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Is Carb Loading Truly Beneficial For Athletes?

Doctorpedia Editorial Team Doctorpedia Editorial Team April 6, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

Carbohydrate loading: it sounds like every pasta lover’s dream, doesn’t it? You can probably imagine yourself at your favorite Italian joint with the endless plates of fettuccini alfredo and garlic bread on the side. With all of that creamy, rich pasta to look forward to, who wouldn’t want to be an athlete? That’s some prime motivation right there.

 

But then your dream bursts. And instead of being in your favorite restaurant, you’re seated at your table at home. No unlimited bowls of pasta, but a bowl of brown rice, roasted chicken, and shredded vegetables. Also tasty, but not quite the same.

 

So if carb loading isn’t just gorging on your favorite dishes, what is it then? Who is it supposed to help? And what, exactly, are you supposed to be eating? Let’s start from the beginning.

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What is carb loading?

 

Contrary to popular health belief nowadays, carbohydrates are a necessary nutrient your body needs to function properly. According to the Mayo Clinic, any time you eat a carb (and that includes anything from pizza to butternut squash to quinoa) your body breaks it down into sugars during the digestion process. From there it goes into your bloodstream to provide energy to individual cells, and it is also stored in your liver and muscles as a specific type of sugar called glycogen. Glycogen is what gives your muscles the energy they need to make you move. Without it, you would probably be an unwilling couch potato. 

 

So why the carb loading?

 

Most people eat some form of carbohydrates everyday. Is that not enough?

 

The short of it is: not really. For someone who has a more sedentary lifestyle (say, an office job plus hobby couch potato-ist) the average amount of carbs eaten in a day is more than enough. But because your muscles have a limited amount of storage available (kind of like that tiny pantry in your first apartment), they only hold on to a limited amount of glycogen. Any activity you do, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, uses that store up and needs to be replenished. So that snack bar you grab from the vending machine is usually enough to bring those stores back up. Someone who has a more active lifestyle, such as a professional athlete, has greater energy needs than that.

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Enter: carbohydrate loading.


To be more exact, carb loading is a very specific athletic diet strategy that many athletes use before an event. A few days before, they both lighten up their workout routine or rest completely from 36 to 24 hours before the competition and try to “stock up” on carbs. 

 

Now that we have the basics, we can answer the “what.” To be completely honest, you could theoretically accomplish carbohydrate loading by taking up residence at that Italian restaurant. However, Welsh Athletics recommends consumption of low-fat and low-fiber carbs. Too much fat and fiber before an event can lead to a heavy feeling in your stomach and could cause potential digestion issues that you do not want to deal with while, say, running a race. Sanford Health recommends whole grains such as quinoa, potatoes, and whole grain bread for healthy carbohydrates.

 

Now that we’ve gotten that down, who can benefit from this type of diet before a race? As mentioned before, someone with a sedentary and mildly active lifestyle gets enough energy from the standard amount of carbs eaten in a day. Studies have also shown that someone doing less than 90 minutes of activity doesn’t necessarily benefit from carb loading. More specifically, carb loading is recommended for athletes engaging in high intensity activity spanning for longer than 90 minutes. A marathon, for example.

 

As always, make sure to check with your healthcare provider before starting a new regimen to make sure it’s right for you.

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