Carbo Loading: Fueling for your Fall Marathon (or Half!) Part 3 of 3

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “carbo loading?” You might have the image of a runner going to a nice restaurant the night before the race to eat a massive plate of pasta, two or three rolls and a dessert on top. Some runners may follow that stereotype. Many don’t, and frankly, most probably shouldn’t!

Do runners have to carb load for every race?

Actually, no. If you’re running in event that will take you LESS than 2 hours to complete, won’t get significant benefit from carbo loading.

So why would a longer-distance runner need to carbo load?

I explained in the first part of this blog series that stored carbohydrates are a very important fuel for the endurance athlete. You can access the fuel quickly, and it’s the primary fuel for hard efforts. In the 2-3 days leading up to your race, your goal is to continually top off your carbohydrate stores so that when you arrive on the start line, your stores are completely full. That means you should NOT wait till the day before your race to start thinking about carb loading!

In the 3 days before your race, you should be consuming somewhere between 70-90% of your calories from carbohydrates. That doesn’t mean that you should be eating more food over all, it just means that you should limit high fat and high protein foods and replace those foods with carbohydrates. It’s also important to remember that any foods you eat during this time should be foods that you are very familiar with and that you have eaten during your training—digestive surprises are not welcome! Some examples of how to easily incorporate more carbs into your day:

  • Do you like to snack on almonds, sunflower kernels or other seeds & nuts? Normally that’s a great option, but during this period, swap out those healthy fats for a banana or another fruit, or try crackers or pita bread
  • Do you like to put olive oil or pesto on your pasta? Again, not bad choices most of the time, but during this period, swap them out for sauces that are higher in carbs, like a tomato sauce. You could use a smaller-than-usual amount of sauce and just increase the amount of starch on your place to make up for the lost calories
  • Love a big portion of protein? Not during this time. Eat a smaller portion of protein and fill the empty space on your plate with more rice, pasta or other whole grains
  • Add starchy vegetables that you are comfortable eating to your menus, including carrots, baked potatoes, yams, squash, etc
  • Drink some of your carbohydrates in smoothies and juice using organic fruits and vegetables
  • White flour is okay in the 2-3 days before the race as long as you can tolerate it. Your body is going to snatch up those simple sugars quickly on race day.

Your biggest meal should be two days before the event and not the night before. You don’t want to start your race with a heavy feeling in your gut, and you most definitely don’t want to have to make pit stops along the course to…ahem…unload last night’s big dinner.

By the way, during these couple of days, it’s pretty broadly recommended that you should avoid alcohol (for so many reasons, I’m not even going to go into it—just avoid it!). And though I am a big fiber fan, don’t overdo it during this time.

By the time your race day arrives, you’ve had lots of practice eating breakfast before your long run. You know what works well and what doesn’t. You’ve also tested out gels and sports drinks, so you know their impact on your performance and on your gut. Don’t try anything new on race day. I cannot repeat this enough…NOTHING NEW ON RACEDAY! A few suggestions…

  • If your race is many hours after your breakfast, plan to take your breakfast on the road with you
  • 1-3 hours before the start, hydrate with 12-16 oz of water, sports drink or juice
  • Bring your own gels and/or sports drink to the event. Never expect that your fuel needs will be met by the event
  • If you can tolerate it, take a drink at every water stop, whether it’s a sip or a full cup of water or sports drink

During your race, your body will take somewhere around 30 minutes to assimilate any calories you introduce. That means you should be replenishing with carbohydrates before you feel like you need them. If you’re completely zonked at mile 24, it’s too late to get much benefit from downing a gel then. Don’t wait! Somewhere between 30 – 60 or more carbs per hour will go a long way toward pushing back the wall.

Got a question or need some more guidance? Leave me a message in the comments or get in touch through this website. Good luck, runners!! I can’t wait to hear the triumphant racing stories from running pals and clients!