Are We Carb-loading or Binge Eating?

I remember decades ago when I first started running and someone told me about a pre-race spaghetti dinner. I knew I’d found my sport. It appealed to my Norwegian heritage (eat, pillage, eat) and my love of all things pasta.

However, we humans in general have an ability to take a good thing (coffee) and turn it into a catastrophe (Frappucinos). Carb loading is no different. We have pre-race noodle parties, pre-race bagels, and then we’re sucking down gels and Clifbars while we nervously dance at the starting line. But does it improve our performance?

The idea behind carbo-loading is to increase the glycogen stores in the liver so that we can maintain blood sugar levels throughout an event, depending on its length. Not surprisingly, one effect of this consumption is weight gain. It can make your race shorts a little snugger—especially if you carb load on Bailey’s Irish Cream. I’ve tried this, mind you, and it is not recommended.

At one point in time, some researchers recommend that we deplete our glycogen stores first, then spend 3-6 days consuming doughnuts or otherwise to fill up our livers. These days, most carb loading is done a day or two before the race without the depletion phase as studies have shown that it has similar benefit with slightly less bloat.

Or we can actually consume carbohydrates during the event. As you might have noticed, many of us are doing both. In fact, before an event, I have some subconscious fear that all the food will be gone from the planet at the moment I cross the finish line, and so I spend the days and hours before an event nervously stuffing all food things into my pie hole.

It might even be pie. I’m probably doing it while I sort out my gels, bananas, sweet potatoes, fried chicken, and various other food sources I plan on carrying during the event. Although it’s hard to fathom, this is why I’m not the only human to gain weight during a marathon.

Not everyone can handle the digestion of food during an event. If you’re one of these people, carb loading specific to your event might be a great way to increase your glycogen stores without increasing your trips to the toilet.

When we’re fueling on the go, the simple carbohydrates seem to be most tolerable, and the general recommendation is about 200 calories per hour of sustained effort. You’ll burn more than that, but your liver will be making some glucose too—just not fast enough to sustain blood sugar levels without support.

I’m a human who prefers real food on a run, although I like those gummy gel things too because it’s like having candy without the guilt. I’ve also taken to fruit and chia gels with electrolytes and optional caffeine. The chia provides Omega 3s, which helps manage inflammation. And there’s always the trusted banana and cookies. If we’re going to be out logging the miles, there might as well be some cookies in it for us.

The rules usually change if you’re on a bike or doing a less intense activity. I can eat bacon and eggs while riding, and I once got my rear end handed to me by a woman who was eating pizza slices while she passed me. Running seems to be a little harder on our guts and I see fewer folk out there eating pulled pork at trail run aid stations.

The next time you’re prepping for an event, do the math and figure out how many carbs you’ll actually need. Maybe you have the perfect reason for a sweet potato feast in the days leading to it. Or maybe you find that treats along the course are what works best for you. Whatever you do, pack a few extra calories with you just in case. The only thing that might be worse than runner’s trots is hitting the wall. //


When Ammi Midstokke is not chasing her first love (trails), she is preaching her second (food) as a Nutritional Therapist. She wrote about hormones in March.

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