There are many myths that go around in the endurance sports realms from what training needs to be done, to what equipment you need to have, what the best recovery protocols are and in the realms of nutrition, what we supposedly need to fuel our bodies pre, during and post workout to get the best performance and recover well.
So I have decided to do a “Debunking Myths Series”. My aims of this series is to debunk many of these myths while giving you the facts so you can be in prime health and perform to your potential.
With many races around the corner all over the globe, I think it’s timely to start this series with Carbo-loading. Anyone that has anything to do with endurance sports will no doubt have participated in some form or fashion of carb loading of which there are many different and albeit confusing protocols.
The idea behind carbo-loading is basically to make sure our muscle and liver glycogen are full to the brim and ready to be used as performance energy come race day. If only it was as simple as stuffing carbs down our gullets!
What I need you to understand is that food is actually a drug. We take medicines (drugs) at times of compromised immune systems or many other ailments as they produce a hormonal response within the body. Food does the same thing (maybe we could use food as our medicine?). When we induce carbohydrates we get a blood sugar response followed by the release of insulin (which is the key to allow the blood sugar to be converted to glycogen and enter the muscle and liver as stored energy) and when excess carbohydrates are consumed (carb-loading) and our muscles and liver have stored as much glycogen as possible the body then stores that sugar as FAT (extra weight). Protein in turn produces a hormone call glucagon which tells the body to increase blood sugar, which is the opposite effect of insulin and is thus a mobilization hormone and Fats buffer out these hormonal responses.
You may be thinking what in the world has this got to do with carbo-loading in race week.
Since food is like a drug and creates a distinct hormonal response, we can very easily create a roller coaster affect on our bodies with the changes in diet and all that extra food. Even eating normally, means your intake could well be excessive as your typical training load of both volume and intensity will be down during race week.
The fact is we have a limit on how much glycogen our liver and muscles can actually store and this is about 90 minutes worth of fairly intense racing. The only way we can max these stores out is in the weeks and months before our big day and this is through optimal post training nutrition (which I’ll discuss in another article) and utilising the all important 30 minute window of opportunity.
Trying to increase your muscle glycogen stores in race week by stuffing copious amounts of pasta, rice etc into your system is way too late and doing so will hurt your performance. Actually one of the biggest mistakes we continually see athletes do in race week which will hurt their performance is completely changing the way they typically eat every other week of the year and this plays serious havoc on your body.
You may have heard the reason that you need to eat big before a race or training session so you can fill up the tanks of both liver and muscle gylcogen stores from your overnight fast. The fact of the matter is that your stored liver glycogen is used to maintain proper blood glucose levels and you expand absolutely none of your stored muscle glycogen. I repeat not a single drop muscle glycogen is used.
All the pre race meal does is top off your liver glycogen stores. Your muscle glycogen which is the first fuel used when we start to exercise is at full capacity… assuming that you had a proper meal of complex carbohydrates, and protein after your last training session. If you didn’t, you can’t make up for it now.
All you need is a pre race/training meal of 200-400 calories to top off your liver glycogen tank and this meal should be made up of easily digested high complex carbohydrate meal that has minimum amounts of fat and optimally no simple sugars. A small amount of soy protein (no whey) is also great when racing or training is going to go longer than 2 hours. Why soy? Because it has a lot less potential to produce ammonia, which is a primary cause of muscle fatigue. Whey protein is best for post training and I’ll discuss this more in depth at another time. Oh and keep the fiber content very low as we don’t want/need any mid to late race bathroom stops.
For this meal you can use real foods and combos like banana and cup of yogurt, a bagel with 1/2 a cup of yogurt or some low fiber hot cereals. Otherwise you could go the sports nutrition route with options like Hammers Sustained Energy or Perteteum, then there is Carbo Pro mixed with some soy protein or other combos that use maltodextrin instead of simple sugars.
When training or racing over 60 minutes , you need to eat your pre-race meal 3 plus hours before the event so that your body can fully process the meal and avoid gastro intestinal stress. What happens when we consume a pre-race meal within this 3 hour window you’ll get a hormonal response like we discussed before. Both simple and even the wanted complex carbohydrates will rapidly raise your blood sugars which in turn will create a rush of insulin which leads to hypoglycemia (very low blood glucose)… Ever felt lethargic at race start? Slurping down that high sugar sports drink the hour before the race is not sounding like such a great idea now is it!
A couple other downers on top of the lethargy and high potential of stomach distress is that high insulin pretty much shuts down our fat utilization as a fuel which is a performance precursor and this high insulin also allows blood sugar into the muscle cell which increases the rate we burn and deplete our much wanted muscle glycogen.
Ensuring that your pre race meal is consumed three plus hours before your race or training session will allow your blood sugar and insulin levels to normalize and restoration of hormonal balance.
Being a triathlete myself I know what your next thought processes and questions will be. The first is… But I’m ravenous when I wake up in the morning. Continuing on with our facts, your stomach maybe saying your hungry but your muscles are fully stocked and ready to go. Remember, no muscle glycogen was consumed in your overnight fast. There’s a couple of options here. Just start training and then start consuming the appropriate fuels. The second thought would be that there is no way you’re getting up 3 hours before a training session. Ironman you can do it, but not before a training session.
Sleep… is the answer and remember that if you have been consistently re-fueling within 30 minutes of your training finishing your muscles glycogen stores will be maxed out at 90 minutes. For training just start fueling shortly after the session gets going. When racing or if you must give into the hunger pangs and have opted on the sleep route, then consume them no longer than 10 minutes before your race or training session.
There you have it… could we say myth busted!