You train hard, you invest in your bike and your gear, you get yourself to an event and you are ready to go. Or are you?
With all the external checklists covered you still need to make sure your body will go the distance, not just to power through consistently but also to make sure you are healthy and strong after your big ride, to face another day – especially if they are back to back!
Since the 1960s carb loading has long been toted as the BEST you can do for your body prior to a big event, however, nutrition, diets, foods and cycling techniques have changed quite a bit in those years. Let’s look at the science of fuelling your body and whether carb loading actually works for the modern avid cyclist.
How to Carb Load for Cycling
Carbs, short for Carbohydrates, are a food source that contain the type of sugar the human body can digest into glucose.
Protein foods are converted into amino acids and fats into fatty acids. Each type is processed differently in the body and energy is stored for different uses later on.
Glucose is a great slow burn energy fuel because it gets stored in muscles and the liver as glycogen. It’s quick to access and is released slowly. When you are exposed to a high intensity exercise over a long duration, like a gruelling ride, then these energy stores will be called on and released to give consistent performance for longer. That means you can, in theory, go harder and cover more distance before you get tired.
So now that you now the science behind how carbs work, it’s important to turn that into information on how you can effectively use them.
Ready to ride
Carb loading is a term high performance athletes use to describe the deliberate storage of carb energy in their body.
The best way to load up on carbs is to go as natural as possible. This is the fastest way for your body to process and absorb glucose.
Look for natural wholefoods like brown rice, potatoes, oats, sweet potatoes, lentils and beans. All these foods are also naturally high in protein and have lots of added nutritional benefits to keep your whole internal system happy.
As an added bonus whole natural foods do not contain gluten so are suitable for gluten free and celiac diets.
While carb loading typically goes hand in hand with large amounts of pasta or breads, these prepared foods have been stripped, processed and have had so many other ingredients added to them it’s not necessarily going to convert the way you want on the inside. They also lack the other benefits the natural wholefoods offer, so skip the quick carbs (and the ready packed quick cooking oats) and take the time to start from scratch. Your body will thank you.
The trick to keeping carbs natural is for the cooking process to be as simple as possible. Steam your vegies and simply boil rice and lentils to keep them in their most natural state.
What to load for
While some cyclists like to carb load prior to a training ride, it really isn’t necessary unless your training is especially taxing. As long as you have a good balanced diet and have a regular portion of carbs before your ride (plus some healthy snacks along the way) you won’t have any trouble. It’s about eating smart. Six pieces of toast with butter just before you head out the door isn’t going to do your body anywhere near as much benefit as a regular bowl of porridge with fresh yoghurt, fruits and/or nuts.
Carb loading is best kept for endurance so think race days, race weekends or hard rides that extend your workout past what your body is used to over a period of 75 minutes or more – that’s when your body stops using the energy you have in the tank and starts looking deeper in your system for fuel.
When to start loading
You may have heard that carb loading is best done the night before a big ride and the morning of. While that’s not completely untrue, it can also be misleading. If this is your only big carb intake of the week you will simply be overwhelming and bombarding your system and your body won’t know how to handle it.
In order to maximise the amount of glycogen your body can store in the liver and muscles you need to ease in a bit and build up to a proper carb feast and train your body to absorb the extra energy.
Look to start your carb increase about three days before your ride. Gradually increase the number of healthy carbs on your plate at each meal (at the same time tapering your training regime) so that your body gets used to the carbs and starts to absorb and store well before the big day. Even at your peak carb intake you won’t need to consume more than 10g of carbs per kilo of body weight. That spread over three to five meals/snacks in a day, isn’t actually that much extra.
What’s the difference in performance?
Without effective fuel in your system your body energy stores will hit a wall (also known as ‘bonk’). If no glycogen is available your body will look to burn fat stores. This is a very slow process and takes your body quite a bit of work to access and convert fat back to energy – so goes the feeling that you are not actually moving anywhere. Your body slows to match the energy burn capacity.
This usually happens suddenly and with no warning, like the power has suddenly been switched off (which technically, it has). Carb loading makes an internal generator available in your system that can get you to the end of a race – and able to walk after you get off the bike.
Studies indicate that you will get an extra 20 per cent ride time before exhaustion with the added bonus of a slight overall performance increase of around two per cent.
It’s not about giving you the ability to ride faster, it’s about endurance and stamina that give you the ability to go longer at your best and get out of the saddle ready to face tomorrow.