To Load or Not To Load

Presentation of bread and other carbohydratesThe question of whether or not to load up on carbs before a workout isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. There are a variety of situations to consider, including the type of workout you’re planning and your goals (for example, to finish a race or to lose weight).

What do carbs do in your body?

When you eat a meal that’s high in carbohydrates, most of that fuel is stored as glycogen (a type of sugar) in your muscles. That glycogen is the most easily accessed form of energy in your body, versus stored fat, which is much more difficult to break down and turn into energy.

Should I carbo load?

If you need endurance, then you need to load up on carbs before working out. Athletes gearing up for an event or competition will typically switch to a mostly carbohydrate diet a few days before they need to perform. Even moderate exercisers will benefit from a carb-heavy snack (around 200 to 300 calories) about three hours before a workout.

Without enough stored glycogen from carbohydrates, your muscles will run out of fuel, and you’ll hit the dreaded “wall” until your body has time to process some fats for energy. Unfortunately, we often think that NOT eating before working out will help us lose weight, but the resulting lack of energy will sabotage even the most highly motivated.

Why would I NOT carbo load?

If you’re trying to cut weight quickly, like for a bodybuilding or boxing event, then carbo loading will probably not be in the game plan—at least until after the weigh in. Likewise, if you currently follow a low-carb diet (like Atkins, Paleo or similar), your body is probably already adjusted to converting fat to energy more efficiently, so eating a lot of carbs will probably make you feel worse, not better.

What carbs are best?

You again want to think about the activity you’re gearing up for. If you’re running a marathon or biking cross country, for example, you’ll want to avoid high-fiber foods that could cause tummy troubles mid race. Choose refined grains like white rice and white bread, or starchy foods like baked potatoes (without the skin) and pretzels and crackers, and plan to refuel with more carbs during the race. If you’re looking to lose weight, then you do want to opt for complex carbs with lots of fiber, which will give your muscles the fuel they need without weight gain or an increase in appetite. Try whole grains, beans, lentils and starchy veggies.