The day after my friend participated in a 50 mile bike race, I was eager to hear details about the epic event. His report? After extensive training, he bonked hard (his body ran out of fuel) mid-race and he barely finished. He was crushed.

Prior to and on game day he had dutifully followed the dietary recommendations given to him by his countless coaches over the years: carb load.

To him, this meant eating pasta the night before. Pancakes and orange juice were ingested the morning of the race. Right before he took off at the starting line, he decided to down a few packets of sugar just for good measure.

So what went wrong?

Carbohydrates are a great source of quick energy, and carb loading is helpful for many endurance athletes. However, that does not mean that people should follow in the dietary footsteps of my cyclist friend.

Don’t Wait Until Game Day:

If you want your body to perform at its peak, you have to start fine tuning your machine early. Most of the key nutritional prep happens way before the 12 hour window prior to a big athletic event.

Unfortunately, a lot of the athletes with whom I have worked (initially) have poor diets that are packed with refined carbs & sugar. Many figure they can eat junk food guilt free due to their active lifestyle, and it won’t negatively affect them. That’s not the case. Day-to-day nutrition has a huge impact on performance.

Fat as Fuel:

Athletes should be excellent at utilizing fat for fuel. Fat is the best long burning energy source; and therefore, it is the body’s preferred fuel especially for endurance activities. However, carbohydrates are still important. They just shouldn’t be the exclusive fuel for powering an athlete (or anyone for that matter).

In order to train the body to tap into fat for fuel, you have to reprogram your body to be less reliant on carbohydrates. Eating a diet that balances blood sugar and has a decent amount of healthy fat (e.g. coconut oil, real butter, and flax seeds) is key. This will convert your body from relying solely on sugar to being able to adapt to burning fat as well.

What is Carb Loading?

The goal of carb loading is to fill your body’s storage units with fuel so that you can tap into that energy during a big athletic event. When you ingest carbohydrates, the body uses up what it needs at that time for energy. Then it saves the excess in the easily accessible form of gylcogen, which is energy stored in the muscles and liver. Athletes should be able to tap into that glycogen and their fat as a source of back up fuel after the sugar in their blood has been used up.

The Type of Carb Matters:

In analyzing how you should carb load, it is helpful to consider the types of carbohydrates eaten by incredibly athletic natives who thrive on a non-Westernized diet. The Tarahumara super athletes, who are featured in the book Born to Run, are a great example. These natives of northern Mexico eat a good amount of carbs prior to their epic 50+ mile runs, but they ingest whole food carbs.

Veggies, fruits, legumes, and whole grains (paired with fat and protein) serve as excellent fuel for these athletes who don’t need sport gels and goos to prevent bonking mid-race. They fill up their body’s storage units with the right type of carbs and keep their blood sugar in check with ample fat and protein.

Bonking, Weight Gain, & Inefficiencies:

When most modern athletes carb load, they pump their bodies up with refined carbohydrates and sugar. These foods may give them an initial burst of energy but then cause their blood sugar to crash, leaving their energy in the toilet.

Furthermore, the body only has limited space for storing carbohydrates as glycogen. If you are eating too much sugar, the body converts the excess into adipose tissue, which is body fat. This often presents as a stubborn muffin top or immovable belly fat. Carrying unnecessary body fat around hampers your athletic performance and is detrimental to your overall health.

Lastly, frequently ingesting refined carbs in your daily diet derails the body, limiting its ability to properly utilize fat as energy and to manage glycogen stores effectively. This causes your amazing machine to run inefficiently.

Action Steps:

  • Teach your body to utilize fat for fuel by balancing your blood sugar.
  • The day before a big event, eat a moderate amount of whole food carbohydrates (e.g. sweet potatoes, broccoli, and berries) to fill your glycogen storage units.
  • 1-2 hours before your event, ingest easily digestible, whole foods. Try the following: 1. Eggs paired with fruit 2. An avocado topped with sea salt & paired with oatmeal or 3. A fruit smoothie blended with soaked chia seeds, almond butter, or a clean whey or pea protein powder.

I wish you all the best as you prepare for your next big race, game, or workout!

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