The 5 carbo-loading mistakes (and how to correct them)

When we are getting ready for a race, the majority of us focus on the training, several on rest too, some on recovery and only a few of us get the nutrition part 100% right.

During my many years on supporting athletes with their diets, I have seen it all.

From the average runner who thinks he can do a whole half marathon without any race nutrition (about 2h 30m), to the semi advanced half ironman athlete who fuels himself with only 1800kcal a day only in order to lose weight.

But the most common mistake of all, is the pre-race carbo-loading. The common knowledge is that you should have a big dinner of pasta the night before the race in order to replenish your carb reserves.

In this practice, there are 5 main issues, and these are them:

1. carbo-loading done at the wrong time.

The night before the race is not the right time to eat heavy food, especially foods containing gluten (like wheat, rye, barley and wheat – pasta, bread, pizza, etc..). These will not be eliminated in time for the race and will get you heavier and therefore slower.

The right time to carbo-load is 2 days before the race (a.k.a. Friday dinner if you are racing Sunday). In this way, you’ll have all the time to digest AND eliminate that heavy food.

2. carbo-load is done with pasta, and a meat based sauce (like bolognese) or a extremely fatty sauce (like Alfredo, carbonara, pesto).

When you carbo-loading, focus on the carbs and avoid fatty foods. These are heavy, very heavy on the stomach; according to the “Mayo Clinic” it takes 6 to 8 hours for food to pass through the stomach and small intestine. But it normally takes up to 24-72 hours to digest red meat.

And according to authors of the book “Nutritional Sciences: From Fundamentals to Food,” it takes 24 to 72 hours for complete digestion of food. However, since fat takes the longest to digest, you can expect that a fatty meal will be fully digested in closer to 72 than 24 hours.

The right sauce to use on your pasta is a low-fat marinara, maybe with lentils or beans for extra protein.

3. carbo-load is done with refined carbs.

How many of you are actually making sure that the carbs they are eating are wholesome? I bet none of you raised the hand. It is essential that carbo-load is done with wholesome, fiber-rich grains, even better when they are easier to digest.

The right way to carbo load, is with wholewheat pasta or better gluten-free wholesome grains like quinoa, buckwheat, millet (my favourite – much more volume for its calories) or sweet potatoes. If you instead prefer to use brown / red / black rice cause it is cheaper and more accessible, make sure to soak it for at least 24 hours to start eliminating it’s phytic acid. Read more about it here.

4. carbo-loading becomes calories loading. 

It always makes me cringe when I see athletes ruining months of training for that ‘freebie’ cheat meal. Pasta is VERY caloric on it’s own, mix it with butter loaded sauces (yes, even marinara can have a lot of butter if made in a restaurant) and you get a caloric bomb. Carbo-load should not become a calorie load, so make sure to calculate your calories accurately. This is the most important of all your pre-race meals, save your cravings for post race (the best time to eat carbs for glycogen store replenishing).

Depending on your daily calories need and how many meals / snacks you have a day, your carbo-loading meal can get anywhere between 400kcal to 700 kcal, not more.

5. carbo-load is done without carbs depleting.

To carbo-load correctly, you need to limit your carbs intake for the 4/5 days prior the carbo-load dinner (from Sunday / Monday if the race is Sunday). This means that you need to reduce your complex carbs (pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, oats, corn, etc..) intake for the week before the race. Your calories need will also decrease since you are tapering.

Focus on high fiber, high water carbs like lettuce, cucumber and zucchini (700g for 100 kcal), pumpkin and cauliflower (400g for 100 kcal), broccoli and green beans (300g for 100 kcal), even beans and lentils (80g for 100kcal).

Additional race-nutrition tips:

  • The day before the race: eat a balance diet staying within your calories need. Avoid too many animal products, cheeses and deep fried foods.
  • 60 minutes before the race start: finish your pre-race breakfast – anything you have tried before, oats (slow release carbs) and bananas are usually great.
  • 5-10 minutes before the start: have a small quantity of simple carbs and alkaline snack, like a bite of banana, some raisins, honey / maple syrup.
  • Post-race: make sure to replenish the electrolytes with hydration packs and of course glycogen stores with some wholesome carbs, like the wholewheat pasta La Holista is going to sponsor at The Challenge, Nha Trang.


How do you fuel your races? Leave your comments below.

La Holista- Saigon - Health Coaching Truth about Carb-loading

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