My daughter is about to compete in the BMC (British Mountaineering Council) Youth Series final and her coach has suggested that as preparation for the day she should “carb load”.
Whilst I knew a little bit about carbohydrate loading for sports, I decided to do a bit more research to see what the current thinking is in sports nutrition.
Carbohydrate loading is a way of making changes to nutrition that can maximise muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores prior to endurance competition.
The technique was originally developed in the late 1960’s and typically involved a 3-4 day “depletion phase” involving 3-4 days of hard training plus a low carbohydrate diet. This depletion phase was thought to be necessary to stimulate the enzyme glycogen synthase. This was then followed immediately by a 3-4 day “loading phase” involving rest combined with a high carbohydrate diet. The combination of the two phases was shown to boost muscle carbohydrate stores beyond their usual resting levels.
Ongoing research has allowed the method to be refined so that modern day carbohydrate loading is now more manageable for athletes. The initial “depletion” stage used in the past often proved exhausting, the low-carb diet left athletes hungry and low in morale in the run-up to competition day. It was also tough to stuff themselves with enough carbs in the final three days to fill their glycogen stores to capacity. Athletes described the depletion phase as making them feel like “death warmed up”. This has now been shown to be unnecessary and actually unhelpful in terms of mental and physical preparation. Today, 1-4 days of tapering exercise while following a high carbohydrate diet (7-12g/kg body weight) is sufficient to elevate muscle glycogen levels.
To reach your carbohydrate target, try to eat little and often rather than just super-sizing your usual meals. Eating five or six smaller meals is much more palatable than stuffing yourself only to feel queasy and lethargic. It’s also worth remembering that it isn’t necessary to radically increase your daily calorie intake as a whole – it’s simply about increasing the proportion of carbs on your plate.
Meals that are high in carbohydrate include:
- Wholegrain bread with peanut butter
- Large bowl of porridge or cereal with milk
- Large bowl of spaghetti carbonara (pasta with eggs, parmesan cheese and bacon)
- Grilled chicken breast with a large serving of brown rice
For a quick way to top up your carb count, try one of these quick-and-easy snacks. Each is crammed with 75g (300kcal) of carbohydrate:
- 1 large handful of raisins, dried apricots or other dried fruit
- 2 energy bars
- 3 slices of bread thinly spread with honey
- 4 thick slices of bread or toast
- 5 rice cakes spread with jam
Adding protein to your meals will give you an extra energy boost too. Protein slows the digestion of carbohydrates, lowering the GI (Glycaemic Index) of the meal and encouraging the body to release energy slowly and steadily rather than in a quick hit – just the thing for endurance events.
Tuck into protein-packed carbs such as beans, lentils and peas or pop a chicken breast on a large portion of rice for the same GI-lowering effect.
Happy climbing! (Or whatever other sport you are training for).