Episode 28 - Why you Suck at Carb-Loading
Why you Suck at Carb-Loading
Most triathletes think they are carbohydrate loading by eating a bowl of pasta the night before their race. I hate to break it to you, but this doesn’t even come CLOSE to what you need to super compensate your muscle glycogen stores to effectively carbohydrate load.
- What is Carb-Loading?
- Who would benefit?
- What events should you carbohydrate load for?
- How do you do it?
Tune in to episode 28 of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast to find out!
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Episode 28 - Why you Suck at Carb-Loading
Taryn Richardson 00:00
Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast, the show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian, and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy to digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it.
Taryn Richardson 00:42
Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. Each week, I try and bring you evidence-based sports nutrition advice to help you nail the fourth leg of triathlon - and that's nutrition. So put down that Google search and listen up to discover how to actually unlock free speed for you.
Taryn Richardson 00:59
Today, we're talking about why you suck at carb loading. I haven't seen one athlete that knows how to carbohydrate load until I've taught them to do it. Let me tell you, it is not just eating a bowl of spag bol the night before the race. That is not carbohydrate loading. So, let's take a step back first before we talk about carbohydrate loading and just make sure you understand what I'm talking about when I talk about loading and muscle glycogen.
Taryn Richardson 01:30
So muscle glycogen is basically like the fuel tank in your car. It is our storage form of glucose. We package up glucose in a ratio of one is to three with water and store it in our muscles and our liver as glycogen and that is our fuel. That is what we use for energy when we exercise. And it's also the sole source of fuel for our brain unless you're fat-adapted, but that's a conversation for another day.
Taryn Richardson 01:57
So when we're talking about carbohydrate loading, we're talking about filling up our muscle glycogen fuel tank in our muscles. We want it nice and full for racing because that means that we've got more energy in the tank to go faster for longer. Just like driving a car, the fuller your tank is the further you can get.
Taryn Richardson 02:19
Now, there are some adaptations that come from low glycogen stores. But that is definitely an advanced strategy and I'm not going to talk about that today because chances are, if you're listening to this, you're not an elite athlete that needs to understand these types of strategies. So, we're just going to talk about carbohydrate loading.
Taryn Richardson 02:39
So, what is carbohydrate loading? It's a super-compensation of our muscle glycogen stores above the normal levels. So, think about like when you put petrol in the car, and it clicks off to say, yep, I'm full, and if you're anything like me, you press it again and shove some more in. That's kind of like carb loading. We're trying to shove a bit extra in the tank, we're putting that extra click of fuel in to really super compensate our levels up above normal levels - beyond what is normal for our storage on a day to day basis.
Taryn Richardson 03:13
Now, interestingly, the more muscle glycogen we have, the faster we use it. And we use it at different rates. The higher the intensity, the more muscle glycogen we use. But our fitness levels and how trained we are as an athlete also dictate how fast or slow we use it. And by filling up our fuel tank, it doesn't make you faster for each minute you're running faster or cycling a little bit faster.
Taryn Richardson 03:41
What it means is, it actually delays the onset of fatigue, so we're delaying running out of fuel. We're also delaying running out of fuel by eating carbohydrates when we exercise. So, we're topping up with our exogenous intake of carbohydrates, so food coming in the mouth. That's not putting glycogen back in the tank while we're exercising, that's managing our blood glucose levels.
Taryn Richardson 04:04
Because what happens is, we eat that carbohydrate, digest it, break it down into single units of glucose or whatever, and then that goes through the bloodstream to the working muscles when we need it for energy. It's not going into the fuel tank because that makes no sense. Why would we try and put petrol in while we're moving? Just like you’ve got to turn your car off at the petrol station - you can't put fuel in while the engine is running.
Taryn Richardson 04:27
So, with our normal day to day diet, it takes roughly about 90 minutes of exercise before that fatigue state sets in. Now, it's 90 minutes based on a number of papers, but they're at certain sustained intensities. If you're doing a session that is variable intensities (so you might have hard bits and slow bits) you might be able to get your glycogen fuel tank further than 90 minutes. And if you're doing really high intensity, short, sharp, high intensity (TR - repeated) i.e. no rest for a long period of time, you may get less than 90 minutes out of your fuel tank.
Taryn Richardson 05:04
So, what events should we be carb loading for? So, knowing that on a normal diet, we'll run out of fuel at around roughly 90 minutes, we want to be carbohydrate loading for events that are longer than 90 minutes. So not sprint. We don't need to carbohydrate load for a sprint. But Olympic distance and longer we will need to carbohydrate load. And the more competitive you are, the more important it is. And we know that carbohydrate loading improves performance by about 1-3%, which is pretty cool.
Taryn Richardson 05:37
But how much carbohydrates do we actually need to load? And I can't give you the answer to that on this podcast - it's really individual. I can give you the plan for what you need if you come and join us inside the Triathlon Nutrition Academy.
