What’s on the menu the night before your next big race? You may be considering a big plate of spaghetti. After all, the pre-race pasta party has become an intrinsic part of racing culture. At the world’s largest marathon, the New York City Marathon, race organizers serve several thousand pounds of spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, and dinner rolls to hungry runners at the New York City Marathon Eve Dinner. That’s a lot of carbs.
How Does Carbo-Loading Work?
Carbohydrates are converted to glycogen and stored as an energy source for muscles. Years ago, carbohydrate loading included a hard workout followed by a 3-day phase of an extremely low carb diet to deplete glycogen stores, and then a 3-day phase of carbohydrate rich foods to create an extra high level of glycogen storage for race day. Today, most coaches and runners agree that to minimize risk of injury or poor health, runners really only need to follow the last 3 days of the carbo-loading ritual prior to the marathon.
Two important things to keep in mind during carbo-loading time. First, this isn’t license to eat whatever you want. Smothering your pasta in creamy Alfredo sauce and Italian sausage is not a healthy approach.
Eating a simple tomato sauce with fresh vegetables over a bed of pasta is a more sensible choice. Second, choose white pasta instead of fiber-rich brown pasta. Your body will digest the white pasta faster and it’s less likely to cause stomach upset on race day.
Why Do Runners Carbo-Load?
Have you ever experienced the “bonk” or hit the “wall” on a long run? Most endurance athletes know the feeling all too well. The fuel tank runs dry, glycogen stores are depleted, and what might have been an epic marathon race devolves into a lurching, stumbling, struggle to reach the finish line. For me, it happened at the 2013 New York City Marathon. Things were fine until someone dropped a piano on my back at mile 20.
To avoid the dreaded “bonk,” you’ll need to fuel properly during the race as well. Drink before you get thirsty, eat before you realize you need fuel, and become familiar with eating and drinking on the run during training.
Find out what options will be available along the race course, and try those same products during your long runs to see how your body reacts. You don’t want any surprises on race day.
Recovery After the Race
Immediately after finishing your race, drink plenty of water and eat some protein and carbohydrates. Perhaps an apple, a granola bar with nuts, and an endurance sports drink. Marathons usually supply runners with a healthy snack mix that fits this nutritional profile perfectly. Resist the temptation to raise a pint until you’ve had at least a few glasses of water.
Jason is a competitive marathon runner and RRCA distance running coach. He's the senior editor at SaltmarshRunning.com, and writes for several online health and fitness publications. When he's not running on the roads and trails, Jason can be found enjoying life with his family and friends on the New Hampshire seacoast.
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