What is Carbohydrate Loading?
Carbohydrates are chemical compounds that along with proteins, fats, and DNA make up the 4 principal biological macromolecules of which life is composed. Carbohydrates are the primary means by which living organisms store energy. They are the principal structural component of plants, and help form the connective tissue in people and animals.
Complex carbohydrates are the best source of fuel for athletes. When carbohydrates are digested your body converts them into sugar. Once the sugar enters your bloodstream it is transferred to individual cells to provide energy (glycogen). The body stores carbohydrates for energy use in the liver and the muscles in the form of glycogen. These carbohydrates are broken down quickly during high intensity exercise to maintain blood glucose levels. Some sports nutritionists recommend that up to 65 percent of an athlete’s calories should come from carbohydrates.
Carbohydrate loading is a common practice of endurance athletes when training for a major event. The athlete will first exercise to exhaustion to deplete muscle glycogen, then eat a large carbohydrate rich meal to replenish glycogen reserves with a higher than normal proportion. The athlete is then able to avoid exercise-induced hypoglycemia (low-blood sugar) and can continue to exercise longer than usual.
Carbohydrate Loading Diet
One exact carbohydrate loading diet is not right for every athlete. There are different techniques to use to enhance each athlete’s unique circumstance.
One common method is glycogen stripping. This involves the athlete exercising to exhaustion the sixth day before a major event. Then for the next three days a high protein, low carbohydrate diet (less than 10%) is consumed. On the third day the athlete again exercises to exhaustion and then for the next 3 days, consumes an extremely high carbohydrate diet (90%). The purpose of this method is to severely deplete the body’s glycogen reserves and in turn cause a super compensation effect in its carbohydrate stores.
A second method again starts about a week before competition. The athlete will maintain or reduce, if necessary, carbohydrate consumption to 50% of total calories consumed. Then continue training at a normal level for 3 to 4 days. Next, increase carbohydrate intake to 70% of the calories consumed. This should be about 4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight. Reduce training levels to avoid depleting the newly increased glycogen stores and be sure rest completely the day before the main event.
Benefits of Carbohydrate Loading
The purpose of carbohydrate loading is to help increase glycogen storage, enhance athletic performance and delay fatigue. It is most beneficial for endurance athletes such as runners, swimmers and bikers who are preparing for an event that consists of intense competition for 90 minutes or more. Carbohydrate loading is not usually helpful for shorter events.
Carbohydrate loading can delay the depletion of glycogen stores, keep blood glucose levels stable, lessen dehydration, maintain sodium levels and possibly help avoid gastrointestinal upset. With the prevention of all these symptoms the onset of fatigue is delayed thereby allowing an athlete to perform at his or her maximum level for a longer period of time.
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