Taryn Richardson 05:50
But there is a range - based on how much lean tissue you have, lean muscle mass. And then it also depends on what your day to day carbohydrate intake is - whether that's really low or really high. It depends if you're male. It depends if you're female. And it depends on how competitive you are. Like I said before if you are a fast athlete and you're trying to win, or you're doing a nine or 10-hour Ironman, then I would carbohydrate load you way more aggressively than say a smaller female, that's just happy to turn up and get to the finishing line.
Taryn Richardson 06:23
So, while we've got guidelines, it is individual and you need to understand what you need for you. And do that plan for a while and practice it and tweak it. And then you might want to evolve that over the years as well when you become better at carbohydrate loading and you've been in the sport for longer, and you become more efficient at using glycogen or carbohydrate, and packaging it up and storing it as well.
Taryn Richardson 06:47
Like anything, with nutrition, you have to practice before the big dance. Don't carbohydrate load the day before your race for the first time ever. Make sure you practice it a few times in training. With my athletes, I like to practice at least once or twice. Because carbohydrate loading, while it sounds fun, is actually really hard, particularly if you're a little bit carb phobic.
Taryn Richardson 07:10
But some people take it as a free for all to just eat whatever the hell they want and that's not carb-loading either – like, more is not necessarily better. We want to find the sweet spot for you. I had one athlete recently telling me that she just ate pasta, massive bowls of pasta, all day long because she wanted to carbohydrate load. And that didn't go so well on race day.
Taryn Richardson 07:33
We also know that females are potentially not as good at carbohydrate loading as males. There's probably a couple of reasons for that. Number one, they're smaller. We don't have as much muscle mass or muscle tissue as males, so we may not need to be so aggressive.
Taryn Richardson 07:47
It may be difficult to get the amount of carbohydrate that you need to carbohydrate load in unless you know how to do it properly with a Sports Dietitian. Because there are definitely hard ways to do it and there are much easier ways to get it done as well. It could be hormones. There could be something at play with carbohydrate storage, depending on what oestrogen levels are doing.
Taryn Richardson 07:47
And it could just be simply that you think you’re carb-loading, but you're not actually carb loading. So, the types of foods obviously need to be very carb-rich. We don't want to put too much fat and fibre (and not a heap of protein) into the system to carbohydrate load. Because we just want to fill up our muscle glycogen, which is the glucose that gets broken down from all the carbohydrates that we eat. So, if you think you’re carb-loading by eating pasta the night before a race, let me tell you that you're not. You're sucking at carb loading, if you think that that's right.
Taryn Richardson 08:39
I'd suggest if you do want to do events that are Olympic distance and above, to actually get a carbohydrate loading plan. It's not that difficult. You just need to understand what you're made up of and then put something in place. I like to do a lower level load to start with for people that have never done it properly and then I build them up over time - when they get more used to doing it as well -because it is a mad skill to carb load. It's quite difficult to get the volume of carbohydrate in for some people. So, there's some sneaky skills and strategies that I'll do for people like that.
Taryn Richardson 09:12
And also think about where you are before a race. Like chances are you're not at your house. You're not at home and have all the things you have (the comforts) at home to cook whatever you want as well. You're probably travelling. You might be staying in a hotel with no ability to cook. You might be relying on eating out - and all those types of logistics that come with racing.
Taryn Richardson 09:32
So, when I write a carb-loading plan, I will talk to somebody about those logistics as well and make sure that it's not some crazy, elaborate plan that needs like weird things to cook in the kitchen. It could be something completely simple and easy to do yourself in a hotel room with not a lot of equipment or even eating out (and that's totally fine). But I'll teach you how to know what to order so that you're ticking the right boxes for you.
Taryn Richardson 09:59
So, I hope that's helped you understand a little bit about what carb loading is, what you need to be doing it for, and that potentially what you're currently doing is not actually loading your muscle glycogen levels with glycogen. And not loading your muscle glycogen levels until they're full, and then super compensating them above normal levels.
Taryn Richardson 10:24
If you're looking for a carbohydrate loading plan, there's two options. You can come and join us in the Triathlon Nutrition Academy. We go through carbohydrate loading in phase two when we do our short course race nutrition for Olympic distance racing. And then we also go through carb loading again in phase three when we do long course racing - because your carbohydrate loading strategy for short course stuff like Olympic distance racing, will look different to when you step up to 70.3 and Ironman.
Taryn Richardson 10:54
There's a few different strategies that we want to put into place when we're doing events that are definitely longer than just a two to three hour Olympic distance event. So that would be one way to get a plan.
Taryn Richardson 11:05
Your other way to get a carbohydrate loading plan, that's developed by an Advanced Sports Dietitian, is to work with me one on one. I will write carbohydrate loading plans for people as part of our packages. So, you've got my Performance Package or Endurance Package if you're looking at getting that one on one help and you want me to write your plan for you. If you want me to do that, head to dietitianapproved.com/services, and you'll be able to see all the ways that we can work together.
Taryn Richardson 11:32
And if you just want to chat, come and join us inside the Dietitian Approved Crew Facebook group. It's full of a bunch of awesome endurance athletes that you can high five when you're in there.
Taryn Richardson 11:44
Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned. Email me at [email protected]. You could also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media at @dietitian.approved so I can give you a shout out too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smash it in the fourth leg - nutrition!