The long standing joke for half marathoners and full marathoners is to carb-load the night before with a big plate of pasta.
The truth is, much more planning goes into proper pre-race nutrition than just simply overloading the night before. More importantly, if you planned on doing it all in one meal, you may end up hindering your performance with fatigue, gut issues, and inflammation.
For those of you who are just starting your running journey you may be wondering, what is carb-loading? Carbohydrates in the form of glycogen are your body’s preferred fuel and for races lasting longer than 1.5-2 hours, filling up these fuel stores are key to helping you go the distance.
Athletes need carbs to maximize the stores of glycogen in their muscles and liver. Your body only has so much room for this fuel source, so carb stores are needed to help you maintain your energy. Ever hear someone say they, “hit the wall” or “bonked”? These terms are other favorites and refer to your body running out of fuel. When you run out of your energy source your pace may start to slow, your muscle will cramp, and fatigue will set in. Through carb-loading, athletes have excess carbs stored in the liver making it easier for their bodies to release during races and long runs. Carbs also help with hydration. For every gram of stored glycogen there are four grams of water stored along with it. Hydration is extremely important factor when racing.
What does carbo loading look like?
It is always a good idea to gradually introduce any new stimulus into a training or nutrition plan. Carb-loading should be no different. Runners should prepare to increase their carb intake little by little prior to their event. This will ensure you have excess glycogen in your liver for your muscles to feed from during endurance exercises.
What are some best practices for carb loading?
Typically you should start carb-loading three to four days out from a race. In general you will need to slowly add more of a mixture of carbohydrates such as rice, legumes, potatoes into your meals. As you gradually increase your intake of carbs per meal, you will want to eat less fat and fiber.
Carb heavy meals, without practice and nutrition training on the gut, can cause extreme stomach upset. Be sure not to go overboard on the carbs.
The day before the race, stick to only simple carbs that are easily digestible.
Common Mistake When Carb Loading
Consuming all the carbs in one sitting
Doing this does not give your body enough time to fill its stores properly. It can leave you lethargic for the rest of the day and the following morning!
Eating more than you usually do
You've worked so hard in your training, do not deviate too much from what you have done in your build up. Yes it is important to top off your glycogen stores but it does not mean “stuff yourself” to get fuller glycogen stores. You are simply adjusting each meal to have a larger carbohydrate component.
Don't look at the scale
Gaining weight while carb-loading is natural. That’s because carbs help you retain water. Remember that for every gram of stored glycogen, you’re storing 4 grams of water. If you gain some weight, that’s actually a good thing. It means your body has the fuel and hydration ready to race.
Eating too much fiber
As you increase your carbs, runners should reduce their fiber intake in the last three days prior to a race. This is because fiber can be taxing on the GI system.
Experimenting with carb loading for the first time
You never want to “try” something new on race day. It is best to always plan ahead of a couple of long runs in your build up with some carb loading meals so that you know what to expect and how your body will respond.
Practicing will help you dial in your carb-loading plan just like you dial in your race nutrition plan. Then, once you know what works best for you, pre-plan your meals the last three days so you cannot stress about what to eat.
Not eating enough carbs
Runners typically eat healthy and know how to fuel themselves during their training. Race week can be a slight exception for those following low carb eating habits.
Not drinking enough when carb loading
Not all carbs are created equal.
There are different types of sugars: fructose, sucrose, glucose. Different carbohydrates have different ways to reach the bloodstream. Therefore, runners need to consider of what they’re drinking with what carbs they’re eating.
“Sports drinks contains fructose, glucose, and sucrose which are different sources of carbohydrates. They contain some sodium which helps with the transportation of glucose, meaning sodium is an important part of carbohydrate utilization." Running, and more specifically faster or higher intensity aerobic running, predominantly uses glycogen which is the body’s stored carbohydrate source. Eating a high proportion of carbs in the days leading up to an important race can ensure that glycogen stores are topped up, thus providing a runner with the maximum available fuel for the upcoming hard effort.
Do all races require carbo loading? No.
The body has enough glycogen stored to last for about 75-90 minutes. For most runners, this equates to doing a 5K, 10K, 15k, and maybe a half marathon without having drained glycogen stores. If this is the case, and assuming you already eat carbs as part of a healthy diet, you shouldn’t worry about carbo-loading before the race. As it was mentioned earlier, eating too many carbs may hinder your performance as you may feel bloated or lethargic the next day due to the additional water retained as part of the glycogen building process and ingesting too many carbs.
Those who are running 75 minutes or more however—running a half-marathon, marathon, and ultra marathon it would be well advised to consider adding extra carbs to their pre-race diet. Again it is recommended to do this in the two-to-three days prior to the race given that you have already practiced this method in a couple long runs.
