Have a race coming up? Before you head to the traditional “carbo load dinner” and fill up your plate with gut-bloating pasta and bread the night before, read on to make sure carb loading is appropriate for your race or event.
Compared to eating a low-carb diet in the 1-3 days before a race, a higher-carb diet will help extend the time to exhaustion, delaying fatigue, during the actual race. Carb loading helps maximize glycogen storage, which is equivalent to putting fuel in your gas tank. The more fuel (glycogen) you have in your gas tank, the farther you will be able to go.
Carb loading combined with eating or drinking carbohydrates during a race may have additive effects as well. Carb loading is particularly important for endurance athletes who are doing continuous intense exercise for 90 minutes or more.
Make note of the word ‘intense’ in the previous sentence. If you are, say, walking an event that will take you longer than 90 minutes, you don’t need to carbo load. You only need the extra energy if you’re going to be burning that energy with high intensity effort.
The same is true for shorter events like a 5K or 10K. Carb loading is not entirely necessary and may actually be detrimental; instead, eating a pre-race meal with a bit of carbohydrate and protein is perfectly appropriate. Keep in mind that storing additional carbohydrates (as glycogen) also comes along with extra water storage, so you may feel "puffy".
Carbohydrates are often found in foods that also contain fiber (fruits, whole grains, and starchy vegetables), which can lead to an upset stomach, especially if you are not used to eating those types of foods.
I recommend focusing on lower fiber carbohydrate foods in the days leading up to a race or event. Think white pasta, white rice, regular pancakes, cereals without whole grains, peeled potatoes and low-fiber fruits (melon, grapes, grapefruit, ripe bananas)--basically the opposite of what I would encourage you to eat on a regular basis!
These types of foods are only healthy if you plan on burning them during a race. Eating like this all the time will create imbalances in blood sugar and other metabolic hormones.
If you are intolerant to gluten or feel like you might be sensitive to it, I would recommend using rice pasta over regular pasta and gluten-free bread over regular bread. My favorite brand of gluten-free rice pasta is Tinkyada.
Everyone's pre-race meal will be different. It is important to experiment with what works for you the night before your long training days. This Enchilada Pasta is my go-to pre-race meal. It has served me well for an Olympic triathlon and a trail half marathon.
Enchilada Pasta (Serves 2-4)
Prep time: 5 minutes | Cook time: 40 minutes
For the chicken:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
For the pasta:
1/2 pound dry rice pasta (spaghetti, penne, rotini, etc.)
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 small onion, diced
1 green or red bell pepper, diced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
1 (10-ounce) can red enchilada sauce
1/2 cup shredded Mexican cheese (optional)
Chopped cilantro for garnish
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Season chicken with salt and pepper, place on baking sheet and transfer to the oven. Bake for 25 minutes or until no longer pink in the center. Allow to cool slightly then shred with two forks or chop into bite sized pieces and set aside.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet or deep pot over medium heat. Add onions, bell pepper, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft; 5-6 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant; about 1 minute. Stir in cooked chicken, cumin, chili powder, paprika, cayenne, and enchilada sauce. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low.
Add drained pasta to sauce mixture and fold in cheese. Stir to combine. Serve topped with chopped cilantro once everything is warmed through.
What is your go-to pre-race meal?
Lauren Larson is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a comprehensive private nutrition practice focused on sports nutrition-related diet and lifestyle modifications for active and athletic people. She is a passionate endurance athlete, avid trail runner, cyclist, and triathlete.