Carbo-Loading the Right Way

What is Carbo-Loading

Carbo-loading is a technique athletes use to make sure their bodies have as much carbohydrates as possible before a competition or strenuous training event. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for athletic events lasting between thirty seconds and two hours. In the body, carbohydrates are converted to glycogen which is the fuel that your muscles use for action. By making sure that the maximum amount of fuel is in the body ready for conversion into energy, an athlete can perform at their highest potential both physically and mentally. If done properly, carbo-loading can be a safe, simple and effective means to get that extra edge over the competition.

The Ideal Carbo-Loading Plan

You might think that anytime you eat foods containing carbohydrates your body is going to store the excess away for later use. Actually, muscle cells are very particular about when they like to store glycogen. They show little inclination to store glycogen before a meal or during sleep. In the late 1980’s researchers at the University of Texas showed that the best time to pack in the carbs was two hours after a strenuous workout. This was found to be the time when the muscle cells were most “hungry” and in the mood to create “super-stores” of muscle glycogen. The researchers discovered that the ideal plan was to consume 2/3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight right after the workout and an equal amount two hours later.

More recent findings, however, have led to an even better way to achieve super-stores of carbs: 20% more carbs than the method developed at the University of Texas. Researchers at Ohio State University have discovered that by consuming the carbs at fifteen-minute intervals over four hours instead of in two blocks separated by two hours the muscle cells remain in storing mode for the entire four hour period. This new strategy calls for athletes to consume three grams of carbs per pound of body weight divided into sixteen equal doses over the four hour period (i.e. every fifteen minutes). For example,

A 160 lb. athlete would need to consume a total of 480g of carbs (160 lb x 3g/lb = 480g).

Divide 480g by 16 yields 30g every 15 minutes for 4 hours (480g/16 = 30g).

Therefore, the athlete should consume 30g of carbs every 15 minutes for 4 hours.

The fifteen minute interval period is critical because it ensures that the glucose and insulin levels remain very high throughout the four hour period which keeps the muscle cells in their storing mode. With more carbs in the muscles, athletes will be able to train or compete at a faster pace for longer periods of time.

While this regimen will require some planning, it is ideal for the week leading up to major tournaments, playoff or championship games, or periods of heavy training or games such as two-a-days. An effective strategy would be to start carbo-loading five to seven days prior to the event or competition. After each workout, consume the required amount of carbs in the allotted time period. In this manner, each subsequent workout would begin with optimal fuel stores and fluid levels providing the best condition for training. By tapering a day or two before the event or competition, that is decreasing the duration of training but maintaining a high intensity level, athletes will be able to “top off” on their glycogen stores and be ready to perform at their highest level.

Foods for Carbo-Loading

The tricky part is deciding what to consume and how to consume it in the four hour window after a demanding workout. Actually, it’s not as difficult as you might think. An important consideration after any tough workout is re-hydration in order to replace the fluids which have been sweated away. Obviously, sports drinks were designed just for this. And if you can drink one that contains electrolytes and small amounts of sodium, like Gatorade, so much the better. Now, since most of these drinks typically contain carbohydrates as well, they make the perfect carbo-loading food to consume immediately after the workout. The best sports drink which combines all necessary aspects for effective hydration and carbohydrate content is Gatorade. Let’s return to our 160 lb athlete from the example above to find out how much Gatorade needs to be consumed.

A 160 lb. athlete should consume 30g of carbs every 15 minutes for 4 hours.

8 oz. (one small cup) of Gatorade contains 14g of carbs.

Therefore, the athlete should consume

slightly more than 2 cups (approx. 17 oz.) of Gatorade every 15 minutes.

(8 oz. x 30g/14g = 17.1 oz.)

Of course, there are other foods that can and should be consumed over the four hour period, but at least for the first hour, it is advisable that Gatorade (or a similar sports drink) be consumed in order to achieve the dual aim of re-hydration and carbo-loading. An even better alternative may be to try a recovery drink. These drinks combine the ingredients of the sports drinks with a higher quantity of carbs. They can usually be found in nutritional stores or from team supply centers. Gatorade manufactures a good tasting recovery drink called Gatorade Energy Drink. It contains 78g of carbs in 12 oz. (one bottle) which means that the athlete in the example would only need to drink a little more than a third of the bottle (4.6 oz.).

Here are some other foods that are good sources of carbohydrates and ideal for carbo-loading:


Carbs (g)

Pretzels, Dutch-type (3)

38 g

Raisins (1/2 cup)

58 g

Fig bars (4)

42 g

Bananas (1)

27 g

Orange juice (8 oz.)

26 g

Whole wheat bagels (1)

40 g

Pasta (8 oz.)

60 g

Rice (1 cup)

45 g

Baked potato (1 w/ skin)

50 g


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