A good guideline is to aim for seven to eight grams of carbs per kilogram body weight three days before the race; eight to 10 grams per kilogram two days before and 10 to 12 the day before. This will ensure that your glycogen stores are topped up and provide you with the most available stored fuel for the race.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have not practiced carb-loading, do not worry! This will not make or break your race. It won't undo any of the training you've put in. Your race day nutrition can will play a huge role in managing your energy stores during the race.
pFor most it is the internal, personal challenge that runners seek when deciding to train for a half/full marathon. You might want to test your limits and prove to yourself that you can go the distance. Or maybe it was one of your pushy runner friends who said, “it will be so much fun!” Whatever reason you had that made you commit to the training, remind yourself of it often during the months that lie ahead. When your legs are tired or the weather is nasty, maintaining your motivation will help you get out the door.
Starting to Run
Start planning early: It is important that marathoners run a consistent base mileage for at least a year before embarking on a full marathon training program. Building base mileage for half marathoners takes about 6 months time.
What is a building a base?
A running base is like the foundation of your house. The foundation supports the demands of progressive mileage and intensity that comes with a training plan. It is the bridge that connects your racing seasons together and prepares your mind/body for the harder efforts during training and racing. When you begin a training plan, it starts out at a low level and continues to build week to week until it peaks just before race day.
One of the most common causes of injury is building weekly mileage too quickly—we cannot stress enough “DO NOT underestimate the importance of consistently running at least 20–30 miles a week regularly before committing to training for a marathon”. Start small: Running a few shorter races—5Ks-10ks before a half marathon and 10ks-half marathons before your marathon.
Deciding on that First Marathon
Marathons range from quiet, low-key races on backcountry roads to spectator-lined urban races with tens of thousands of runners. Choosing a marathon close to home may offer a "home field advantage" with the opportunity to train on the course’s roads; on the other hand, choosing a "destination" race can really stoke your motivation.
Primary Building Blocks of Marathon Training
Most marathon training plans range from 12 to 20 weeks. Beginning marathoners should aim to build their weekly mileage up to 50 miles over the four months leading up to race day. Six runs per week is adequate giving yourself one day off for recovery. The majority of these runs should be run at an easy enough pace to be able to carry on a conversation. When building base mileage, never increase your weekly mileage by more than 10 percent from week to week.
The Long Run
Your next step is to build up to a weekly long run. This should be done once a week on either a Saturday or Sunday. Your long run will extend about 10% every two weeks. Every 4 weeks, scale it back by a few miles so as not to overtax your body and risk injury. For example, you might run 13 miles one weekend, 14 miles the next, then 15 miles, and then 13 again before moving on to 16 on the fifth weekend.
A long slow distance “LSD” is substantially slower pace than usual, it builds confidence, lets your body adjust to longer distances, and teaches you to burn fat for fuel. Long runs for half marathon training can train up to 10 miles and most marathon training plans usually peak at a long run of 20-22miles. With proper training, your body will take advantage of the peak fitness state your body will be in, the recovery and rest you offer it during a tapering period, and the race adrenaline and ambience of race day will provide you the rest of the miles needed to complete your distance.
Speed work is an critical, albeit, optional, element to incorporate into your training program. Speed sessions increase aerobic capacity and make your easy runs feel even easier. Intervals and tempo runs are the most popular forms of speed work.
Intervals are a set of repetitions of a specific, short distance, run at a substantially faster pace than usual, with recovery jogs in between. For example, 6X 1 minute hard pace, with 1 minute of slow jogging (or even walking) between the repeats.
Tempo runs are longer than an interval—generally in the range of 30-60 minutes, depending on where you are in your training. During a tempo run you will run at a challenging, but sustainable, pace. This teaches you physically and mentally how to sustain challenging work over a longer period of time. Remember, it is important to always allow your body to warm up and cool down with a few easy miles at the beginning and end of any speed session.
Rest and Recovery
Rest days mean no running. They let your muscles recover from the week's workouts and help prevent the greatest enemy of of any runner - injury.
If you are really needing some activity on your recovery days, doing some cross-training is a great option. Nothing high impact.
Tapering: In the two or three weeks leading up to your marathon, scale back significantly on overall mileage and difficulty of your runs to let your body rest up for race day.
Hydrating on the run
Nearly all half/full marathons include water and aid stations along the way. If you plan to carry your own water on race day, buy a hydration pack long in advance and get accustomed to running with it. Never try something new on race day.
Fueling on the run
Many marathoners tell the tale of "hitting the wall" or "bonking." Your body can only store so much glycogen. As this level gets depleted over the course of your marathon, your muscles will begin to tire and feel heavy. Consuming small amounts of carbohydrates can help prevent you from hitting the dreaded wall.
Again, be sure to practice fueling on your training runs to see what your stomach tolerates best, so you can fuel confidently on race day.
Full/half marathon training takes a lot of time and you are running for long periods of time and usually at early hours. Joining a training group provides direction and friends for mental, physical, and emotional support, along with safety.