An athlete requires the proper amount of fuel to perform at peak levels. Many athletes have either won or lost races, based upon their nutrition and training plans, leading up to a major competitive event. Glycogen depletion in the middle of an athletic event can be catastrophic for the athlete. Running out of fuel during an event will not only cripple performance, but may lead to medical and health issues. The training program and nutrition plan must work together to provide maximal performance during the competitive event. It is important for an athlete to understand the proper balance between training and nutrition to optimize performance. Many athletes have mistakenly prioritized training over nutrition. These athletes paid for this mistake, during their event, with substandard performance. Training and nutrition education is very beneficial for athletes who desire winning performance. The old saying that “you cannot out train your nutrition plan” is very relevant in this situation (Wax, 2015).
Muscle and liver glycogen stores provide the main fuel source during athletic events. Ensuring that an athlete’s glycogen levels are at maximal capacity, prior to an event, is a high priority task. The amount of glycogen that can be stored by the muscles and liver is limited. For optimal performance, these fuel stores must be at maximal capacity. Arduous training quickly depletes glycogen stores. During the training program, prior to a competitive event, glycogen stores are depleted on a daily basis. The refueling process must be adequate to ensure that competitive preparations can take place. Daily nutrition must be dialed in to ensure that sufficient glycogen is available. Protein cannot be forgotten during this period as muscle must be maintained and built upon. Without adequate glycogen and protein, the body will break down lean body mass, in order to replenish glycogen stores. Muscle sparing is important to maintain performance. As the competition date moves closer, training and nutrition must be adjusted as part of the event preparation. An over trained and under fueled athlete has little chance of prevailing against an athlete who did it right (Morgan, 2015).
There are numerous ways to carb load before an endurance event. Athletes must determine which method is right for them. Carbohydrate loading is a systematic and science based process. Different methods use different timelines for optimal glycogen replacement. There is a short duration, rapid loading method which has more tradition than effectiveness. In the rapid loading method, athletes deplete their glycogen levels through training. Then, usually in a twenty four hour process, athletes consume large quantities of carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores. This is best known from the traditional feast before an event. Many marathon participants will gather in their local eatery, the night before a big race. A popular tradition utilizes an Italian style restaurant known for great pasta dishes. Spaghetti and other pasta dishes are consumed in great quantities by athletes. While this does provide the athlete with plenty of glycogen stores, it is not the most effective method, according to research. Different tapering protocols have been developed. These tapering protocols decrease training times as carbohydrate intake is increased. Long tapering protocols can range from three weeks to one week prior to an event. Everyone responds differently to various training and nutrition plans. The athlete has to determine, many times through trial and error, which method works best for them (Brown, 2015).
One of the long tapering protocols that has been shown to work well is the seven day taper. In this method, the last intense training session is completed seven days before the competition. After that, the training intensity gradually tapers off, while carbohydrate intake is maintained. One day before the event, the athlete does a very low intensity workout, while focusing on rest and relaxation. Low fiber, high starch carbohydrates are consumed to ensure that glycogen levels are at peak capacity. On competition day, carbohydrate intake and hydration levels are maintained. It is important for the athlete to allow sufficient time for digestion before the event. The time of the event dictates when the athlete should finish with eating and drinking. By following this method, the athlete should be well rested, with glycogen stores and hydration at optimal capacity. This tapering protocol is refined by the athlete over time. With continued practice, the carb loading protocol can tailored to the individual to provide maximal benefit (McDowell, 2011).
Regardless of the method or protocol used, carbohydrate loading is an effective nutrition strategy for athletes. Carbohydrate loading maximizes glycogen stores so that the athlete will perform at optimal levels during the competitive event. Research has shown that longer tapering protocols are more effective and safer than rapid methods. The athlete determines which protocol is best suited for their needs. Constant refinement of the selected protocol will maximize the effectiveness of carbohydrate loading. Having adequate fuel stores during endurance events assists with performing at peak levels. This also prevents “hitting the wall”, where glycogen levels are depleted too early. Maintaining sufficient glycogen levels throughout the train up period also prevents depletion, and allows for maximal uptake prior to the event. Muscle sparing is important as well. Optimal performance can be achieved by correctly applying carbohydrate loading methods (Munson, 2016).
Benardot, D. (2012). Advanced sports nutrition (2nd ed). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Brown, E. (2015). Three ways to effectively carb loading before a race. Runners Connect. Retrieved from https://runnersconnect.net/carbohydrate-loading-marathon/
McDowell, D. (2011). The right way to carbo-load before a race. Runner’s World. Retrieved from http://www.runnersworld.com/nutrition/the-right-way-to-carbo-load-before-a-race
Morgan, R. (2015). The importance of good nutrition for athletes. Live Strong. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/445770-the-importance-of-good-nutrition-for-athletes/
Munson, T. (2016). Tapering & carb-loading. Science in Sport. Retrieved from http://www.scienceinsport.com/uk/our-expertise/tapering-carb-loading/
Wax, E. (2015). Nutrition and athletic performance. Medline Plus. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002458.htm
Master Sergeant, US Army Retired
MS, ISSA Master Trainer