In my own experience working with GAA players, it sometimes seems that carb-loading is touted as the be-all and end-all when it comes to performance nutrition. On the other hand, most players have never really tried it, beyond maybe having some pasta the night before a match.
And although it clearly isn’t the only thing we should be worried about, it is worth delving into what it is, and where it should or shouldn’t fall into your nutrition plan.
Carbohydrates for GAA
When you’re making those blistering runs back and forth up the pitch, or doing tackling grids in training, the body needs to create energy quickly to keep up with those demands. It also needs to be able to do that for a sustained period of time.
The optimal fuel source for this job is glycogen.
When we eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose, which is circulated around the body, and ultimately stored as glycogen in the muscles.
This glycogen is then available for use during intense activities, like those we see in GAA training and matches.
The more glycogen we have available in the muscles when it comes to match-day, the more fuel we have for the match, and hopefully, the better our performance will be, or at least we won’t be limited by our fuel availability.
What is Carb-Loading?
Carb-loading (or carbo-loading or carbohydrate-loading) is a term used to describe a strategy used to increase the amount of glycogen stored within the muscles for a sporting event, by increasing carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to that event.
The original method proposed involved a few days of very low-carbohydrate intake (with a lot of training to deplete stores), followed by a few days of extremely high carbohydrate intake (and no training).
As you can imagine, however, this was logistically quite hard. On match-week, all you want to do is focus on getting to match-day, but here, you’re looking at 7 days of changing your diet, with each of those 7 days being different from your usually intake, and with the presupposition that you have complete control over your training load.
Sure, if you thought there was no other option and that it was going to help a lot, you’d probably do it, but fortunately, researchers compared an approach of simply increasing carbohydrate intake in the 2-3 days leading up to the event, and found that this was probably just as effective as the approach of going from very low-carb to very high-carb days.
Does it Work for GAA?
The research I just mentioned was done mostly on endurance athletes, who obviously have different demands than GAA sports. The former involves staying at a relatively steady pace for a long time, whereas the latter involves mostly short, intermittent bursts followed by short recovery periods.
With that said, both of these significantly deplete glycogen stores, particularly at higher intensities.
For that reason, maximising glycogen stores is likely to be beneficial for GAA sports, and anecdotally, a lot of the clients I’ve worked with have noticed the benefits when implementing a carb-loading approach.
At a very basic level, given that glycogen is the predominant fuel source in high-intensity training and competition will be improved by having sufficient stores to pull from.
With that said, it’s probably not as necessary for a GAA athelte as it would be for a long-distance runner, since it’s unlikely that a GAA athlete is going to completely deplete their carbohydrate stores during a match, but having high glycogen availability can improve athletic performance, and it’s better to have the stores there for when they’re needed, also because it tends to be a much better fuel source that fats or muscle protein.
How to Do it
As previously mentioned, my recommendation would simply be to increase carbohydrate intake in the 2-3 days leading up to match-day.
For some, this may simply be a case of adding in a large portion of carbohydrates to each meal, or adding in a couple of extra high-carb meals/snacks.
For those who want to bring in a bit more accuracy, or already tend to track their food intake, I’d recommend consuming 7-9 grams of carbohydrate per kg bodyweight (560-720g for an 80kg player). For those who are new to tracking their food, this can be tracked through the Myfitnesspal free phone app.
On a practical level, the usual sources of carbohydrates (potatoes, rice, pasta, oats etc.) will be a good idea. However, I would highly recommend opting for mostly lower-fibre options, as well as bringing in some higher glycemic options (breakfast cereals, sports drinks, sugary sweets, juices) for reasons outlined in the next section, but also because players often find it difficult to get enough carbohydrates in when they are eating very filling sources.
Avoiding Common Mistakes/Problems
There are a few common problems that tend to come up with carb-loading approaches, and the first thing to mention is that you should practice it beforehand, in the weeks/months leading up to match-day, so that there are no surprises when it comes to doing it for match-day.
It’s Not an Excuse to Eat Whatever You Want
Carb-loading shouldn’t be used an excuse to eat whatever you want. It shouldn’t be used as an excuse to overeat on pizza and pastries the night before a match.
Instead, it should be viewed as a strategic approach to improving performance. Yes, you will be eating more food, but the likelihood is that you will have to make a conscious effort to eat enough and to eat the right types of foods.
When carb-loading, you should increase your carbohydrate intake, but reduce, or at least limit, your fat intake. (note: You should also keep protein to usual levels, for the same reasons as usual.) We want extra carbohydrate stores in the muscle, and adding in extra fat intake isn’t necessarily going to help with that, but will provide additional (excessive) calories, on top of the already high levels.
In order to achieve manage this, we want to be looking at carbohydrate-dense sources, like rice, pasta, potatoes, cereals, breads, as opposed to things like pizza, pastries, foods with creamy sauces and deep-fried foods, which do tend to contain carbohydrates, but also contain a lot of fat.
Even having some of the foods usually thought of as poor food choices, like breakfast cereals, sugary sweets, and fruit juices can be used here as easy-to-consume sources of almost completely carbohydrates.
Any major change to the diet is likely to cause gut issues, as the gut tends to adapt to what you feed it, at least to a certain extent. Even if you were to majorly increase fibre intake (fibre is generally seen as a good addition to the diet), the gut would struggle to deal with it, and we may experience digestive issues. In that case, it would be important to gradually increase fibre intake and allow the gut to adjust.
The same can be true for carbohydrate intake. Asker Jeukendrup is a great source if you are interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of this stuff, and perhaps I will do a separate article on the topic, but for now, it is enough to say that it is important to “train the gut” to get used to high carbohydrate intake, if you plan on using a carbohydrate-loading approach.
This can be done by eating a relatively high amount of carbohydrates in general, but also in practicing carbohydrate-loading for training sessions, or less-important matches in the weeks leading up to the game.
Gut issues can also occur as a result to eating too much fat, fibre or protein during the carb-loading process. This is easily done when increasing carbohydrates, as we may feel the need to increase all of our food sources. However, it is important to keep fat, fibre and protein intake under control, and increase carbohydrate alone. It can also be a good idea to opt for fewer of the whole-grain type carbohydrate sources during the carbohydrate-loading period, since these will inevitably have a higher fibre content.
Another, often overlooked, issue is stress, which can result in gut discomfort. This is often unavoidable to some degree, which is why players often prefer to have a lighter meal before a match, increasing the importance of having done most of the fuelling up in the previous days.
Conor O'Neill, Know Yourself Nutrition
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