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Carbo-loading: The most effective way to increase your competition performance!

Carbo-loading - this is how it works

All you need to know about carbo-loading

Maintaining your energy level throughout the competition with carbo-loading

Be it at the 10 km village run somewhere in the mountains or at Iron Man in Hawaii – one topic is ever-present in discussions among athletes: carbo-loading. While some claim that carbo-loading helped them win, others believe carbo-loading was to blame for their failure. And neither possibility can be ruled out entirely.

With proper execution and sufficient training, carbo-loading can definitely turn out to be an ace up your sleeve. By contrast, if you start experimenting with carbo-loading on your own initiative without first acquiring the knowledge needed, you might just shoot yourself in the foot.

But where did that trend come from in the first place and how did it develop?

Carbo-loading: Looking back

Ever since 1970, when it became public knowledge that legends such as Ron Hill (European marathon champion) were practising carbo-loading, the technique has only increased its international renown. The starting signal for plenty of research and continuous attempts at streamlining had been given.

The original method was (and still is) based on a principle of supercompensation. This stemmed from the following observation: After a complete depletion of glycogen stores, followed by three days of low-carb and a subsequent three days of very high-carbohydrate diet, higher amounts of glycogen were measured than had been measured before depletion. Hence the term “SUPERcompensation”.

However, the method was accompanied by some side effects. Among others, an increase in gastrointestinal problems was recorded. For that reason, a gentler method was introduced in the 1980s. Now, the training load was reduced about a week before the competition and carbohydrate intake was gradually increased. This gentler attempt also resulted in high concentrations of glycogen, so further research was conducted.

Eventually, the 1990s brought with them the assumption that starting carbo-loading two days prior to the competition could also be sufficient – which leads us to present-day recommendations.

Modern science’s take on carbo-loading

The basic idea of carbo-loading has always been the same, even years of research have left it unchanged. It is still considered a golden rule to start a race with full glycogen stores. And if there is a method to leave these stores practically “overfull”, it shall be used!

The discussion about emptying the stores before refilling them, however, still leaves a bit of a headache.

As previously explained, scientific data has proven the effectiveness of the method. Nevertheless, more recent studies have come to somewhat different conclusions. They showed that the extreme depletion of glycogen stores, which takes several days, is not necessarily required for well-trained athletes.

From today’s perspective, it seems sensible to take the original “hard-core” concept of emptying the glycogen stores with a grain of salt. On one hand, as mentioned before, it is not absolutely required for skilled athletes – and on the other hand it also represents a psychological strain on many athletes. A more humane way to empty glycogen stores is this:

Refrain from starting your final strenuous workout before the competition with full glycogen stores.

If your workout is due before noon, for example, simply have a low-carb breakfast and a low-carb dinner the night before.

This procedure, when coupled with a significant reduction of the carbohydrate amount consumed during training, is enough to leave your glycogen stores deprived. After this “draining workout”, the “loading part” can be started.

There are several options for this:

How to fill up your stores with carbo-loading

After the “draining workout”, a high-carbohydrate diet is provided for two to three days up to the day of the competition. A carbohydrate intake of 6 – 7 g / kg body weight should be aimed for.

It is important to consider that the energy consumption should be minimized simultaneously. In other words, the intensity as well as the extent of workouts should be reduced. Other strenuous activities should also be avoided – the body is switched to power-saving mode, in a manner of speaking.

For a professional athlete, this practice should be fairly easy to implement. At the same time, for many others it is nigh impossible to banish all energy-draining activity from their day-to-day lives. After all, you still need to show up for work or organize your daughter’s birthday party.

For athletes to whom this applies, a better solution is to consume about 8 g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight in the three days leading up to a competition.

Another option would be to add 10 g carbohydrates / kg for 1 – 2 days. On the last day before the competition, switch back to your regular diet.

This day of returning to the usual diet helps to calm the gastrointestinal tract. This effect could make this option especially interesting for athletes who struggle with a high carbohydrate intake.

In addition to the relief provided to your gastrointestinal tract, there is mental aid to be found here as well. Getting back into your personal comfort zone the day before a competition can certainly have its advantages.

Both mentioned strategies are designed for well-trained athletes. For less ambitious athletes, however, it does make sense to revert back to the original method – which means that the draining phase will be significantly longer. Emptying the glycogen stores usually proves more difficult for less well-trained athletes compared to more skilled athletes.

A low carbohydrate diet for three days followed by a high-carb diet for three days (5 – 7 g / kg) would likely be the ideal solution for this target group.

Once you have found a carbo-loading strategy that suits you, you should only eat familiar and well-proven foods and snacks.

One option is to provide carbohydrates every 2 to 3 h in the form of cooked potatoes (which provide plenty of potassium important for glycogen storage), white rice, porridge, cooked vegetables and fruits such as bananas, mango or raisins in combination with a small amount of protein and fat.

Supplementation can be provided e.g. with high carbohydrate bars and possibly Carbohydrate drinks as they are also used during the competition.

Which loading strategy suits me best?

While science provides the base, when choosing your ideal loading strategy, your personal well-being should also be taken into consideration. If you feel decisively uncomfortable with a method, there is little sense in lingering on it.

The best way is to try out the process of carbo-loading in training and streamline it step by step. This way, you shouldn’t have any more worries on competition day.

Important footnote

Attention: Not to be confused!

A high intake of carbohydrates does not necessarily equal a high energy intake. If the carbohydrate intake is increased, the fat intake should be reduced accordingly. Thus, a sudden increase in the amount of energy supplied on the days leading up to the competition can be avoided.

– Bergstrom, J., Hermansen, L., Hultman, E., and Saltin, B. Diet, muscle glycogen and physical performance.
– Acta Physiol Scand 
Jeukendrup and Gleeson Sports Nutrition Human Kinetoics Champaign
– WE Nutrition Conference Lecture: Optimising glycogen loading; optimising performance – Andrew Bosch

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