For runners, swimmers, cyclists and racers alike, carb-loading is the highlight of a long and tiring training plan. All yumminess aside, carb-loading fuels performance, helping you go harder and longer without hitting “the wall,” according to research from Harvard Medical School.
That’s because, when you increase your carb intake, you load your muscles and liver with glycogen, your body’s form of stored carbohydrates, your primary fuel source for high-intensity exercise, explains board-certified sports dietitian Georgie Fear, author of “Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss.”
But, unbeknownst to them, most racers aren’t carb-loading the right way. Here are five myths about carb-loading that need to be busted before your next event.
1. It’s all-you-can-eat pasta the night before.
“The old theory was that, when carb-loading, you wanted to load up on pasta and eat as much food as possible the night before,” says Jim White, RD and health fitness instructor. “The problem is that when people do this, they experience intense gastrointestinal distress the next morning before the event.” At that point, a lot of the food is still sitting in the stomach.” Instead, White recommends gradually increasing your carb intake starting several days before your event, keeping portion sizes similar to your “normal.”
2. You’ll gain weight.
OK, so you actually will gain weight when carb-loading. But you should gain water weight, not weight from fat, White says. It’s typical to gain two to four pounds in water weight, he says; with each gram of glycogen you pack away, your body stores about three grams of water. While the water weight can feel a little bit uncomfortable, it shouldn’t slow you down — and can actually make staying hydrated during your race that much easier. Fear says not to step on the scale three days before or after your event. “There are so many things going on with fluid shifts and post-race inflammation in your body, so let it go for a bit,” she says.
3. It’s your chance to eat junk food.
Junk foods don’t do much for your body, so why fuel up on them before a race just because they’ve got carbs? Skip the pizza, creamy pasta, candy bars, ice cream and doughnuts. Opt for whole carbs from quinoa, brown rice, fruit, sweet potatoes and legumes, White says. However, to prevent fiber-fueled stomach woes at mile five, you’ll want to scale back on fiber-rich beans, peas, lentils and anything else that gives you the toots during the 24 hours before your race, Fear says.
4. You need a ton of calories
As we said, when done right, carb-loading shouldn’t make you gain fat. “Aim to keep your total calorie intake close to normal, but switch over to eating more carbs and less fat,” Fear says. “Think about having a healthy, whole-carbohydrate-rich food as the main course at each meal. Grab bananas, raisins, whole-grain crackers or pretzels in place of almonds or cheese for a snack.” Keep protein intake at about normal so that your muscles are strong, recovered and ready to go.
5. You should carb-load before a 5K
“I usually don’t think about carb-loading unless a race will take 90 minutes or longer,” Fear says. “We all normally have some glycogen stored, and an event lasting less than an hour won’t deplete it to a great extent. Unnecessarily loading up on extra fuel for days in advance could leave you feeling heavy on your feet come race day,” she says. With shorter-duration events, aim to eat a healthy, carb-rich meal the night before and the morning of the race to get your glycogen levels where they need to be.