Part of getting ready for a race is carbo-loading, which helps with stamina.

Carbo-Loading: What Runners Need to Know

With the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon, 10K and 5K coming up in a few weeks, it’s a good time to talk about how what you eat affects how you run. Carbo-loading is an important strategy advocated by runners and nutritionists to boost race performance.

“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.

5-7 Days Before an Event: Start Boosting Carbs Now

You can start boosting your carb intake as much as a week before the race. Start gradually, adding carbohydrate snacks between meals. Many people find they decrease fat and protein as they increase carbs, and this is okay.

2-3 Days Before an Event:

Serious carb0-loading should begin at least 48 hours before a race, working quickly up to the point that 85 to 95 percent of your calories are coming from carbohydrates. If you’re only starting carbo-loading now, try for a more gradual increase, as you don’t want to introduce major dietary changes at the last minute and risk upsetting your system.

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.

Other popular foods for efficient carbo-loading include:
•Bread or bagels
•Tortillas or crackers
•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.

After the Race

What you eat post-race matters too, because it affects recovery. It’s extremely important to eat a carb-heavy snack within half an hour after a run to replace lost glycogen in your muscles.

Kaiser Permanente Race Team Captain Jodi Thirtyacre says her post-race meal of choice is a vegetarian burrito, made with beans, cheese, rice, salsa, and guacamole. It’s got plenty of carbs, lots of protein, and healthy fats thanks to the avocado.

Melanie Haiken, Health and Fitness Expert

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.