Before a big ride do you really need to carb-load?

October 15, 2019 4 min read

Before a big ride do you really need to carb-load?

Let’s play a game of good carbs, bad carbs. Health trends seem to be big money at the moment which means there are a lot of opinions flying around over what is and isn’t good for you. One of those items taking a lot of heat is the humble carbohydrate. 

Many diets now point to high fats and low carbs to maintain a lean figure and overall health.  This can get confusing because for years it’s been a cycling tradition to eat a bowl of (pretty much) plain pasta before a big ride, the breakfast of champions! So what now, do we continue the carb-feast or is it time to change to a new power fuel? 

The high fat low carb rule is not something we are looking to disprove here, it’s a matter of putting eating and dietary intake into perspective. If you are sitting at your desk and going about your regular day then you don’t need a massive amount of stored energy, so a low-energy fuel load makes perfect sense in this instance. If you are going to jump on your bike at the crack of dawn and ride hard for a prolonged period, let’s say for two to three hours, there is no way a lean diet is going to see you through. Your energy levels will drop and your body will look to your muscles as a fuel source, aiming for stored protein energy rather than stored carbs. 

Just because carbs are okay doesn’t mean you can go crazy, you still need to eat smart. It’s unfortunate that many people lump sugary foods under the carb label when really, they are just junk. Carbs and calories seem to be interchangeable, however, we are looking to store valuable energy rather than add body weight and that can only come from high quality nutritious foods. Doughnuts, sticky pastries and commercially made cakes are examples of foods that have basically zero nutritional value and should be classified as treats. 

When carb loading, be really conscious of how much sugar you are consuming. You want to steer away from processed and refined sugars as much as possible.

Foods high in sugar will dehydrate you and have you burning energy faster, resulting in the opposite effect to the sustained energy release you are looking for during a prolonged hard ride. 

When to carb-load

You only need 36-48 hours prior to a big ride to carb load. Leading up to an event you should look to taper off your training so your body gets rest and recovery before your event. 

If you have a lot of events or big rides in a season (or the year) it’s best not to carb load all of them. To keep your body reactive to both the storage and the burn of energy it’ s more efficient to use carb loading sparingly so that your system will jump to attention the next time you pile the carbs on. Assess your calendar to determine which events you can afford to back off on and ride those in a carb-depleted state. 

How much should I aim to eat?

Carb loading is about healthy foods. Go for healthy options and add a little more carbs than you normally would to your plate, but also make sure you have healthy greens, salads and protein there as well. 

Two to three days before the event increase your carb intake to around 10g of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight per day. 

That’s an increase of around 2g a day overall, factoring that many athletes already consume approximately 8gs of carbs per kilo to maintaining energy for training. 

Rather than one sitting the extra carbs will be spread out over three main meals and two snacks, making it very easy for a 70kg cyclist to consume 600-700g of carbs in five or so sittings. 

Monitor how you are feeling. The carb increase over those few days should not have you feeling uncomfortable or bloated. If so, make sure you still have those nutrient greens on your plate. It might also be worth experimenting with gluten free options and trying a wider array of high carb fuels to find a good match. 

How much should I ride?

This carb loading strategy is really only shown to be effective for endurance rides of 75 minutes plus in testing. If you are just going on a training ride or your event is less than 60 minutes you are better off sticking to lean proteins and healthy vegetables as your fuel source. 

What counts as good carbs?

  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Oats
  • Whole fruit (especially bananas and apples)
  • Fruit juices
  • Smoothies (milk, yogurt, and ice cream are all high in carbs)
  • Bread
  • Rice
  • Crackers
  • Cereal
  • Beans and other plant-based proteins
  • Potato
  • Sweet potato
  • Beetroot
  • Corn 

Worried about weight?

If you are riding hard then you will burn off the stored glycogen long before it can add weight to your frame. Be carefully to reduce your cabs again after your ride and be smart about your eating off-season.

Prefer gluten free (GF)?

Just because pasta is the go-to carb food doesn’t mean it’s the only one. Buckwheat can replace most flour cooking, including in sauces, pasta spirals, and pancakes. There’s also baked potatoes, quinoa and beans, which are all naturally high in carbohydrates and are GF. 

Never loaded up on carbs before?

Before a big ride is not the time to change your diet, especially not drastically. If the idea of loading up on carbs is new to you, you want to warm up to it slowly and give your body plenty of time to adjust long before you exert yourself.

Your body has enough to cope with just keeping the pedals turning, introducing a new diet now will cause stress and tummy upsets that can hamper your performance. Stick with what you know and increase the proportion of the best fuel you currently use, which might be any of the foods listed above. 

Fuelling yourself correctly before a big ride? That’s freedom!

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