Q: Is carb-loading before a race necessary?
Walk into the house of nearly any runner the night before a race, and you’re sure to find pasta cooking on the stove. The need for carbs - especially before an event - has been so ingrained in the heads of runners across the world that the thought of toeing the line carb-less can be terrifying. More than just mental assurance, many racers look to a late-night fueling of pasta and bread for extra energy during the race. The question remains - do all of these extra carbohydrates really enhance performance or just provide a big insulin spike?
Chances are that pre-race pasta dinner isn’t going to directly lead to a personal best. Abby McQueeney Penamonte, Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Coach at Life Time Fitness and accomplished ultra-runner, likens nutritional interventions to academics. “Nutrition and training are a lot like school. You have to put in the work and make good choices day after day. Unfortunately you can't cram for a test and be successful. Likewise, don't expect to eat well only the day before and notice improvements.” She also notes that the old school approach of chowing down on carbs is becoming largely outdated. The rationale is simple. By limiting carbohydrate binges, the body can be trained to burn fat for fuel. This technique, often referred to as Metabolic Efficiency, was introduced by former Olympic Team dietician Bob Seebohar, M.S., RD. “The average person has enough internal fat stores to complete 8-10 Ironman's vs 2-3 hours of internal carb stores,” says Penamonte. If you can increase the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel, you’re opening yourself up to nearly limitless amounts of energy.
Now that the pre-race pasta dinner is out, what should runners eat the night before a big event? Penamonte says nothing special. “Eat what you normally have used in training. Instead of paying attention to what you’re eating only the night before, make changes to your diet a few months out to improve performance. Focus on shifting the diet and replacing starches with ample vegetables. Add in protein and mix in some good fats.” The pre-race pasta dinner was designed to top off carbohydrate stores for a long event. Rather than increasing carbohydrate consumption the night before, which can lead to spiked insulin and increased cravings, focus on fat and protein consumption. This strategy along with proper training will increase your body’s ability to burn fat and lead to longer-lasting energy - no pasta required.