Most ambitious endurance athletes are familiar with carbo-loading. But also many less ambitious athletes have heard of it and employ this technique in more or less helpful ways. After all, it is a great excuse to stuff your face in the name of success. But what exactly does proper carbo-loading entail and when is it beneficial to do it?

The general idea of carbo-loading is essentially a voluntarily induced yo-yo effect. First the body is deprived of carbohydrates. The body “remembers” this state of deprivation and, when given the chance, will not only replenish the storage, but add on a reserve. It’s almost like training. When the body is pushed near or beyond its capabilities, it adapts by compensating beyond the state it was in before the stimulus was applied. The body super-compensates.

So why bring a few more carbs into an important event? Well, carbs, which are stored as glycogen in the body, is speedily available energy, which is required for high-intensity efforts; and those are usually needed for race-winning moves. More carbs = more time in the red zone = better result. Carbo-loading can increase the body’s glycogen stores (in the muscles and liver) by up to 40%, leading to a performance increase of 2-3%.

Sounds awesome! How do I do it? Well the “classic protocol” requires a glycogen deprivation of 2-3 days, during which you eat mainly proteins and fat and exercise vigorously. This is followed by a loading phase of 2-3 days right before the event, during which you take it easy. However, have you ever tried to eat no carbs for 2-3 days? It is miserable.

A much less miserable alternative is the progressive protocol, which leads to about 90% of the effects of the classic protocol. Three days before the event you do a low-carb day. 2 days before the event you perform a short high-intensity session, after which you immediately start carbo-loading. Continue to load the day before the event.

But what does “loading mean”? Stuff your face with as much pasta as you can? No, it means to have a normal to slightly increased daily intake of carbs (about 4-6g per lb of body weight). The prior deprivation is key, not the ability to eat a crazy amount of pasta the night before the race. Stay away from the pasta craze, especially the night before an event. Just eat portions you would normally eat.: just make sure they are carbohydrate-rich.

Also good to know is that one gram of glycogen is stored with 3 grams of water. So if you are, for example, doing a 1h hill-climb, carbo-loading is probably going to have an adverse effect. A bit more than half of a regular person’s 1500-2000 kcal in glycogen are completely sufficient for such an event. If you were to increase your stores by 40% through carbo-loading, you would pack on an additional 1.5-2lb (mainly in water weight), which you would carry for no reason. The rule of thumb is: If the event is less than 2h, don’t carbo-load.

Last piece of advice: beer does not work for carbo-loading. I tried it myself.

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