Kerry Pye’s health and fitness column: Have you heard of ‘carb loading’?

Pasta dish
Pasta dish

The idea of carbohydrate loading – or what is technically known as “muscle glycogen supercompensation” – is fairly simple. 

When you exercise, your body uses glycogen - a form of carbohydrate stored in the liver and muscle cells - to provide energy.

During extended activities the glycogen stores can run low or run out, at which point you will experience a drop in performance as fatigue sets in. Topping up your glycogen stores before an event by carb loading can prevent this, leading to a potential increase in your energy and endurance, enabling you to maintain pace.

Think about our car again! If you were setting off on a long journey with little opportunity to stop for fuel it would be prudent to fill your fuel tank as full as possible.

If you were to sit down for dinner with a group of marathon runners the night before a race, they would probably be eating carbs – lots of them. You’d be surrounded by people eating piles of spaghetti, rice, potatoes and bread, all in an attempt to top up their fuel tanks before the race.

The night before a race/match is very important but equally crucial are the last few days leading up to it.

The standard process calls for a gradual tapering of the amount of time spent exercising each day (usually with a rest day the day before) and then a big bump up in carbohydrate intake during the final three days. At this point, meals should be carb heavy with 75% or more of total calories coming from carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, potatoes, oatmeal, bagels, pancakes, fruits and vegetables.

During this load you need around 7-12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight each day, or 3.2 to 5.5 grams per pound. However, individual needs do vary.

Please also note that carb loading is only helpful for those who are regularly engaged in intense, continuous exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes. If your workouts are generally shorter than this, carb loading won’t help you and could in turn lead to weight gain. The value of carb loading is to keep you going longer – it doesn’t allow you to workout any harder.

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