Pasta parties are all the rage for performance athletes. But does loading up on carbs before a strength-training workout really help boost performance for the rest of us? The answer: Well, it depends.
Gradual carbo loading leading up to a big event could be just what you need to reach your fitness goals. Eating the right amount of carbs could also be incorporated into a regular workout regime. Here’s what you need to know.
So, what is carbo loading?
In short, carbo loading is exactly what it sounds like—eating a lot of foods packed with carbohydrates to store extra energy that can be used while working out.
When we exercise, our muscles and liver use glycogen (a.k.a. stored glucose) for energy. The way carbo loading works, in theory, is that by eating lots of carbs, you’re increasing the amount of glycogen, or stored glucose, in your muscles. That’s because our bodies convert carbs to glucose more easily than fat or protein, meaning your body can use them up for energy more quickly. By increasing the amount of glycogen in your muscles, you should be able to exercise longer (and harder) before hitting your wall.
But—and here’s the big but—it only works for exercise that lasts longer than 90 minutes.
That 90-minute mark is when the body starts tapping into its glycogen reserves. That’s why carbo loading is a great tool for things like distance running, hiking or swimming. However, it has also been proven to work for high-intensity strength training. One study found that loading up on carbs before a heavy lifting session helped people lift more weight for longer periods of time.
So, if you’re looking to maximize your performance on any 90-minute workout, carbo loading might be worth a try. But like most things, you’ll need a plan. Here’s the right way to carbo load.
When to load up
In general, it’s good to start carbo loading about three days before a major workout. You should then plan to fuel up again about 90 minutes before your tough workout begins.
How much you should eat depends on your body type and the workout you’re about to take on. As a general guideline for success, athletes should eat about four grams of carbs per day for each pound of body weight. Again, the key is to increase the ratio of carbs to protein and fats, but not increase overall calorie intake.
Ideally, the carbs you should eat right before a major workout should make up between 60 to 80 percent of your total calories.
The next best time to eat carbs is right after a strenuous strength training workout, when your muscles’ carb stores are depleted and blood sugar is low.
What to eat
Not all carbs are created equal, so when carbo loading, it’s important to stick to complex carbs from whole foods that will help regulate your blood glucose levels and prevent energy spikes and crashes.
Nutrient-dense, high-carb foods that are good options for carbo loading include cereal, whole wheat bread, and whole grain pasta. Certain fruits, like bananas and dates, which have low glycemic indexes are sweet ways to fuel your workout. Starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes and corn, are also great options.
It’s best to experiment to see what foods work with your body. Try one food one day and see how you feel. Switch it up to get the nutrients you need and see what works for you.