The Great Carbohydrate Loading Myth

The Myth:

All you need to do is have an enormous bowl of pasta the night before the race.

The Background:

Firstly, carbohydrate loading is only necessary where exercise lasts longer than about 90-minutes, which clearly includes the marathon distance. The purpose of carbohydrate loading is to promote maximum storage of muscle glycogen, the stored fuel that the muscles use during exercise. ‘The wall’ happens when glycogen stores become depleted, so carbohydrate loading is one of the strategies that will help avoid this undesirable outcome – others include doing plenty of long runs in training to train muscles to use fat more effectively, and consuming carbohydrates from drinks and gels during the race to spare muscle glycogen.

The History:

The legendary Ron Hill was the first athlete to use a carbohydrate loading strategy, doing so at the 1969 European Championship marathon, which he won. Early carbohydrate loading schedules included a period of carbohydrate depletion prior to the loading phase, which was thought to promote ‘supercompensation’ of glycogen. Athletes reported feeling dreadful during the depletion phase and it may even increase risk of injury. Fortunately the science of performance nutrition has evolved a great deal since then and the modern day protocol is much easier to follow.

The Facts:

An effective carbohydrate loading phase takes 3-4 days, so relying on one large bowl of pasta the night before is not going to cut it. The fact that you are tapering your training before the race automatically contributes to loading, assuming you keep eating your usual intake of carbohydrates. However in the final 3-4 days you want to aim for between 7-10g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. So a 70kg runner will require between 490 and 700g per day. Eating this amount of carbohydrate requires a concerted effort, but rather than obsessively weighing all your food and doing sums simply ensure that all your meals are carbohydrate rich and include additional carbohydrate snacks and drinks over and above your normal intake. Breakfast cereal, fruit juice, dried fruit, bananas, bread, pasta, rice, pancakes and potatoes are all examples of carbohydrate rich foods that can be included in your loading phase diet.

Many athletes opt for a low-fibre diet on the final day of loading, which can help prevent abdominal gas and bloating in the race. Stick with white bread/rice/pasta, and avoid eating large quantities of beans and pulses (unless you know you get on well with them), and go easy on the vegetables and salads.

The Final Word:

By all means go to the pasta party the night before the race. Hopefully by that time most of your carbohydrate loading work is done, so opt for a normal sized portion and go easy on the high-fat salad dressings. You can also chose from the wide variety of other carbohydrate choices, so if you prefer a risotto go for it! Finally, after eating your normal carbohydrate-rich pre-race breakfast plan to do a final glycogen top-up by sipping a sports drink in the hour before the start, or consuming a gel about 15-20-minutes before.

Have a great race!


Paul Chamberlain is a sports nutritionist in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. Find out more.

About PCNutrition

Paul Chamberlain MSc is a performance nutritionist based in Hertfordshire supporting athletes in a variety of sports and offering weight loss and general nutrition coaching to anyone looking to improve their health and well-being. Paul has lectured extensively on nutrition and is former Technical Director at Solgar Vitamin & Herb, where he gained extensive knowledge of the supplement market. Paul uses a functional approach to promote improved performance and long-term health.
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