When it comes to carb loading, the pre-race pasta dinner and the marathon go hand-in-hand. It’s a long-running joke (pun intended) that if you’re gearing up for a marathon, you’re going to be eating lots of pasta the night before.
But there’s more that goes into carbo-loading for a marathon or half marathon than just loading up your plate the night before.
And, if you plan on doing it all in the meal before the race, you may end up hurting your performance with digestive upset, fatigue, and inflammation.
In this article, we’re going to look at:
- What is carb loading, and what it aims to achieve
- How to carbo load effectively, with specific advice for half marathons and marathons.
- What to eat when carbo loading
- The 8 common mistakes runners make when carb loading.
What is carb loading?
Carbohydrates in the form of glycogen are your body’s preferred fuel source when it comes to running. And for races lasting longer than 90-120 minutes, filling up these fuel stores are key to helping you go the distance.
How do you do this?
By eating carbs to maximize the stores of glycogen in your muscles and liver. You need these carb stores because your body only has limited room for this fuel:
“With only 2,000 calories worth of energy stored from carbohydrates, our body will run out of fuel after approximately 2 hours. By increasing the number of carbohydrates the body can store, we can run for a longer period of time without running out of energy,” explains exercise physiologist and world-champion triathlete Todd Buckingham.
Related: The complete story of the sub-2 hour marathon
Thus, carbohydrate loading (or carb loading / carbo loading, for short) involves gradually increasing your total carbohydrate intake prior to an athletic event so that you have excess glycogen in your liver for your muscles to tap into for endurance events and long duration exercises.
“By eating more carbohydrates, you may be able to store more energy in your muscles giving you the stamina to make it through longer endurance events,” explains registered dietician at Nutrition Rewired, Erin Kenney.
How does carb loading help performance?
By carbo loading, you can avoid hitting the wall or bonking.
Hitting the wall in a marathon or bonking occurs when your body runs out of fuel a.k.a. carbs, and pace slows, and your muscles may start cramping and feeling fatigued. Through carbo loading, athletes have excess carbs stored in the liver making it easier for their bodies to release during races and long runs.
“When carbohydrates are all used up and blood glucose is low, the runner will rely more on fat for energy, and the pace will slow down because energy (ATP) is produced more slowly from fat than from carbohydrate,” explains Dr. Jason Karp, exercise physiologist, run coach, and author of Running a Marathon for Dummies. “So, not carb loading before a marathon simply means the carb fuel tank may not be as full as possible, and the runner will fatigue earlier in the race and slow down earlier.”
Related: Gut Training For Runners
Carbs help with hydration, too. For every gram of stored glycogen there are four grams of water stored along with it.
Buckingham notes that while carb loading is key for races longer than two hours, it has been shown to help athletes in races lasting less than two hours, as well.
“The reason for this is that the body will start to slow your pace down if it senses your carbohydrate levels getting too low,” explains Buckingham.
How To Carb Load Correctly
Carbo-loading involves eating more carbs at every meal and snack in the days leading up to your marathon or half-marathon.
Instead of one piece of toast, have two. Instead of a half of a baked potato, eat the whole thing. Have carbs replace fat and fiber in your meals.
Three to four days out from race day: Your plate can be 1/2 carbohydrates such as rice, legumes, potatoes, 1/4 protein, 1/4 vegetables leading up to the race.
The morning of the race: 1.5-2.5 g of carbs for every 1 kg of body weight 3-4 hours before the race and a smaller carbohydrate snack -banana, bar, bread, 1 hour before the race. Also, have in 5-7 mL of water/electrolytes fluid per 1kg of body weight.
“Carb heavy meals, without practice and nutrition training on the gut, can cause extreme stomach upset,” she warns.
When to start carb loading for a marathon or ultra
Carbohydrate loading generally begins about 3-4 days out from race day (although some can start as many as 7 days out). At this time, you gradually increase your intake of carbs per meal while eating less of fat and fiber.
When to start carb loading for a half marathon
Carb loading ahead of a half-marathon looks similar to carb-loading for a marathon. About 3 days out from the race, aim for 70 percent of carbs from your total calories. Eat this along with low-fat unprocessed foods and lean protein, says Nelson Joseph at CardioZero.
