If you follow a Paleo diet, get ready to throw it out the window.
The simple reality of running a good marathon is that you need to consume an incredible amount of carbohydrates in the days before your race to adequately fuel your muscles.
Everyone has heard of carbo-loading for long races but there are a few misconceptions. Let’s look at the popular carbo loading protocol and the actual reality of what happens to your body.
Myth: You have to deplete your glycogen stores first by consuming only fat and protein and doing 2-3 “bonk runs” to burn through any leftover carbs in your body. Then you aggressively carbo-load for a week to supercharge your body’s glycogen (sugar) supply.
Reality: The stress of carb depletion includes eating no carbs whatsoever and running on empty – essentially without fuel in a semi-fasted state. Common problems include an increased risk of injury and sickness during this period. Plus, it’s not as effective as other strategies.
Most runners are rightfully afraid of depleting their carb supply before their race and simply avoid this protocol. Instead, they focus on eating more carbs in the few days before their marathon.
The good news is that they’re on the right track! The best way to max out your muscle and liver glycogen stores is to consume a lot of carbohydrates during the 2-3 days before your race. However, most runners don’t carbo-load enough.
Researchers from Britain recently followed over 250 runners who ran the London Marathon. They found that only a tiny fraction of them consumed enough carbohydrates before the race – and those that did ran an average of 13% faster.
The new guidelines for carbo-loading call for you to consume 7-10 grams of carbohydrate for every kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of body weight. This is anenormous number of carbohydrates; you’ll likely feel swings of energy as your blood sugar goes up and down.
How to Eat All These Carbs
But the research – and real world results – prove that it’s vital to max out your carb stores if you want to race at your potential. If you don’t, you’ll likely “hit the wall” at the common 20-22 mile mark of the race. This is exactly what happened to Jason at the 2008 New York City Marathon. He went from running 6:05 pace to 7:00 minute during the final miles.
Fast forward three years later to the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon. Jason ate more carbs than he thought was required in the two days before the race. He also ate over 160g of carbs during the race (gels and sports drink) – or the equivalent amount of sugar as a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Unlike New York City, Jason only slowed down a few seconds per mile in the final 10k of his 2:39 marathon. His slowest mile was 6:15 and he averaged 6:05 overall. In addition to a great marathon training cycle (obviously!), he credits his fueling strategy as integral to his performance in the last miles of the Philly Marathon.
So how do you carbo load this much? It can be daunting; 7g of carbs per kilogram of body weight for a 150 pound runner amounts to 477 grams of carbohydrates per day. There are some good strategies to make this more achievable:
- Include carbs in every meal. The best options include oatmeal (get the sugary kind!), white/brown rice, quinoa, bread, and pizza (limit the grease)
- Snack often: fruit is the healthy option, but you can include other questionable carb sources like chips, granola bars, cookies, candy, etc. Treat yourself – but remember it’s a snack not a meal.
- You won’t be able to get enough carbs if you’re not also drinking carbs. Get a 32 ounce sports drink, enjoy a few glasses of juice, and add sugar to your coffee. Jason bought a 32 ounce bottle of very sweet lemonade the day before that had 120 grams of carbs.
- The day of a race, eat a medium sized breakfast at least 2-3 hours before the start. Jason ate sugary oatmeal, a granola bar, and a banana. You can also eat toast with jelly or any combination here, but make sure you get at least 100 grams before the race. Remember, you just slept and fasted for an entire night.
Follow these carbo loading strategies before your marathon and you’ll perform better than if you didn’t. And remember that only 12% of runners in the study mentioned here ate enough carbs before the London Marathon – so most likely you’re not either.