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The Basics of Carbohydrate Loading for Performance

Carbohydrates are your body's main fuel source during exercise and can be stored as glycogen within the muscles and the liver. A carbohydrate loading protocol aims to maximize glycogen stores within your body to provide a readily available energy source to muscles during physical activity. However, you might be unaware of the amount of carbohydrates that need to be consumed to maximize glycogen stores, which can result in you starting an event or game with sub-optimal glycogen levels. Below, we'll breakdown the types of carbohydrates needed and give practical recommendations to optimize your carbohydrate loading phase.

If you're an endurance athlete, it's critical for you to try to max out glycogen stores prior to an endurance event, such as a marathon or triathlon. You don’t need to eat this way every day, but this can be an effective approach when combined with tapering of training prior to an event. It has been shown that 10 grams of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight in the 24 hours prior to competition can help maximize glycogen stores and should be done in combination with a reduction in physical activity or training.

For example, a 70kg athlete may need up to 700g of carbohydrates. No doubt, this can provide quite a challenge for many athletes as it requires an enormous amount of food to be consumed. In order to achieve this amount, supplementation with a carbohydrate-containing drink during the loading phase may make it easier to achieve the carbohydrate loading target. Here's another tip: Use low fiber sources to help reduce satiety, potentially allowing you to meet your carbohydrate intake goal.
 

Examples of food sources containing carbohydrates:

Carbohydrate Source

Quantity

Carbohydrate Content

Basmati rice ½ cup  32g
Potatoes 1 ½ cups 54g
Pasta ¾ cup   30g
Orange juice ~2 cups  56g
Cereal ½ cup  14g
Sports drinks ~2 cups 30g
Bananas 2 large 62g


Another option may be to carbohydrate load over a longer period of time in order to reduce the amount of food you need to consume in 24 hours. For example, 5-7g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight each day for a 3-day period may be more suitable to some athletes. Again, this should be done in combination with a taper in physical activity.

Once the loading phase is complete, focus on consuming 1-4g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight within 4 hours of the event or game. Again, it’s important that this meal or snack is low in fiber and fat in order to speed up digestion. Meals such as basmati rice with chicken, pasta with chicken or potatoes and turkey may be a good choice for this period. The timing and source of carbohydrates before a race or game should be practiced prior to the event. This is highly individualized so practicing it prior to competition gives both yourself and your client confident that it will work come race day. 

As previously mentioned, Low Carbohydrate High Fat Diets (LCHFD) are becoming increasingly popular amongst athletes. However, LCHFDs may not be as effective as high carbohydrate diets in supporting high intensity exercise performance. For everyday nutritional requirements, try to consume a healthy, balanced diet, keeping caloric balance in mind.