If you are into endurance sport, at some stage you will hear the phrase “carbo-loading”. It sounds intriguing enough, so what exactly does it entail? We unpack what carbo-loading is and whether it can be beneficial to you.

What exactly is carbo-loading?

Simply put, it’s a strategy used primarily by endurance athletes to maximise the storage of glycogen (a fancy name for energy) in the muscles and liver. The objective of the carbo-loading being one of trying to improve on one's own performance by making use of these additional energy stores.

Is carbo-loading effective?

If you are participating in an event that lasts longer than 90 minutes (the time it takes to for the muscles being worked continuously to become depleted of their glycogen (energy stores) then carbo-loading might be something you want to try.

How do I go about carbo-loading?

There are a number of different carbo-loading strategies that one can follow. It is important to remember that carbo-loading works best for endurance events that span more than 90 minutes. For the average Joe Bob who is a little slower than the faster athletes, this may mean an event that spans longer than 2-3hrs. It’s not to be performed for the local park run or super sprint triathlon.

The period of loading the body with additional carbohydrate stores will also depend on your level of taper heading into the event you have ear-marked as the target.

1 Week Carbo-Loading protocol example

  • This will span 6 days in total with the 7th day being race day itself
  • What you will need to do is perform muscle glycogen level depleting exercise 6 days prior to race day. For example, this may involve some high intensity sprinting on the run and some hard interval efforts on the bike.
  • You then will use the next 3 days to taper (rest and minimal exercise with longer rest periods and shorter intense effort followed by a normal dietary intake).
  • You can reduce the amount of training and exercise whilst consuming a low fat higher carb-diet intake 3 days before the competition.

What can one expect when you carbo-load as above?

  • We recommend that you try this in training before trying them out for a competition.
  • Any dietary changes can result in intestinal problems and as we all know, this is not something you will want to deal with on race day during an endurance event that spans a few hours - test the process well in advance so you know it works for you.
  • Don’t neglect the protein intake as this can act as a secondary source of energy.
  • Expect some water weight gain – this will come with the added intake of carbs – it's important to not panic since all this fuel will be burned up to good effect come race day. Furthermore, your race weight should normalise once the race is done and dusted.
  • Consuming an excessive amount of carbohydrates could result in constipation so you might want to add in some extra fibre into the diet to balance it out. Practicing this protocol in training well in advance of race day can let you avoid any nasty surprises during race week. There is nothing worse than seeing all those training miles logged go down the drain because of the change in your daily diet, 3-4 days out from the end game.

What can I eat as part of my carbo-loading strategy?

Besides consuming additional supplements in the form of carb-rich energy drinks which most of the sports nutritional manufacturers cater for, you can use a vast array of food sources to add to the carbo-loading protocol

10 Good Food Sources you can try that are rich in carbo-hydrates

  • Toast with a honey spread
  • Fresh Fruit (Apples/Banana’s) as well as dried fruit options
  • Energy bars (most of the big players will have these as part of their product selection)
  • Boiled Jacket Potato with tuna toppings
  • Pasta’s with chicken and asparagus
  • Porridge/Oats with milk topped with some fruit. (Banana slices/strawberries)
  • Turkey sandwich on whole grain bread
  • Grilled salmon and whole grain rice

Can Carbo-Loading be bad for me?

It won't be a problem for most athletes. However, there are instances where carbo-loading raises the insulin levels in the blood which can cause problems for people that are diabetic.  For diabetics, carbo-loading should be undertaken with a cautious approach and perhaps with some additional medical advice – especially insulin users as this can cause hyperglycaemia before, during, and/or after exercise if adequate insulin is not taken as part of the loading process. A rule of thumb is to seek some sound additional medical advice before embarking on a carbo-loading protocol.