Carbo loading as part of a Runner’s Diet – Defined

Start of Marathon

Start of Marathon

Marathon season is almost in full swing, and those of you training for fall marathons are probably doing long runs in the mid to upper teens at this point. I find the most common question I get from endurance athletes relates to the traditional pasta dinner the night before a marathon. For one thing, does it really increase performance?

I thought I would share my knowledge and experience on carbo-loading, whether it is just tradition, or if it really does offer the performance benefits sought by many athletes. Furthermore, now that there are so many different types of pastas on the market, I wanted to give you the low down on what may be best for your individual needs.

To lay the foundation, I define carbo-loading as increasing your intake of carbohydrates so that muscle glycogen is maximized, which boosts endurance for distance.

Healthy Runner’s Diet – Carbohydrate Loading Defined

The traditional method of “carbo-loading” involves a stage of prolonged exercise and an exceedingly restrictive diet called depletion, which is then followed by intense carbohydrate loading. More recent research suggests that intense exercise during depletion followed by excessive glycogen storage could lead to muscle trauma. This in fact would impair the storage of glycogen rather than enhance it. Other side effects that follow this method include bloating, added pounds, which not only causes you to feel drained and uncomfortable, but also increases injury risks. Personal records could be compromised under these conditions.

A more modified approach would begin a carbo loading regimen one week prior to the event, by tapering training mileage and shifting more of your total calories to carbohydrates, decreasing the amount of fat and protein as the week progresses. In other words, two days prior to your endurance event, you will not be eating mostly carbs and very little fat and protein. Carbo loading means simply shifting the percentage of the macronutrients to a higher carb intake. It  does NOT mean load up on every carbohydrate you can lay your hands on. The reason this modified approach works is because the tapering in exercise simultaneous to an increase in carbohydrates boosts glycogen storage as effectively as depletion and loading, but without the negative side effects.

So to answer the question whether the pasta dinner the night before is optimal or not the night before does not leave enough time for maximum muscle glycogen storage. Thus the so called traditional pasta dinner meal, based on the science, should be shifted to two nights before.  The pasta dinner the night before is ok because yes, it is all carbs, and really, any good carbs at this point would work great.

It takes some work to ensure carbs are close to 100% of your calories in any given day.  Some ideas for the two days before your event include oatmeal and fruit for breakfast, baked potato or veggie sandwich for lunch and a pasta or rice dish for dinner but instead of the protein that typically goes with these types of meals, include bread, veggies, salad and fruit. Supplement these meals with high-carb beverages such as EnsureT, BoostT or Mix OneT’s. Don’t forget to include high carb snacks in-between, such as LaraT bars or fruit and yogurt.  Importantly, choose familiar foods that have worked well for your body in the past.  Never experiment with anything new within the last week, even if you are partaking in the pre pasta marathon party offered by many races.

Spaghetti in the Runner's Diet

Creative Commons License photo credit: avlxyz

Fiber in the Runner’s Diet

It is also important to note the fiber in the couple of days leading up to the marathon, particularly if you are sensitive to pre race nerves and/or gastrointestinal distress either from the intensity of the endurance event, or the glycogen sparing nutrition you consume in preparation for the race or even during the race. The double edged sword here is that most carbs do contain a relative amount of fiber, especially the good ones. This may be the one time you will get the advice from a dietitian to eat the “white” stuff instead of the grains.  For the couple of days that you are increasing your carb intake, white potatoes instead of sweet potatoes is preferable. Similarly white bread versus whole grain bread, white pasta and rice instead of whole wheat pasta or brown rice… you get the jist.  And when it comes to fruit, those that do not have edible skin have less fiber than those that do.  Banana’s are of great value here because not only are they fruit with the least amount of fiber, they are also fruit that has an electrolyte (potassium) as part of its make up, offering an additional advantage as sports nutrition leading up to an endurance event.

Choice of pastas in the Healthy Runner’s Diet

Now that I have covered the issues with pre race dinner and the carbo loading week, this may be a good time to understand all the different versions of pastas that are now on the market. For the two nights before your event regular white pasta, which is made from semolina, a type of refined durum wheat, will be preferable but keep in mind not to over eat. It is a good pasta pre race because in the refining process the fiber is removed. But it typically is not the best choice for everyday nutrition because along with the fiber other key vitamins and minerals are also lost.

Other healthier choices of pastas for everyday nutrition (meaning on days not leading up to a race) include multi grain, whole wheat or quinoa pastas, or even non-wheat pastas such as rice or corn pasta for those that are attempting to remain gluten free. If you are not typically sensitive to GI distress, these may even be fine for you the night before a race, but remember this would not be a good time to try if you are not sure.

These choices are great for runners that are trying to lose weight as part of their regular nutrition because although the calories per serving matches up to semolina pasta, the grainy pastas have more fiber per serving, keeping one feeling more satisfied for longer. Multigrain pastas can offer a variety of less common grains such as Kamut. It is a relative of wheat and is nutritionally superior since it contains a protein source as well as more zinc, magnesium and vitamin E. Some pastas may even be fortified with various ingredients to increase their nutritional value, such as flaxseeds (providing the essential Omega 3 fatty acids) and protein such as BarillaT plus, which offers 4g of fiber and 10g of protein per serving.

So in conclusion –  experiment with what works and what doesn’t (all the experimenting before the big day, remember), and it will complement your months of training as you approach the start line. Once the hard work of running  hours in preparation for the marathon is over, your nutrition during your taper week has the potential to enhance the overall experience of the marathon.

Good luck, enjoy the experience, eat and train strong!!

2 Responses to “Carbo loading as part of a Runner’s Diet – Defined”

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  1. Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my zynga group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content.
    Please let me know. Thank you

  2. Very good post. I’m experiencing a few of these issues as well..