Foods to eat when carbo loading
It’simportant to keep in mind that our body stores carbohydrates best from starchy carbohydrates, says Kenney.
Good carbohydrate sources for enhancing performance include . . .
- pasta (here’s a delicious aglio olio recipe),
- pancakes, and
Related: Read 11 carbo loading sources for runners
The idea is to eat more carbs than you normally would but still keep a balanced plate, notes Jeff Parke, owner of Top Fitness Mag.
Some meals to eat in the days leading up to the race include
- pasta with vegetables and shrimp;
- farro or rice with chopped apples, arugula, shaved parmesan and goat cheese, pecans, salmon or chicken; and
- potato boats stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, and mozzarella.
The day before the race, stick to only simple carbs.
Related: Check out this carb loading pasta recipe
The 8 Big Carbohydrate Loading Mistakes Runners Make
1. Eating all the carbs at once
The most common mistake runners make ahead of their marathon or half-marathon is that they plan to carbo load the night before at the infamous pasta dinner.
This is a big mistake because it does not give your body ample enough time or amounts to fill its stores. It also can leave you lethargic the next morning.
Runners should aim to build up carbs the 3 to 4 days ahead of the race, rather than all at once.
2. Depleting carbs before loading carbs
It was once believed that in order to fully stock your fuel stories, runners needed to deplete their carbs before loading up on carbs. This involved doing a hard workout just 7 days prior to your race, and then not eating carbs for 3 days.
Carb depletions involves a risk of injury and decreased confidence because it can make runners feel, well, terrible—cranky, sore, and fatigued.
Research shows that these risks are not worth it. A carbohydrate loading plan without depletion stores just about as much glycogen.
Still, carb loading does not mean you “stuff yourself” to get fuller glycogen stores. You are simply adjusting each meal to have a larger carbohydrate component. Overeating (which is common due to nervousness) is not what you want, notes Buckingham.
Related: Running for weight loss explained
4. Freaking out about weight gain
On the other hand, gaining weight while carbo loading is natural. That’s because carbs help you retain water. Remember that for every gram of stored glycogen, you’re storing 4 grams of water. If you gain some weight, that’s actually a good thing. It means your body has the fuel and hydration ready to race.
5. Eating too much fiber
As you increase your carbs, runners should reduce their fiber intake in the last three days prior to a race. This is because fiber can be taxing on the GI system.
Therefore, instead of carbo loading with whole wheat toast that has high fiber, choose the white bread.
This gives your GI system a break and reduces the chance of GI distress during the race, says Buckingham.
6. Not practicing carbo-loading before race day.
You never want to “try” something new on race day. Thus, it is best to practice your carb loading plan ahead of a couple of long runs in your training so that you know what to expect and how your body will respond.
Practicing will help you dial in your carbohydrate loading plan just like you dial in your race nutrition plan. Then, once you know what works best for you, pre-plan your meals the last three days so you cannot stress about what to eat.
7. Not eating enough carbs
Runners typically eat healthy.
But eating lots of vegetables and smoothies isn’t going to give your body the carb fuel it needs for your marathon or half-marathon.
In order to properly carb load, runners should aim for 8-12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight, explains Buckingham. For a 160-pound individual, that’s 580-870g or 2,300-3,400 calories from carbohydrates alone.
“This is also why runners need to limit the number of other foods they’re eating, like fat and protein,” says the sports physiologist. “Eating 2,000-3,000 calories from carbohydrates without any fat or protein is already close to the daily calorie recommendation. If runners do not also limit their fat and protein consumption, they could see excess weight gain leading up to the race.”
8. Not drinking when carb loading
Not all carbs are created the same, notes Capone.
There are different types of sugars: fructose, sucrose, glucose. Different carbohydrates have different transporters into the bloodstream. Therefore, runners need to be mindful of what they’re drinking with what carbs they’re eating.
“Gatorade contains fructose, glucose, and sucrose allowing it to be one of the best liquid sources of carbohydrates for athletes. Sodium helps with the transportation of glucose, meaning sodium is an important part of carbohydrate utilization,” she explains.
So, while consuming carbohydrates is important, it’s also important to be hydrating properly with sugars and salts during activity too, not just before the race.
Carbo loading properly prior to race day can be the difference of a PR versus a DNF for runners.