Carbohydrate-Loading for Performance
What is carbohydrate-loading?
Carbohydrate-loading is the process of increasing your intake of carbohydrates in the lead up to a game, race or sporting competition, to maximise energy availability. This increased energy availability is achieved through an increase in glycogen stored in the body - our primary source of fuel when we exercise for medium-long durations at high intensities.
There are many different carb-loading strategies - ranging from training low and playing high, to three low-carb days followed by three high-carb days, but the most recommended strategy is simply to increase carbohydrate intake in the 36 hours before your game or race. This strategy of carb-loading is sustainable over the course of many games/races and seasons. It is a simple strategy which will not negatively affect training sessions (as the train-low/play-high strategy may do) and it should not result in a large calorie surplus. You just slightly reduce protein and fat intake in the 36-hour period pre-game/race and replace them with additional carbohydrates.
The majority of your carbohydrates should be consumed the day before the game/race. Attempting to carb-load on the morning of the game/race, or by having a large pre-game meal is just too little too late, as the pre-game meal should only account for approximately 10% of your carb-load.
How much carbohydrate is needed?
We already know that the carbohydrate-loading process should begin 36 hours pre-competition, but how many carbohydrates are you expected to consume in this period? The answer largely depends on bodyweight, as it is recommended to consume between 7g - 8g of carbohydrate per kg of body mass during your carb-load. It makes sense that athletes of different body weights require different amounts of carbohydrate to optimally carb-load! The amount of carbohydrates needed can also depend on the athletes experience with carb-loading, in addition to the type of event you are preparing for (60 minute GAA game vs a 3-hour marathon) but the above recommendation of 7g - 8g per kg of body mass is a sufficient, realistic and achievable target.
So, for an 80kg athlete this equates to between 560g - 640g of carbohydrate. To put this into context, a typical bowl of porridge (40g serving of oats with added milk) provides approximately 35g - 45g of carbohydrate. You could add a variety of toppings such as honey, fruits and seeds to significantly bump up the carbohydrate content of a bowl of porridge but as you can see, the overall carbohydrate-loading goal is quite high. Of course, this carbohydrate goal is spread out across a 36-hour window which makes it very achievable when planned correctly.
Altering your calorie intake!
It would seem that with a large increase in carbohydrates during a carb-load, would come a large increase in calories. However, this doesn't have to be the case and in most situations it isn't needed. By simply reducing your protein and fat intake during your carb-load and replacing those calories with carbohydrates, you can limit the number of extra calories to consume. Of course, a slight increase in calorie intake is somewhat inevitable and not to be discouraged, but what you shouldn't want is an extra 1200 calories on account of your increased carbohydrate intake!
You could think of the carb-loading process as 'replacing' some protein and fat with extra carbohydrates, instead of just adding extra carbohydrates to your normal diet/intake. In this way, you are both maximising glycogen availability and keeping your total calorie intake in check at the same time. Some simple changes such as snacking on carbohydrates (on carb-loading day) where you would normally snack on protein sources may be all it takes to increase your carbohydrate content enough.
Some Simple Strategies to help with the carb-loading process!
1: Start on time! Starting your carb-load a full 36 hours before the game gives you as much time as needed to fuel your glycogen stores and eat the required amount of carbohydrate. Failure to start on time leaves you chasing a big carbohydrate intake too close to the game/race which can lead to gastric discomfort, feelings of bloating, fullness, stress etc. For a 2pm Saturday game, your carb loading should really begin on Thursday evening, followed by a full day of carb-loading on Friday and some smaller meals on Saturday morning pre-game. Remember, the pre-game meal should only account for approximately 10% of your total carbohydrates.
2: Plan your meals! Planning some of your meals ahead of time will make it a lot easier to consume such a large amount of carbohydrate. You don't have to go into every detail but having a rough idea of what meals and what food sources you will eat, will help the process. Identifying high-carbohydrate meals in advance, and knowing when you are going to have them, is also a good idea. For example, planning to have a bowl of porridge with added blueberries, banana, honey and seeds along with a bagel the morning before game-day might be a good idea. For the Saturday mid-day game situation, this is an ideal high-carbohydrate breakfast for Friday morning to kickstart a full day of carb-loading. 3: Use liquid carbohydrates! A really easy strategy if you struggle to eat a high amount of carbohydrates. Smoothies, shakes, milks, juices and energy drinks can help bump up your carbohydrate intake quickly.
4: Stick to the same routine! Sticking to the same meals and food sources can be a good idea to avoid any negative effects from trying new foods or meals in the build up to a big sporting competition. Trialling some meals during a carb-load for smaller games or even trainings is a good idea and can enable you to have a set number of meals you use regularly in your carb-loading process.
Maximising Liquid Sources of Carbohydrate.
As we now know, it is recommended that you consume somewhere in the range of 7g - 8g of carbohydrates per kg of body mass. This may be ok for a 65kg athlete, but when it comes to a 105kg rugby players, it’s a different story! A 105kg athlete would be aiming for between 735g and 840g of carbohydrate in approximately a 36-hour window. This can seem un-achievable for some but using some simple hacks such as liquid sources of carbohydrate can make it a much more realistic goal. First of all, liquid sources of carbohydrate count the same as solid food sources of carbohydrate! More importantly, liquid carbs are much easier to consume, they are easy to digest, and they are handy options for snacking or taking on-the-go between meals on carb-loading days. Examples of liquid sources of carbohydrate are smoothies, shakes, milks, juices and energy drinks.
Smoothie! A simple smoothie made of oats, two fruit, honey and milk would provide the equivalent carbohydrate content of a large bowl of porridge (if not more) and is usually much easier and quicker to consume. Milk! Simply having a glass of milk instead of water can provide an extra 20g of carbohydrate - protein milk may be advertised for its protein content but usually contains the same amount of carbohydrate as protein!
A glass of orange juice with breakfast can provide an additional 20g - 25g of simple carbohydrate and although these aren't typically the best sources, they can be handy options when you are chasing a high total carbohydrate intake!