How Carbo-Loading Can Boost Your Race Performance

Hang out among runners in training for any length of time, and you’re likely to get an earful about “carbo-loading.” But you’ll also hear a lot of disagreement about when and how to carbo-load, and whether or not it’s necessary. How do you decide what’s right for you?

“Carbo-loading is very helpful strategy for high-intensity exercise, says Heather D’Eliso Gordon, sports dietician and nutrition health coach in the Health Education Department at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco. “For your regular runs, you probably don’t need to worry about it. But for races, when your primary goal is performance, you want to carbo-load.”

Carbo-loading helps you avoid “hitting a wall” in terms of endurance and running out of steam, Gordon says. This happens when you deplete the glycogen stored in your muscles — the equivalent of running out of gas. Carbo-loading is like topping off that tank. Here’s how to do it.

Boost your carb intake now

If you’re not already eating a high-carb diet, start now. You need the energy for this final training push, and you don’t want to introduce major dietary changes in the last days before a race and risk upsetting your system.

Start serious carbo-loading 3-7 days before the race. At this point, 85 to 95 percent of your calories should come from carbohydrates. During these last few days you’ll also want to cut back your running to allow glycogen to accumulate. If this sounds difficult, practice; do a couple of days of carbo-loading before each of your upcoming longer training runs to get a feel for it.

Choose carbs you like

Pick some favorite high-carb foods and incorporate them into your pre-race ritual. Jodi Thirtyacre, captain of the Kaiser Permanente training teams, eats a bowl of pasta the night before a race. On race-day morning, she eats toast topped with peanut butter and banana at least two hours before start time. (More of Jodi’s food tips for race day here.)

Other popular foods for efficient carbo-loading include:

  • Potatoes
  • Rice
  • Bread or bagels
  • Tortillas or crackers
  • Oatmeal
  • Juice
  • Sweets, including candy

Fiber can be a problem for endurance running, causing digestive issues during a race. To get around that, some experts suggest peeling fruit and potatoes before eating. Watch out for fats, such as butter and cream-based pasta sauces, which can slow you down. And don’t overeat the night and morning before the race.

Here are some more tips on pre-race carbo-loading from Runner’s World.