If you’re running the Austin Marathon next Sunday (February 16th) , you’ve probably heard of the concept known as “carbohydrate-loading.” If you’re new to marathoning and have never heard of this, it’s an important concept to understand as you approach your final week.
Simply put, carbo-loading is when you switch over from your regular eating pattern to a carbohydrate-rich diet in the last days before a marathon as a way to extend your endurance.
Done properly, carbohydrate-loading with the proper foods can help you maintain your marathon goal pace longer in the race. The reason this works is that muscle glycogen—the energy needed for running—can be loaded up in a runner’s legs to twice their normal level by carbo-loading. The more glycogen you have in your legs, the longer you can run.
Conversely, when the body depletes its glycogen store in the muscles, marathoners hit the proverbial “wall.” Again, if you can store up as much glycogen as possible in the days before the marathon, you can maintain your endurance longer and delay hitting the wall.
Sounds good. But how do you do it?
It’s not complicated. Beginning this weekend, you eat a normal, healthy diet for the first three or four days with carbs making up approximately 50 percent of your total calories. (Check the labels and a cookbook for serving sizes and caloric content.)
Then, on next Thursday (February 13th), you boost your carbohydrate intake to about 70 percent (or higher) of your total calories.
During this final week before the marathon, you should be reducing your total volume of running anyway, and with that reduction in your running and the increase in carbohydrates, you will be able to store a greater amount of muscle glycogen than if you were running and eating normally. If you are loading properly, you’ll also probably gain a couple of pounds in this final week.
The type of carbohydrates you eat does make a difference. You should go for complex carbohydrates such as pasta, veggies, rice, cereals, fruits, potatoes and others, rather than simple carbohydrates like cookies, cakes and candy.
Protein will not help a great deal, but you don’t have to avoid it entirely. Nevertheless, the more protein you eat, the less carbs you can cram in—and carbs are what you need. So it’s an easy choice.
When you are carbo-loading, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to eat substantially more than normal. Only the percentage of carbs should be upped, not the total intake.
The key meal for proper carbo-loading is your lunch on Saturday (February 15th). That’s when you should make absolutely certain you eat a carbohydrate-rich meal. Your final dinner is also important to top off your glycogen stores with an easily digestible meal. Note: Pizza is not acceptable for carbo-loading. That’s fat-loading and not what you need at this point.
Can you drink a beer or two? Sure. But limit your alcohol intake.
Carbohydrate-loading absolutely works, but it only works when you’re running an hour or longer. So it won’t make any difference in shorter races, such as a 5-K. But carbo-loading is especially useful in a marathon which will eventually deplete the muscle glycogen stores.
The problem is you can only store a finite amount of glycogen in your muscles—not enough for most runners to complete the 26.2-mile marathon. Most runners will run out of glycogen after about three hours of running. When that happens, you run out of gas and will experience a huge drop off in your ability to run.
Since few of us can run a three-hour marathon, the only way to avoid the dreaded wall is to take on carbohydrates during the race so you don’t run out of glycogen.
The best way to do this is either by drinking carbohydrate sports drinks during the race and/or using carbohydrate gels, GUs or Shot Bloks.
Obviously, staying hydrated is also important in a marathon. But you should drink water and carbohydrate sports drinks about every 20 minutes of Austin. Gatorade is the drink of choice. This will not only prevent dehydration, but by drinking Gatorade, it will replace the muscle glycogen you are depleting as you run. The type of Gatorade used in Austin is lemon-lime Endurance Formula Gatorade. If you haven’t tried it, you still have time to buy some and try it.
You should be familiar with the various gels by now. The gels are thick, carbohydrate-rich products that are available under such brand names as GU, Hammer Gel, PowerGel, Cliff Shots or Bloks and others. These come in packets that contain 100-125 calories of quickly digestible carbs that you can slam down with some water. Since you’ll need water to get them down, you should plan to take your energy gels at an aid station. (Note: Don’t take any gels with sportsdrink. Use only water.)
Only one Austin aid station—at mile 17—will have energy gels. Just before the water stop at mile 17, G Series Pro Carb Energy Chews—Gatorade’s energy gels—will be distributed. Again, if you haven’t used the Energy Chews, get some as soon as possible and test them out on your final training runs to see if they are palatable to your tastes and can be used in the marathon.
If you have trained with gels on long runs, you’ll either need to carry a supply with you or have someone give you a few packets along the course. Most marathoners who use gels use at least five packets or more in a race so they carry them in pockets in their shorts or clip them onto their shorts.
Carbohydrate-reloading is also important in the first two hours after the marathon. The sooner you reload your muscles with the same complex carbs you loaded with, the quicker you’ll recover.
When you carbo load or carbo reload, it is also important to drink plenty of water as it helps the muscles absorb the carbohydrates. If you do load properly, you should have plenty of fuel in the long run.