Carbo-loading: Tips and tricks for marathon runners
The majority of serious runners are very conscientious about their diet. This is especially true of marathon runners. Running distances of around 20 miles and then adding in some speed work requires a lot of energy. The marathon itself is a tremendous stress on the muscles and aerobic systems of the body. Eating a good diet is important for keeping the runner healthy and them having enough energy to train for a marathon. Having been in that circle of marathon runners for many years, it’s fun to look back on the eating habits of runners that are often based on hearsay and not actual factual material.
The big topic for marathon runners is the need for “carbo-loading” before a race. This is a practice of getting the body to absorb more carbohydrates so it has the energy to run 26.2 miles. The practice includes the runner not eating many carbohydrates for several days early and then loading up on carbohydrates a day or two before the race. Because the body has been denied carbohydrates, it will absorb more than usual to make up for the lack of carbs earlier — that is the theory anyway. Carbo-loading is only used for (and of any value in) long-distance races. Races for a shorter period of time need to expend more energy, so carbo-loading does not really benefit them that much.
In almost every situation the carbo-loading meal is spaghetti. Carbohydrates come in many sources and all have the same four calories per gram, but spaghetti is the meal of choice. What is overlooked by many long-distance runners is the need for protein. I have viewed slides of muscle tissue after a marathon and the muscle fibers look like they have been shot with a shotgun. The fibers are shredded with tears and holes. Repair of the damage falls on the protein source the runner eats.
For basic information, there are two types of carbohydrates. One is simple carbohydrates such as those found in sugar and sweeteners. The second type is complex carbohydrates that include pasta, bread and grains. The difference is the amount of food value each type has. Simple carbohydrates have next to zero nutritional value compared to complex carbohydrates which also have vitamins and minerals within them. Both have four calories per gram and both will give energy to the muscles, but complex carbs digest more slowly and provide other nutrients the body needs.
Recommendations for the components of food are between 50 and 60 percent of carbohydrates. The problem is that the average person only eats about 25 percent of complex carbohydrates. The rest is the empty calories of simple carbohydrates. If a runner is training for a marathon the percentage of complex carbohydrates needs to be increased. Some running books have recommended marathon runners take in about 75 to 80 percent of the diet in complex carbohydrates.
Getting back to that pre-race meal of spaghetti — why spaghetti? Other carbohydrates such as rice, bread, beans, fruit, potatoes, cereals, nuts and grains are also complex carbohydrates. Why not eat at a Chinese restaurant with lots of rice, or a Mexican restaurant with lots of beans and tacos? All of them are a source of complex carbohydrates.
Marathon runners and long-distance runners burn a tremendous amount of calories in training and can eat what seems to be a huge amount of food and not get fat. I have been to carbo-loading get-togethers before a race and I often wondered if the runners had hollow legs for the amount of food consumed. But with a long-distance race, the next day it will all be burned off as energy needed to run.
There are a number of myths regarding eating too many carbohydrates. One diet recommends more protein than carbohydrates to lose weight, but both food sources have four calories per gram. Whether it is protein or complex carbohydrates, the calories are the same and it is up to the person to do enough exercise to burn those calories. Proponents of high protein diets say protein digests slower and gives the person a full feeling with a smaller amount thus they eat less.
Food calories provide energy. It is up to the person to burn it up through exercise and running to keep the buildup of fat in the body from occurring. Eat and drink wisely and keep moving the body to use the food to your advantage.