I am utterly and completely stuffed. I feel like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, and it is only 3:45 pm on my first day of carb loading. In prepping for my fourth marathon, I’ve read up thoroughly on the pre-race nutrition phase – and rather than just attempting to eat more carbs (which really hasn’t seemed to work for me) I am now committing to eating more carbs. This means documenting and keeping a close count. Turns out, carb loading requires A LOT.
You may laughingly call a pasta binge a carb load, but in reality, carb loading is a precise technique that supposedly can help you go farther for longer – especially important in an endurance race such as the marathon. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the carb-loading phase was preceded by an intense carb-depleting phase. My husband participated in carb-depleting/carb-loading when he raced triathlons in the 80s and 90s and so he asked me prior to my first marathon in May 2010 if I was going to start carb depleting. “Sure,” I said – not knowing what it was (but I don’t like to be the one who doesn’t know.) So, I read up on carb depletion – which, well sucks. Seven days prior to your event, you reduce your carb intake to next to nothing and continue to exercise to help “deplete” the glycogen from your muscles. Then, three days prior to the event you back off the exercise and load up on the carbs to replenish your glycogen stores. The theory was that stripping and then replenishing would lead to a supercharged glycogen store — beyond normal levels. Research has since found that this intense “stripping” phase is unnecessary and that a simple 50 to 60 percent carbohydrates intake followed by three days of high-carb intake (of 70 to 90 percent of calories) is sufficient to improve your performance in a long-distance race by 2 to 3 percent. That can shave 5 to 7 minutes off your time. You might even be able to get away with a shorter phase of carb loading – just 1 to 2 days — suggest some studies.
I’ve toyed with loading for previous marathons, without much seeming effect. I think I know why. First off, I wasn’t really doing it right.
For my first marathon, I tried the stripping (without the heavy-duty exercise) and thought I loaded pre-race, but really didn’t keep track so well. My normal carbohydrate intake hovers around 45 to 50 percent of calories, so when I added an extra bagel or banana I felt like I was eating more carbs, but not nearly enough more. The night before that first race, I had salad with grilled chicken — not a good choice if I was looking to build up glycogen stores – I clearly didn’t know what I was doing. For my second marathon, I tried depleting again – going down to about 35 percent carbs per day for 4 days and then I made carbohydrates make up between 60 and 65 percent of my daily calories for the three days leading up the race. This was my best time – by 7 minutes, but it was also at sea level. For my third marathon, I did less depleting early in the week but did focus on eating more 60 to 70 percent carbs the days before the race. My performance was somewhere in the middle of the two previous races – but I hit a horrible wall around 22 miles, around the same place, but harder, than I had in other races.
So, where did I go wrong? First, I went at it in a less-than-exact manner. Secondly, I focused on percentage of calories – which for women is rather ineffective. A review published in the Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition in 2006 points out that for women to reap the benefits of carb-loading, they must increase their overall calorie count for the three to four days prior to the endurance event. This allows you to take in enough grams of carbohydrates to build up glycogen stores. If you normally consume 2,000 calories per day, 70 percent of that is only 350 grams of carbs daily – about what I was eating. You may need as much as 30 to 34 percent more calories on these carb-loading days to take in the recommended 3.6 to 5.4 grams per pound of weight PER DAY. I need about 500 to 700 grams of carbohydrates daily to truly load. That’s 2,000 to 2,800 calories in carbs alone. For women, hormones and the menstrual cycle may also affect glycogen-loading, but since I cannot control these factors – I choose to ignore them for now.
Carb-loading requires some planning. I’ve made special trips to Whole Foods and Panera today – if I’m going to eat carbs, I want good ones. I’ve thrown all attempts at gluten-free eating away – but there is no reason you can’t carb load on a gluten-free regimen. Today’s meal plan, with 540 grams of carbs included:
- 5am – pre class (don’t worry, I just coached) 200 calories worth (40 g of carbs) acai berry juice
- Breakfast: cherry vanilla bagel with 1 tbsp. jam and a banana
- Snack: two servings of pretzels
- Lunch: a whole-grain bagel and an asiago cheese bagel (look, I never eat bagels, taking them in while I have a free pass)
- Snack: frozen yogurt, handful of animal crackers
- Dinner: 1 ½ cups brown rice, ½ cup black beans, salsa, 1 whole-wheat tortilla
- Post Dinner Snack – 200 calories/40 grams of carbs worth of gingersnap cookies
Okay, not a poster child for good health – but it has a purpose. Tomorrow, I promise to get some carrots, sweet potatoes and broccoli in there.
The problem with carbs (and why they cause you to gain weight when eaten to excess) is that they have no staying power. Since starting this article, I left to teach a Pilates class and am now…starving. Two hours ago, I thought about ditching this whole plan because I could not imagine eating ever again – now I munch on more pretzels since I can’t wait for dinner.
I am also extra thirsty, perhaps because my body wants to store water due to my increased carb intake. Carbs hold more water in your body, which is why you lose so much weight the first week you follow Atkins or South Beach – your body releases all that water and wallah! you are thinner – but not really.
There is another consequence, and I am ready for it…I think: the alleged 4 pound weight gain that comes with carb loading. A gain of 4 pounds earns you a gold star. It means you properly loaded. You quickly lose it. I’m skeptical, but I’ll let you know next week.