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Athletes: Carbohydrates and Carb-Loading

Content by: Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD

For a day or two before an important intense exercise or competition, you want to fully fuel your muscles! Learn more about carb-loading...

Athletes: Carbohydrates and Carb-Loading


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Your muscles require carbs for optimal function. You should plan your meals and fully fuel your body to be ready for performance. Eating carb-rich foods (cereal, bread, pasta, rice, fruits, vegetables) at every meal, prepares your muscles with plenty of energy. Include protein with your meal to repair muscles, but limit fatty, greasy foods.

Here are 9 carb-loading tips:

1. Carbohydrates are not fattening! Well-fueled athletes will gain water-weight. With each ounce of carbs stored in muscles as glycogen, your body stores approximately 3 ounces water. It helps keep you hydrated!

2. Invest in optimum performance. Reduce training to rest your muscles. Your body requires time to refuel and recover.

3. More is not better! Last-minute, intense training reduces performance. You fatigue your muscles at a time when rest is more important.

4. Eat reasonably. Carb-loading does not mean stuffing yourself with pasta! Instead, it means eating carbs as the foundation of each meal.

5. Drink extra fluids. Drink fluids until your urine is a light color. Don't drink so much that you interrupt your sleep with trips to the bathroom.

6. Eat a carb-based, pre-event breakfast for focus and performance. Choose easy-to-digest foods 1 to 4 hours prior to performance. Consider a meal with 400 to 800 calories of oatmeal, cereal, bagel or French toast. Carbs fuel your brain—as well as your muscles—and help you think clearly.

7. Carefully choose your carbs. When selecting meals and snacks, fill up on high carbohydrate foods, not high fat foods. The two often come together, such as butter on potato and cream in ice cream.

8. During long events or at half-time, consume simple carbs. A sports drink offers carbs to boost your energy, plus fluids to replace sweat loss. Alternatives to sports drinks include drinking water and eating a banana, energy bar, gummy candy, pretzels or other easily digested foods.

9. After the event, eat carbohydrates (to refuel muscles) with protein (to repair muscles). Replace sodium losses with salty foods (soup, pretzels, spaghetti sauce, salted meals). Drink fluids until your urine is a clear color. You might be hungrier than usual for the next two days. Eat well!

Quick Tips!

BEST CHOICES: Highest in Carbohydrates
• Spaghetti and pasta meals with tomato sauce
• Rice, (sweet) potato, stuffing (limit butter, gravy)
• Lentils, hummus, beans & rice, split pea soup
• Bread, English muffins, bagels, cereal
• French toast, pancakes, oatmeal
• Jam, jelly, honey, maple syrup
• Fruit snacks (bananas, pineapple, raisins, dates)
• Juice beverages (grape, cranberry, orange, cider)
• Smoothies made with blended fruit and juice
• Sherbet, sorbet, frozen yogurt
• Apple crisp, blueberry cobbler, fig bars

LESS CHOICES: Lower Carbs, Higher Fats
• Pizza & pasta with lots of meat and cheese
• French fries, Chinese fried rice, buttery potato
• Meat-based dinners w/veggies, but no starch
• Donuts, croissants, Danish pastry
• Large egg & cheese omelets, breakfast meats
• Butter, margarine, cream cheese
• Cookies, chips, high-fat snacks
• Beer, wine, alcohol
• Protein shakes, milk shakes, frappes
• Ice cream, especially gourmet brands
• Desserts made with lots of butter

Next Steps:
1. Enjoy eating high carb meals 2-3 days before intense exercise or competition.
2. Eat carbs 1 to 4 hours before the event.
3. Eat carbs after the event for refueling.
4. Eat proteins after the event for repairing muscle.

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