Carbohydrate Loading for Endurance Exercise

If you are preparing for an endurance event that lasts more than 90 minutes—a competitive marathon, triathlon, cross-country ski race, or long-distance bike race—you should saturate your muscles with carbohydrate. Although carbohydrate loading sounds simple (just stuff yourself with pasta, right?), the truth is that many endurance athletes make food mistakes that hurt their performance. Here is my nine-step carbohydrate-loading plan to help all endurance athletes fuel optimally for their events.

1. Carbohydrate load daily. Your daily diet should be carbohydrate based and balanced with adequate protein and healthful fat. A daily carbohydrate intake of about 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (6 to 10 g per kg) prevents chronic glycogen depletion and allows you to not only train at your best but also compete at your best. Divide your target grams of carbohydrate into three parts of the day: breakfast plus snack (7:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.), lunch plus snack (12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.), and dinner plus snack (5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.).

Your weight

Total g carb/day

Target g carb/5 hours

100 lb (45 kg)

300 to 500

100 to 175

125 lb (57 kg)

375 to 625

125 to 210

150 lb (68 kg)

450 to 750

150 to 250

175 lb (79 kg)

525 to 875

175 to 290

The philosophy that "if some carbohydrate is good, then more will be better" does not hold true for carbohydrate loading. If you eat too much, you will likely experience intestinal distress, and your muscles will be no better fueled than if you'd eaten an adequate amount (Rauch et al. 1995). As one marathoner said after stuffing herself the night before her first marathon, "I felt heavy and bloated . . . not the way I wanted to feel at the start of the race."

2. Taper your training. Forget any plans for last-minute training sprees. Do your final hard training three weeks before race day, and start tapering your training at least two weeks out. Although hard training builds you up, it also tears you down, and you need time to heal any damage that occurred during training and to completely refuel with carbohydrate. Some exercise scientists suggest reducing your exercise time to 30 percent of normal, doing little exercise in the last 7 to 10 days before the event other than some short, intense speed intervals to keep you sharp (Houmard et al. 1990).

Correct tapering requires tremendous mental discipline and control. Most athletes are afraid to taper for such a long time. They are afraid they will get out of shape because they are exercising less. Worry not. The proof will come when you perform better—perhaps 9 percent better. Swimmers, for example, maximized their performance when they tapered for two

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