In this article, I wanted to address something that is often thrown about as a must-do when it comes to improve sporting performance.
In my own experience working with GAA athletes involved in field sports like football and hurling, it sometimes seems that carb-loading is the touted as the be-all and end-all when it comes to performance nutrition.
Although it clearly isn’t the only thing we should be worried about, today I wanted to delve into what it is, and where it should or shouldn’t fall into your nutrition plan.
Firstly, I think it’s worth clarifying what carbohydrate-loading actually is. Simply put, carbohydrate-loading is a protocol of increasing carbohydrate intake closer to a competitive sporting event, such asa football match, for example.
Back to basics: When we eat carbohydrate-rich food, the carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (sugar), which are then circulated around the body, and can be stored in the muscles and liver, in the form of glycogen (a fancy word for carbohydrates in it’s storage form). The glycogen in the muscles can then be used at a later time, when they are asked to do work. More are used, the more intense the activity is.
In sports where the intensity is high, carbohydrate becomes the primary fuel source (whereas fat is generally the primary fuel source at lower intensities).
When you see a marathon runner “bonk” (You’ll find some funny, yet hard-to-watch videos on Youtube), it’s generally because their carbohydrate levels have become so low, that their bodies can no longer produce the energy they need at a quick enough rate.
Given these reasons, on the surface, it makes sense that we would want to have as much carbohydrate stored in the body as possible, in order to optimise performance and endurance. Carb-loading became a useful tool for achieving this goal.
Originally, the method involved 3 days of low-carb training days, followed by 3 high-carb rest days, which achieved a super-compensation effect, where one was able to store more carbohydrate within the body than they previously had been, without the protocol. The potential downsides of this technique include it’s logistic difficulties. Not many people want to completely change their diet the week before a big event, nor is it always suitable to cut out training completely for 3 days leading up to the event.
This approached was developed on, and researchers tested a protocol of gradually reducing training throughout the week of the event, whilst gradually increasing the carbohydrate intake each day. This didn’t work just as well as the original protocol but still produced significant effects, and given it’s much better suitability for most people’s lifestyle and sporting schedule, it would likely be a better approach for most people.
Other researchers took this even further and found that 1 day of carb-loading was enough to produce similar effects, but this required relatively large intakes (about 10 grams of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight, meaning a 80kg athelte would have to eat about 800g of carbohydrates in a day). Intakes of this magnitude would be difficult to achieve for most people, and would be likely to cause digestive upset, which obviously isn’t ideal the day before or the day of competition.
This indicates that there a few methods of carbohydrate-loading that work, and how an individual goes about it, if they choose to do so, will be largely dependant on preference, lifestyle and their training schedule, but generally, there is an element of increasing carbohydrates closer to the event, with higher intakes required shorter time-periods of increased intake.
Does it Actually Work?
Firstly, in events that are shorter than 5 minutes in duration, raising carbohydrates above normal rates doesn’t seem to have a performance benefit, and may even reduce performance, since water is stored in the muscle alongside carbohydrate, which can lead to a higher bodyweight, which may be detrimental, for speed sports for example, where it’s obviously more difficult to reach your highest speed with an extra kg or 2 on your body.
In events above 90 minutes, carb-loading does delay the onset of fatigue, and fatigue in these events usually coincide with a glycogen in the body reaching low levels.
In between those two time frames, (for example, in events like a football or hurling match) the performance improvement seems to be dependant on the intensity level. For moderate-intensity activities, like an hour-long jog, performance doesn’t seem to be effected. However, in events that are of high-intensity, there can be a performance benefit to having greater than usual amounts of glycogen stored in the body.
In short, athletes involved in sports that last longer 90 minutes, as well as high-intensity sports that last less than that can benefit from a carb-loading approach.
There are a few other things to consider. If you are someone who is currently in a weight-gain phase, and are therefore eating a lot of carbohydrates already, a carb-loading approach probably isn’t needed, since you are likely already saturating the muscles.
Also, for those currently in a weight-loss phase, it is worth considering that you are likely to be foregoing some or all of your fat-loss for that week, if you are implementing a carb-loading strategy, since your caloric intake will be increased, so this is something you’ll have to weigh up. You can, however, offset some of this by reducing your fat intake as your carbohydrate intake is increased.
For someone solely focussed on performance, carbohydrate-loading is very much worth considering as an approach.
So, How Should You Do it?
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that you really should focus on your general nutrition before looking into more advanced techniques like carb-loading. Not because it’s a nice thing to say, but because you will gain more benefits from it in terms of performance, health, body composition, recovery etc.
Also, this isn’t something that you should implement leading up to an important event, without having previously practiced it, since there can be unforeseen negative effects, such as the digestive problems mentioned earlier. It’s also worth practicing so that you are able to plan your routine and eating plan leading up to the event.
With that said, the approach I would recommend taking would be one of simply increasing your carbohydrate in take for the 2–3 days before the event, to a level of about 5–7g per kg bodyweight (400–560g for an 80kg athlete), going towards the lower end if trying to keep overall calories down, and if you are doing it over 3–4 days, or towards the higher end if your general intake intake/output is already quite high, and if you are doing it over a day or two. On a practical note, this can all be tracked through an app like Myfitnesspal. For those who aren’t already tracking, it would be a good idea to be tracking your general intake for a while before just using it for the purposes of carb-loading.
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