13 Sep 2016


The purpose of carbohydrate loading is to build up your glycogen levels – and glycogen is your body’s primary source of fuel, as it’s the most easily accessed. So it’s a proven tactic, but it’s important to get it right to do it effectively.

Why should you do it?
You can only actually store enough to fuel around an hour and a half of intense exercise, so it’s vital that you take food on board so you can start with a full tank. It’s generally accepted that maximizing your glycogen stores – and the time before you must top them up – can boost performance by 2-3 percent. This doesn’t sound much, but 3 percent of a 90-minute is almost 3 minutes, and that /is/ a lot, more than enough to make a significant difference to your result.

When should you do it?
In simple terms, you should carb load for races or events over an hour and a quarter long. For anything less than that, you’ll find no benefit – if anything it will actually slow you down, due to the extra weight (mostly water) in your body.
For races over an hour and a half, you not only need to start with a full tank, but you also need to top up on carbs as you ride. Avoid going over around 60g per hour, as most bodies simply can’t process more than that – although you can experiment with this extremity to fine tune it.

How should you do it?
Carefully! The picture of a pasta party may be culturally integral to some gran fondos, but don’t get carried away with the romance… gorging on giant bowls of fusilli or capellini the night before will just leave you feeling sleepy and bloated.

It’s better to load up gradually during the two days before the event, or three if you find it difficult to eat enough. You need roughly 8-10g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. It’s best to use a regime of meals and snacks throughout the day: three meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and three snacks (mid-morning, mid-afternoon and evening).

Avoid the now-discredited seven day regime that starts with depleting your stores, as it doesn’t do anything to boost carb-storing ability. In fact modern studies show that it may increase fat levels, and can leave you feeling lethargic at a crucially important time. That said, as part of a longer-term training program, can pay to take some training rides while carb-depleted, as it can improve your body’s efficiency at burning fuel and boosts endurance.

Where to find carbs
If you’re finding all the pasta, muffins, bagels and jam too much(!), remember that fruit juice or sports drinks with your meals will also add carbohydrates. Look for low fat and lower fiber foods for the maximum benefit (and to avoid unplanned ‘comfort breaks’ during your ride), and favor white versions over wholegrain. Your body breaks the former down more quickly, spiking blood glucose levels, releasing insulin and ultimately leading to faster glycogen storage. If you have to avoid bread and pasta, go for rice, oats and wraps.

It’s not all carbs!
While you’re busy loading these carbohydrates, don’t forget what else you need, either. If your plate is half filled with carbs, make sure that roughly another quarter is protein, which you need for muscle repair.

You’ll noticeably gain weight while carb loading, but the majority of it is water. And like a car with a full fuel tank, you’ll do the full distance in less time, despite the higher starting weight.

Check out more tips and advice – here for Your First Sportive and here for Crit Race Training Tips, and on our sister site Vision for Race-day Triathlon Nutrition, for Hydration Strategies and for Burning Fat tips.