Thursday, January 15, 2009

Carbo Loading

There exists a plethora of literature in the running community addressing the topic of proper nutrition for runners.  What should you eat right before your big training run or race ?  What should you eat immediately after to promote recovery ?  And, of course, there is the well-known concept of "carbo-loading" (which is typically discussed in the context of a marathon) - what should you eat the week prior to the event ?

Carbohydrate loading, or carbo-loading, is a strategy employed by endurance athletes to maximize the storage of glycogen in muscles.  First developed in 1967 by Swedish scientist Gunvar Ahlborg, the original theory of carbohydrate loading (a 7 day plan consisting of three or four days of extremely low carbohydrate intake - 10 percent of total calories - and intense exercise to deplete the body's carbohydrate stores, followed by three or four days of extremely high carbohydrate intake - 90 percent of total calories - and reduced intensity of exercise ot allow for maximum storage) was that "if the body's glycogen stores were depleted, it would store more glycogen than normal when carbohydrate intake returned to normal."

The Ahlborg Carbo-Loading Method

   1. Perform an exhaustive workout one week before a long race (90 minutes-plus).
   2. Consume a very low-carb diet (10%) for the next 3-4 days while training lightly.
   3. Consume a very high-carb diet (90%) the next 3-4 days while continuing to train lightly.
In the 1980s, research showed that you can increase glycogen storage significantly without first depleting it, thus leading to a modified method of carbo-loading (eliminating the depletion phase and calling for increased carbohydrate intake - to about 70% of total calories - and decreased training for three days prior to the event.

The No-Depletion Carbo-Loading Method

   1. Perform a long workout (but not an exhaustive workout) one week before race day.
   2. Eat normally (55-60% carbohydrate) until three days before a longer race.
   3. Eat a high-carb diet (70%) the final three days before racing while training very lightly.
The newest strategy was devised in 2002 by scientists at the University of Western Australia and combines depletion and loading, condensing the phases into a one-day time frame.  From the recognition that "a single, short workout performed at extremely high intensity creates a powerful demand for glycogen storage in both the slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibers of the muscles",  the scientists "hypothesized that following such a workout with heavy carbohydrate intake could result in a high level of glycogen super-compensation without a lot of fuss."  A normal diet with light training until the day before the race, is followed up by a very short, extremely high-intensity workout (like speed work) on the day before the race.  The athlete then consumes 12 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight over the next 24 hours. This regimen reportedly resulted in a 90% increase in glycogen storage.

The Western Australia Carbo-Loading Method

   1. Pre-race week -, eat normally while training lightly until the day before a longer race.
   2. Morning of the day before the race - perform a very brief, very high-intensity workout.
   3. Consume 12grams of carbs per lb. of body weight over the next 24 hours.
Check out "The evolving art of carbo loading" written by Matt Fitzgerald (where much of the information for this post was obtained) for a more detailed discussion of the methods of carbo loading.

On a recent trip to Walt Disney World for the Disney 1/2 and full marathons, deep in the catacombs of Disney, and Bob Gentile discovered that top secret testing was in full swing for yet another carbo-loading strategy, depicted in the video below.

What strategy do you employ before the big race ?


  1. Now that I know how to eat pasta effectively thanks to your Daughter, I think they should start providing it during ultramarathons!

    Although then again my preferred carbs involves sweets!

    I have no pre-race eating strategy. In fact I pretty much have no pre-race strategy. In my running life I have the philosophy "set the bar low, then start digging!" So far it's working out pretty well:-)

  2. LOL ahhhh she is future Ultra Runner :-)and yes eating all that pasta got her .2 inches taller according to the blackberry height scanner -lol

    Had a great time with the family and I will also send you an invoice for my chiropractor visits -- dang fast passes !!

    Safe travels back and See ya in April ! ! !

  3. Something similiar to what that kid is doing.

  4. She made it look delicious! At least you didn't video her washing it all down with a beer! ha Keep having fun! Peace!

  5. No carbo loading for me. I eat normally, drink lots before the big day and avoid heavy dishes; red meats, sauces, gravy, etc.

  6. Ha ha.. Some good carbo loading there.

  7. Tony,
    I was laughing my ass off at your comment on PJ's blog about Spock! HILARIOUS!! I'm STILL chuckling!

  8. Yikes, she's a fast eater!

    I used to do the traditional carbo-loading, but found with age my digestive system didn't process all that initial protein well. I'm still working on a better solution.

  9. I do what Rick does. I just try to eat very clean the night before a race...nothing that will upset the tummy. I have eaten the wrong things and it's not pretty (ie pizza and beer the night before-LOL).