Carb Loading for Endurance Athletes

Learn about the basics of carbohydrate loading, the benefits of carb loading for endurance athletes, and the best foods for carb loading.
carb loading for endurance athletes

Carbohydrates are an important macronutrient when it comes to pre-practice and pre-competition fueling. They serve as the body’s primary fuel source during exercise, and our body is able to store some of the carbs we eat in the liver and muscles as glycogen. Consuming adequate amounts of carbs is vital for keeping our muscle energy stores full and fueling our brain and central nervous system to stay sharp during competition. Endurance athletes in particular may benefit from carbohydrate loading prior to competition. Continue reading to learn about the basics of carbohydrate loading and some of the potential benefits of carb loading for endurance athletes! 

carb loading for endurance athletes

What is Carbohydrate Loading?

The term “carbohydrate loading” or “carb loading” refers to the nutrition strategy designed to maximize glycogen stores, so athletes can go at a higher intensity for a longer amount of time.. This goal is achieved by consuming larger amounts of carbohydrate at meals and snacks up to 1-3 days prior to competing. 

Who Should Carbohydrate Load?

Endurance athletes who participate in bouts of moderate to intense exercise that lasts 90 minutes or longer will benefit most from carbohydrate loading. This includes but is not limited to cyclists, swimmers, runners, triathletes, and soccer players. 

carb loading for endurance athletes

Why Carbohydrate Load? 

Carbohydrate loading may boost performance for endurance athletes during competition or training that lasts greater than 90 minutes. When consumed, carbohydrates are converted and stored as glycogen in our muscles. When we maximize this by increasing the amount of carbohydrates we consume, we can maximize the amount of energy and reduce the amount of fatigue we have over long stints of exercise.

How to Carb Load

The number of days prior to competition to begin carb loading has been researched for decades. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends beginning 36-48 hours before, consuming 10-12 g/kg body weight in carbs per 24 hours. Keep in mind this range is for athletes that are preparing to compete in an endurance-based event that lasts ninety minutes or longer. In preparation for general athletic fueling the range for carbohydrate consumption should still be anywhere from 7-12 g/kg body weight in carbs per 24 hours.

Example of Carb Loading for Endurance Athletes

If an athlete that weighs approximately 132 lbs (or 60 kg) wants to consume 10 g/kg body weight in carbohydrates per 24 hours, their goal for carbs per 24-hour period would be 600 g.  

If their event is on a Saturday morning, then they will want to begin carbohydrate loading as early as Thursday morning or as late as Thursday night. For example, if they started on Thursday morning then they would want to be consuming approximately 600 grams of carbohydrate from Thursday morning to Friday morning and another 600 grams of carbohydrate from Friday morning to Saturday morning. Their first 24 hours may look like this: 

Breakfast: Two pieces of egg and avocado toast and cereal with milk and banana (~126g)

Snack: One frozen blueberry waffle with syrup (~160g) 

Lunch: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pretzels, and an apple. (~107g)

Snack: Vanilla Greek Yogurt with dried fruit and granola (~68g) 

Dinner: Spaghetti with marinara sauce and chickpeas and steamed broccoli on the side (~80g)

Snack: Smoothie with serving of frozen fruit, banana, spinach,  choice of milk, and a side of crackers (~86g)

Total Carbs consumed in the first 24 hours before competition = ~627g

This athlete would then repeat this level of carbohydrate intake again for the next 24 hours before competition. 

Best Foods for Carb Loading

There are plenty of high-carbohydrate foods to choose from, so take your pick! As always, it is important to focus on whole grain sources of carbohydrates to meet many nutrient needs on a daily basis; however the important part is getting enough carbohydrate to fill your energy stores for competition. Athletes who have more sensitive digestive systems may benefit from choosing more refined choices of grains and other low fiber carbohydrate options as they get closer to the night before or the morning of competition. This is because carbohydrates that are higher in fiber, like beans and cruciferous vegetables, take longer to digest and may cause GI distress if consumed the day before competition. Easier to digest options include white rice, white pasta, potatoes, tortillas, and fruit!

A good rule of thumb is to shoot for half of your plate as carbohydrates, a quarter of your plate as a source of protein, and the last quarter of your plate reserved for fruits and vegetables. This will ensure plenty of carbohydrate intake at any meal. 

pumpkin cranberry energy bite

Key Carb Loading Takeaways

When it comes to carb loading for endurance athletes, there are a few key considerations. The athlete should begin carb loading between 36-48 hours before competition, consuming around 10-12 g/kg body weight per 24 hours. Don’t forget to try it with a training session before competition to work out any issues like GI distress or nutrient timing. 

Carb loading is a technique used to enhance performance in training or competition that lasts 90 minutes or longer. However it is still important to prioritize carbohydrates regardless of where you are in your training cycle as an endurance athlete who regularly trains. It is recommended to be consuming anywhere from 5-12 g/kg body weight of carbohydrate per day depending on the duration and intensity of exercise. Whether carbohydrate loading for an event or not, carbohydrates are still a vital fuel for all athletes. If you are looking for ideas for some high carbohydrate meals or snacks, try these Cranberry Pumpkin Energy Bites, Pistachio Pesto Potatoes, or Overnight Oats!

Trystan is a collegiate cross country and track and field athlete at Wayne State University, where he is completing the Coordinated Program in Dietetics. Following completion of the program he hopes to have the chance to work with athletes at every level to help them achieve their goals.

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