We keep avoiding carbs and embrace low-carb diets to lose weight, but if you ask an endurance athlete for his/her most important food before the race, the immediate response would be ‘carbs!’ Carbohydrates are the main energy sources during any physical activity and our body stores any of the carbs that we eat as glycogen in the liver and muscles.
Athletes adhere to carbohydrate loading, a plan where they eat high-carb foods to increase glycogen stores. This helps the athlete stay energized for longer time periods while performing the physical activity. Typically, an athlete can store 1,800 to 2,000 calories of fuel as glycogen in the muscles and liver which can be used to help the athlete pull through 90 to 120 minutes of vigorous activity. Research states that, for activities lasting longer than 90 minutes, maximized glycogen stores help the athlete improve his/her finish time by 2-3% which could be converted to a 5- to 7-minute improvement for a 4-hour marathon.
While the concept of ‘carbohydrate loading’ exists for decades, how feasible is the theory when put to practical use? One such real-life incident involves the life of British runner, Ron Hill, who participated in 1969 European Athletics Championship. He won a gold medal with a solid finish in the final 10 kilometers, the period during which many athletes start experiencing what is called as ‘hitting the wall’ feeling where your glycogen stores get depleted making you physically vulnerable.
Hill followed the perfect carbohydrate-loading regime where he practiced three days of vigorous physical activity along a very-low carbohydrate diet followed by another three days of decreased physical activity with high-carbs intake. This strategy does not favor all athletes and might also lead to injury while training in a low-carb state in a few of them. Studies even show that trained athletes can achieve maximum glycogen stores within 24 hours without the need of a depletion phase.
High-carbohydrate diets help the athlete to reach peak performance and the carb quantity required depends on the athlete’s needs, the event and the training practice. Abnormally increased levels of carbohydrates before an event can cause just the opposite of what is desired-it can lead to gastrointestinal problem. It is necessary to remember that foods consumed just before an event should be the same as foods eaten during training.
The basic rule of sports nutrition that there must be nothing new on the race day is applicable for carbohydrate loading too. It is better that athletes consult a registered dietitian nutritionist at www.firsteatright.com for personalized sports nutrition guidance.