@Tiffany The Dietitian Hi Tiffany, thanks for sharing!

Tanya said...[Reply to comment]

Good summary. Excellent point about people competing in shorter distances not needing to carbo-load! In fact, carb loading tends to create muscle soreness which could hinder the performance of non endurance athletes!

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