Does carbo-loading mean stuffing myself with pasta? Should I avoid protein the day before the marathon? Will carbo-loading make me fat?
If you are a marathoner who is fearful of “hitting the wall,” listen up: proper fueling before your marathon, triathlon, or other competitive endurance event can make the difference between agony and ecstasy! If you plan to compete for longer than 90 minutes, you want to maximize the amount of glycogen stored in your muscles because poorly fueled muscles are associated with needless fatigue – the more glycogen, the more endurance (potentially). While the typical runner has about 80 to 120 mmol glycogen/kg muscle, a carbo-loaded runner can have about 200 mmol. This is enough to improve endurance by about two to three percent, to say nothing of making the race more enjoyable. While carbo-loading sounds simple, (just stuff yourself with pasta, right?) the truth is many marathoners make food mistakes that hurt their performance. The last thing you want after having trained for months is to ruin your performance with poor nutrition, so carbo-load correctly!
The biggest change in your schedule during the week before your marathon should be in your training, not in your food. Do not be tempted to do any last-minute long runs! You need to taper your training so that your muscles have adequate time to become fully fueled (and healed). Allow at least two easy or rest days pre-event.
You need not eat hundreds more calories the week before your marathon. You simply need to exercise less. This way, the 600 to 1,000 calories you generally expend during training can be used to fuel your muscles. All during this week, you should maintain your tried-and-true high-carbohydrate training diet. Drastic changes can easily lead to upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation. For example, carbo-loading on an unusually high amount of fruits and juices might cause diarrhea. Too many white flour, low fiber bagels, breads, and pasta might clog your system. As marathon king Bill Rodgers once said, “More marathons are won or lost in the porta-toilets than they are at the marathon.” Fuels wisely, not like a chowhound. Be sure that you carbo-load, not fat-load. Some runners eat gobs of butter on a dinner roll, big dollops of sour cream on a potato, and enough dressing to drown a salad. These fatty foods fill both the stomach and fat cells but leave muscles poorly fueled. The better bet is to trade the fats for extra carbohydrates. That is: instead of devouring one roll with butter for 200 calories, have two plain rolls for 200 calories. Enjoy pasta with tomato sauce rather than oil or cheese toppings. Choose low-fat frozen yogurt, not gourmet ice cream.
NYC Marathon queen Grete Waitz once said she never ate a very big meal the night before a marathon, as it usually would give her trouble the next day. She preferred to eat a bigger lunch. You, too, might find that pattern works well for your intestinal tract. Instead of relying upon a huge pasta dinner the night before your event, you might want to enjoy a substantial carb-fest at breakfast or lunch. This earlier meal allows plenty of time for the food to move through your system. You can also carbo-load two days before if you will be too nervous to eat much the day before the event. (The glycogen stays in your muscles until you exercise.) Then graze on crackers, chicken noodle soup, and other easily tolerated foods the day before the marathon. You will be better off eating a little bit too much than too little the day before, but do not overstuff yourself. Learning the right balance takes practice. Hence, each long training run leading up to the endurance event offers the opportunity to learn which food–and how much of it–to eat. I repeat: During training, be sure to practice your pre-marathon carbo-loading meal so you will have no surprises on race day!
Runners who have properly carbo-loaded should gain about one to three pounds–but do not panic! This weight gain is good; it reflects water weight and indicates you have done a good job of fueling your muscles. For every ounce of carbs stored in your body, you store almost three ounces of water.
Be sure to drink extra water, juices, and even soda pop, if desired. Abstain from too much wine, beer, and alcoholic beverages; they are not only poor sources of carbs, they can also hinder your ability to perform at your best. Drink enough alcohol-free beverages to produce a significant volume of urine every two to four hours. The urine should be pale yellow, like lemonade. Do not over hydrate; your body is like a sponge and can absorb just so much fluid.
Many marathoners eat only carbs and totally avoid protein-rich foods the days before their event. That is a bad idea. Your body needs protein on a daily basis. Hence, you can and should eat a small serving of low-fat protein–such as poached eggs, yogurt, turkey, or chicken–as the accompaniment to most meals (not the main focus), or plant proteins such as beans and lentils (as tolerated).
Carbo-loading is just part of the fueling plan! What you eat on marathon day is critically important and helps to spare your limited muscle glycogen stores. By fueling yourself wisely both before and during the event, you can enjoy miles of smiles.