Carb loading is something, as runners, we are all encouraged to do before a big race. Which in a way does make sense. If we have more fuel in the tank, we are likely to go for longer before “hitting the wall” so to speak. But we can only store limited amounts of fuel as carbohydrate and going above this level is pointless. All we end up achieving is a higher amount of fat in your system, as any excess carbohydrate is converted to fat for future use.
There is, however, a way that we naturally carb load when we taper off before a race. Allow me to explain.
When you are training hard, your energy requirements are naturally far higher than average. You go out for a hard run and the energy you just burnt needs replenishing. Your body knows this and when you eat a meal straight after a workout that includes carbohydrate, you are in a state of insulin sensitivity (within the first half hour). Or a state where your body is ready to process and absorb any carbs you throw at it. It is basically just restocking the fuel tank that you just depleted.
Later in the day, if you were to eat that same high carb meal, your body would be in less of an insulin sensitive state, so it would take far more insulin to process this and most of it (as our carbohydrate stores are near full) would be processed by the liver into fat.
The exact same thing happens when we carb load during a taper. Our energy requirements are going down as we are training less. Our intake of fuel is going up and our body just gets “stressed out” with this excess, it causes all sorts of issues internally which we may not see the effects of until later in life. Think type 2 diabetes (insulin resistance) which we are not immune to even as runners.
Have you ever gone to a petrol station and tried to fill your car up beyond what it is capable of storing just because you are going on a long trip? If you have a 50 litre tank, it is pointless trying to cram in 70 litres. It just won’t fit! Carb loading achieves a similar thing. The benefits of that small rise in glycogen stores, is not worth it.
So what do we do? During taper, we are reducing our mileage, but still eating the same amount of fuel. So when you think about it, by doing nothing different, apart from reducing your workload, you are carb loading. You don’t need all that extra fuel you are taking in, as you’re not working as hard, you are not in the state of insulin sensitivity as much as you were previously, so your body tends to store more carbs/glycogen naturally.
So what do I eat leading up to a race? Nothing different to normal. The night before I eat the same types of meat and vegetables I am used to eating. The morning of a race, I may eat a banana, an avocado and some spinach sautéed in some coconut oil or butter which is quite normal for me. Good carbs, but not too much and some good fats to encourage fat burning during the race. I’m not saying it will work for you as these are the foods my body is used to and I work well on it. Just don’t bother about those high energy snacks or gels until you are actually mid race (1.5-2hrs in) or directly after the race when you actually do need it. Your body will thank you for it.