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Words of Caution on Carbo-loading...

In the last few years, more and more Filipinos are engaging in commercially organized endurance sporting events. Just in the month of February 2020, back to back endurance events occurred on a weekly basis such as that of The Bull Runner Dream Marathon, Spartan Race, and 51.50 Triathlon.

To most participants, joining the said events were just means of checking off items on their bucket lists. But to some, racing is a source of livelihood. Fortunately, both the recreational and the serious endurance athletes take the preparation phase seriously, from skills training to conditioning, and to some extent even in their nutrition. And after gaining much popularity, more and more lay people are trying to utilize “sound bites” of technical/scientific information underpinning endurance sports performance with nutrition as the easiest and most common prey.

Carbo Loading is a diet strategy that is aimed at loading up the muscles with easy-to-use energy before an exhaustive competitive event. These are recommended for individuals who participate in long duration and energy-depleting events that lasts more than ~90 min.

With a couple of endurance athletes that I have handled, whether recreational or elite level, I noticed that CARBO-LOADING is one of the most common but loosely-used nutritional strategy. So just to level up its utility to the athletic community, here are some few practical information that may help bring clarity on this common sports nutrition strategy.

I had the privilege to be the nutrition coach of the Smart professional cycling team that ended up winning the overall championship of the 2011 Le Tour de Filipinas. I had to carefully design and implement proper carbo-loading as well as peri workout fueling and hydration strategies to make sure that the cyclists are well fueled to overcome fatigue in this grueling 6 day cycling event.

What is Carbo-Loading?

  • A diet strategy that is aimed at loading up the muscles with easy-to-use energy before an exhaustive competitive event.

  • Usually involves tapering of training intensity ~ 36-48h prior event while increasing percentage of carbohydrate intake.

  • Carbo-loading works by postponing fatigue and maintaining “race pace” for longer duration.

What are the common mistakes in implementation?

  • Incorrect food selection— many choose to load up on pasta, pizza, burgers and fried foods which are all high in fat that makes the athlete feel heavy and sluggish during race.

  • Event specific strategy— no carbo-loading needed for shorter duration races or events, especially those that only require intermittent burst of energy such as the sprint or short spartan races.

  • Gender differences— female athletes generally do not experience the same performance improvements in carbo-loaded male athletes due to overall inadequate calories and carbohydrate intake (not because it is ineffective at all).

Who is it for? Athletes who participate in long duration and energy-depleting events that lasts more than ~90 min (so if you participate in events that are not energy depleting and is shorter than 1.5h, there is NO NEED TO CARBO-LOAD).

When and what to eat when Carbo-Loading?

  • Optimum refueling is usually achieved by consuming a high quality carbohydrates diet at least 36-48h before the actual race or competition. This is when the athlete has minimal activity and has the ability to store up extra carbohydrate intake ready to access energy source.

  • Carbo-loading implementation will vary depending on factors such as time of event, pre-race set up/event accommodation, capacity to meal prep, food preferences, and budget.

  • Macronutrient distribution during this phase would normally look like this: 70% carbs, 15-18% protein, 12-15% fat. While a more accurate carbohydrate recommendation would be 7-10g/kg body weight.

Carbohydrate food selection varies between fast digesting, easy to absorb carb sources to slow digesting, complex carbohydrates. Food items like rice, bread, fruits, sports drinks, and potatoes are good options. Including potatoes in the carbo-loading regimen would be beneficial because they don’t only provide carbohydrates but they also contain vitamins and minerals that are necessary for optimum athletic performance. Some of which are as follows:

  • Iron - helps in maximizing oxygen delivery in the body and to the working muscles

  • Vitamin B6 - helps in energy production

  • Vitamin C - antioxidant, aids in collagen production, and supports iron absorption

  • Potassium - an electrolyte needed for muscle function

In summary, always remember that the popularity of a bandwagon is not indicative of its individual relevance. No matter how “glaring” a nutrition regimen may look like, contextualizing its optimum use is a must.

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