Carb Loading Before a Race? Here's How to Do It Right
If you’re gearing up for the big day and plan on carb loading before a race, you’ll want to be prepared with the right eats to fuel your body so you can give your max effort and have that training pay off.
“Hydrating properly and consuming the right fuel leading up to race day can make or break your chances of crossing the finish line, or better yet, making it atop the podium,” says James Oliver, certified sports nutritionist and the founder of Atlas Bar. "...Having finished the 2017 Iceland Spartan Ultra World Championship myself, I know firsthand how hard it can be to go the distance, so be sure to fuel your body with the right foods to perform your best."
And carbohydrates are especially important to eat before heading out the door.
“Carbohydrates are the quickest and most efficient fuel source for exercising muscles. Without adequate stores on race day, you'll fizzle out more quickly than you'd like while also limiting intensity,” says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. "Since carbohydrates are also the best fuel source for the central nervous system, lack of carbohydrate stores and/or low blood sugar can impact coordination and mental strength for your race as well."
So, you’ll want to get enough carbs in, but also be careful about which ones you’re choosing, as they weren’t created equal.
“You’ll want to eat foods that are easy to digest and loaded with electrolytes,” says Oliver.
And eating the wrong carbs before can backfire, leaving you sluggish and weighed down. These are the best and worst carbohydrates to pick, and a few ways to enjoy them when you're carb loading before a race.
What to Eat When You're Carb Loading Before a Race
“On race day, some of the best carbohydrate sources to eat in advance are oats, bananas, wheat toast or bagels, and dried fruit. The first three options contain the types of carbohydrates that supply sustained energy without causing a blood sugar spike and crash,” says Jones.
You might have some plain oatmeal with chopped fruit and nuts, or you can spread nut butter on a bagel or banana.
“Oats are packed with carbs that will provide you with a good, sustainable pool of energy to draw on, and they’re also packed with magnesium and calcium, two electrolytes that have multiple performance-boosting health benefits,” says Oliver.
And bananas are great for portability, ease of digestion, and their high amounts of starchy carbs.
“They also have 10x more potassium than 8 oz. of Gatorade, which is a key electrolyte you’ll need to help prevent muscle cramps,” Oliver adds.
You can also eat sweet potatoes for some good starch. What’s more, you can enjoy them for dinner, too.
“These delicious tubers are a great ‘night-before’ meal, as they’re dense in starchy carbs and can be prepared in a multitude of ways,” says Oliver.
Plus, they’re filled with a powerful assortment of vitamins and minerals to keep the body rock solid come morning.
You can also ditch breakfast upon waking up and eat something right before the race.
“If you prefer not to eat a lot before the race, wait until about 15 minutes before and enjoy some Medjool dates. The small amount of fiber can help blunt sugar spikes from being too significant without weighing you down,” says Jones.
What to Eat During the Race
Sometimes you might need something extra to get you through the rest of the race with enough energy.
“During the race, raw honey packets are a great single-ingredient quick energy source. Since honey contains a mix of carbohydrate sources. It is also easy on the digestive tract and able to provide energy quickly,” says Jones.
Another option? Get out that trusty banana, which has potassium to help banish any muscle cramping and bring back electrolytes.
What to Avoid When Carb Loading Before a Race
Say no to the “magical” fruit.
“The worst carbs to ingest prior to a race include legumes and vegetables. Both are nutritious most of the time, but due to high fiber content, they'll sit in the digestive tract, limiting the delivery of energy to the bloodstream and causing you to feel weighed down,” says Jones.
That means ditch cruciferous veggies and lentils, as they’re very high in fiber — one cup of lentils has 64 percent of your DV — which could lead to digestive issues, and they are also high in protein, which may slow down the delivery of glucose to your muscles.
The same goes for leafy greens, like spinach.
“This may be the only time where I would ever advise against leafy greens, but hear me out. Leafy greens are relatively high in fiber and low in carbs,” says Oliver. “That means that you’re not getting a lot of glucose from them, but you are getting a lot of fiber, which could lead to digestive issues on the course."
Save them for the post-race brunch with eggs!
You might need to forego dairy, too.
“For some people, dairy is a bad idea before a race, while for others it may be fine,” says Jones.
So, while a Greek yogurt with some granola might be a good pre-race snack for some, it could lead to major GI distress in others. Don’t experiment on race day, but see how you feel other mornings to see if it’s a trigger.
Still, you might be better off eating something dairy-free before, anyway.
“Even those who do not suffer from lactose intolerance or dairy allergies may be better off with dairy at other times of the day,” says Jones. “People have different gastric (stomach) emptying rates, and dairy is a food that may move more slowly for some."
The same goes for juices and fruit-based smoothies — you’ll also want to cut back on this come race-day morning.
“For someone with IBS or who has a sensitive GI tract, the high amount of fructose in these foods may not be able to be well absorbed while exercising, causing cramps and discomfort,” says Jones.
Plus, it’s super sugary, which could lead to a crash mid-race. Cheers to your victory with a protein-packed, fruity smoothie once you’re done.