Eating large amounts of pasta and potatoes the night before a big event has always been a popular thing for athletes to do. I always remember having spaghetti dinners the night before cross country meets in high school. However, does it improve performance? We’ve got the breakdown on carb-loading for mountain bikers.
Our bodies break down carbohydrates from the foods we eat and convert them into glucose.
Glucose is the main source of fuel for our cells. When our bodies don’t need glucose for energy, it is stored in glycogen in our muscle and liver cells.
Glycogen concentration in the muscles depends on diet. The more carbohydrates we consume, the greater the glycogen stores are in our muscles. During exercise, particularly high intensity, glycogen concentration in the muscles decreases. The higher the concentration of glycogen in your muscles, the less fatigue you will feel and, therefore, better athletic performance.
Early finding of carb-loading
It was previously believed that an athlete needed to perform a strenuous workout seven days before an event. Then restrict carbs for three days and increase fat intake. Then for the next three days, the athlete would have a very high carb intake. After that, they would focus on rest during these six days and train very little. This super compensated the muscles with glycogen above normal levels. The downside to this approach was that the high fat, low carb diet caused many athletes gastrointestinal distress, and little training for a week affected them mentally and physically.
A moderate strategy to carb-loading for mountain bikers.
Two days before an event, it is recommended to decrease training (decrease glycogen use) and increase carbohydrate intake (increase glycogen stores). This achieves similar muscle glycogen concentrations to the more extreme protocol described above. Since you are training less, you don’t really need to eat more. You just want to emphasize carb-rich food sources at your meals in the two days leading up to an event.
For example, if you like to eat spaghetti and meatballs with red sauce and cheese the day before an event, have a little more noodles and a little less cheese and meatballs. I would also recommend sticking with carb choices that are easier to digest. These are carbs like white or sweet potatoes, pasta, white rice, quinoa, barley, couscous, or bread. Avoid excess vegetables, especially raw ones, because the fiber may increase gastrointestinal distress. Skip the side salad with the spaghetti and meatballs. You may also add cooked veggies to the sauce, like sweet potato or zucchini.
Focus on the carbs at each meal but still include some fat and protein to make a complete meal. Be mindful of consuming a carbohydrate source at each meal and decrease training in the few days before an event. Then, your glycogen stores will top up, and your muscles will be ready to go.
Emily is a Sports Dietitian who is passionate about helping others improve their health and athletic performance through proper nutrition. She races cyclocross professionally. She lives in Roanoke, VA with her husband Kerry and their beagle Sherman.
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