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How much carb loading should you do before a marathon?

If you're training for a marathon, you need to know how to do carb loading properly. Lounge speaks to nutritionists to find out

Volunteers take part in a Half Marathon during the 18th edition of the Tata Mumbai Marathon.
Volunteers take part in a Half Marathon during the 18th edition of the Tata Mumbai Marathon. (ANI)

Back in 2009 when I ran my first Standard Chartered Mumbai half marathon, I kept hearing about carb loading. An online search told me I had to eat pasta, a lot of pasta, in the week leading up to the marathon. I don’t particularly like pasta, but I also was a new runner and thought it prudent to listen to experienced runners. 

All of them encouraged eating pasta, not a single Indian food, for carb loading ahead of a race. Back then recreational distance running was also new to India and there were just a handful of races. However, now we are a country that enjoys running and there is hardly a weekend when there isn’t a running event scheduled.

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Along with the growth of running we now have a lot more information about training, recovery and nutrition (including carb loading). And there’s life beyond beyond pasta: Plenty of dishes in both north and south Indian cuisines that are excellent sources of carbohydrates, say runners and nutritionists. 

What is carb loading? Carb loading is the phase in a training cycle where one significantly increases their carbohydrate consumption as race day approaches. “The loading of carbohydrates is done so that the runner loads the body with carbohydrates and reduces running and exercise closer to the event. This increases the stores of carbohydrates in the liver and muscles which can be used during long duration activity like a marathon,” explains Pooja Udeshi, consultant, sports nutritionist at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai.

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Carb loading creates a “super-compensation” effect by deliberately raising daily calorie intake to 70–90% of carbohydrates in the days preceding a race. This raises glycogen levels above average, says Chandni Haldurai, head of nutrition at Cult.fit. “Carb loading maximises muscle and liver glycogen levels, which is an essential energy source for increased endurance in races and marathons. This excess offers a continuous energy source, postponing fatigue and enhancing performance all around,” she says. 

When one runs distances such as half marathon and more, sustained carb loading is required because the body needs a lot of fuel to burn. This process should start at least four to six days before a race. “Increase your intake of carbohydrates gradually, aim for 5-10 grams of carbs per pound of body weight. To maximise glycogen storage, lower your training intensity,” says Haldurai. 

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Athletes who compete intensely for more than 90 minutes benefit from carbohydrate loading for a few days. This loading of muscle glycogen to super-compensated levels can be achieved within 2-3 days, at the same time that training intensity is reduced to not more than easy levels, Haldurai adds. However, when it comes to distances shorter than 10km, the carb loading period should be shorter. “One or two-day carb loading can be done in case of a 10km run with reduced exercise. For 5km loading can start a night before the event,” says Udeshi. 

Indian food options: While pasta still remains the most popular dish for carb loading, there are plenty of options available in the Indian diet. Rice provides complex carbohydrates that provide long-lasting energy. For more nutrients and fibre, eat brown rice, says Haldurai. Also, phulka and roti made from whole wheat flour are easily digestible and they provide long-lasting energy. Poha and avial (made with flattened rice), are easily digestible and make for the perfect pre-race meal.  

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Sweet potatoes are packed with beta-carotene and complex carbohydrates and they offer long-lasting energy and health benefits from antioxidants. Rotis made from sorghum or bajra are gluten-free, high in fibre and complex carbohydrates that are excellent for gut health and long-term energy. Fruits like bananas, mangoes and grapes are also excellent sources of absorbed minerals as well as carbohydrates, says Haldurai. Other reliable local carb loading foods include oats idli, ragi dosa, carrot and oats upma and sooji dhokla. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to carb loading, say coaches and nutritionists. Every person’s needs are different, so Haldurai suggests trying out various sources of carbohydrates and seeking bespoke advice from a registered dietitian to find the best carb loading plan for you. 

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“If you are a regular runner or are planning to run a marathon, your body should be supplied with energy-dense whole grain cereals and starchy vegetables. Sugary foods and drinks provide a compact form of carbohydrates, which is particularly useful when energy needs are high or in situations when it is impractical to eat bulky foods. Fats are also an important source of energy for those who require more than 4,000 kcal per day. Endurance athletes usually have an increased ability to utilise fat. However, a high-fat and low-carbohydrate diet can lower performance and increase the chances of cardiovascular diseases,” says Haldurai. 

However, one must remember that carb loading is not a license to eat anything and everything. You must avoid refined carbohydrates as they cause inflammation. Other things that one ought to avoid before a race include carbonated and sugary drinks, processed and refined foods, deep fried and fatty foods, spicy foods and alcohol. These are usually low in nutrients, cause stomach distress, could dehydrate and hinder functionality as well as sleep.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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