You Probably Don't Need To Carbo Load. Here's Why.
It’s a tradition in endurance sport, and a staple for cyclists gearing up for a big race. Carbo loading is a proven way to make the most of your training, but there are a lot of things to consider before you pile up the pasta on your plate.
First off, there are times when taking on more carbs before an event makes sense. The science behind carbo loading comes from glycogen. In an endurance race, your body fuels from two main sources, glycogen and fat. While fat can be processed, it is much less efficient than glycogen, which is the sugar-like substance that you body stores from carbs. In addition to processing inefficiently, fat also tends to be processed slowly, making it less useful for shorter, sharper efforts that we typically see in mountain bike races. As a result, glycogen is the go-to, and so, we take on carbs.
The idea with carbo loading is to top up the glycogen stores in your muscles so it can be easily drawn upon during a race. But how much should you take on? For a general rule of thumb, plan on 4 grams of carbs per pound of body weight, but don’t wait until the night before the race to get started. It’s often more beneficial to up your carb intake for two to three meals over the course of two to three days before the event, with carbs taking up approximately 85-90% of your diet for that time span. If you’re racing on a Saturday, consider Wednesday and Thursday as your prime chance to add in more carbs.
But here’s the caveat. You only really need extra carbs for events over two hours, and for a lot of our races in northern Michigan, average times are closer to 90 minutes. For these types of races, look at the amount of carbs you eat per day normally, and try to shift the makeup of your meals to include the same number of calories but a higher percentage of carbs, ideally in that 85-90% range. This will help you avoid taking on too many calories but keep your glycogen stores topped up. For most people, it’s as simple as having a bowl of oatmeal, a half a cup of rice or quinoa, or even a couple of slices of toast for dessert or as a snack.
Finally, try to keep the fiber content of your carbs low in the final 24 hours before your event. Higher fiber foods can be a bit tougher to digest, so stick to foods you normally eat or foods like bananas for an extra bit of carbs that are still easy on your digestive system.
With MSB two weeks out, it isn’t a bad idea to use this weekend as a test of your pre-race meals and in-race hydration and nutrition. Take on a challenging ride that’s approximately the length of the event you’re tackling and go through your morning as if you were racing. Make mental notes of when you get hungry or thirsty, and if you can ride the course, you can also try to remember ideal places to eat or drink.
The take away? For events under two hours, you don’t need to add too many calories and carbs to your diet. Instead, think about adding an extra serving or two of carbs that you already eat two days before the race, and consider reducing by an equal amount fats or proteins.