The Truth Behind Carbo-Loading: Do You Really Need To Do It?
Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.
We all have a friend (or a friend of a friend) who played in some championship game or ran a long race and the night before said, "I have to carbo-load." You may have even said it yourself. (It's OK, I have too.)
And really, who can blame us? Pasta is delicious. But if you've ever wondered if you really needed to carbo-load, you aren't alone (I've run a lot of races, and I'm still wondering). That's why we asked Jaime Schehr, N.D., R.D., to give us the lowdown on carbo-loading and tell us why and when we should or shouldn't do it.
What is carbo-loading? What's the point of it?
According to Schehr, carbo-loading is "a method used by endurance athletes to optimize their performance by enhancing their energy stores." Glycogen, as you may know, is the body's storage form of energy—it's made up of carbohydrates that are stored in your muscles and liver, and it can quickly be converted to energy.
The idea behind carbo-loading is that, when done correctly, carbo-loading can increase glycogen storage in our cells. This is appealing to athletes, like marathon runners, triathletes, or anyone engaging in endurance-based sports because the larger their energy stores, the more fuel their body has easy access to. That said, carbo-loading isn't for everyone.
Who should be carbo-loading?
Carbo-loading, while effective for some, is definitely not for everyone. In fact, it's only necessary for endurance athletes. If you're going back and forth on whether or not you should carbo-load, Schehr has an easy way to tell.
"My general rule of thumb is that if your race will last more than two hours, you could benefit from carbo-loading," Schehr says. "However, I only recommend this for people who have raced distance before and would like to try an alternate method of fueling their race—not new racers."
Who should avoid carbo-loading?
In addition to new racers, Schehr recommends that the rest of us abstain from carbo-loading simply because we don't need it, and it can affect our health goals. "Carbo-loading is a very specific tool used for performance," she told mbg. "It is not effective for weight loss, weight gain, or as a sustainable diet plan. Because this methodology is so specific—carbo-loading is very much a numbers game—it's best suited for intended outcomes around endurance and performance."
In terms of the downsides, carbo-loading causes water retention, which isn't ideal for most folks, including some endurance athletes. "With every gram of stored carbohydrate, you store an extra 3 grams of water," Schehr says. "This can be a wanted effect for some runners, but others can increase their water retention and overall body weight, which can negatively affect their race performance."
Bottom line: Carbo-loading might seem like a smart idea, but unless you're running a long-distance race or competing in an endurance event, there's really no point in doing it. Instead, if you're running a shorter race or want to make sure you're in the best condition for an athletic-type event, try to keep your diet as close to your usual as possible—it's the best way to avoid any unwanted surprises.