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Carbohydrate Loading Done Right-Part 1

Edit October 2022: It's now thought the "draining" process involved with carb loading isn't needed. I've chosen to include it as it's a question we're commonly asked.

If I were to ask 10 people what they think carb-loading consists of, I’m willing to bet a 12-month subscription to the Backcountry Fuel Box that 9 out of 10 people would guess it consists of eating a big bowl of pasta the night before a big athletic feat. Though 12-months to the BFB may be the best gift I could get a stranger, all nine of those folks would be grossly underestimating the power of an appropriate carb-load.

What is it?

A “carb load”, short for carbohydrate loading, is an approach used by athletes, coaches, and dietitians to fill every crevice on our bodies that store carbohydrate- namely the liver and muscle. Since carbohydrate is the predominant fuel source during high activity output, it makes sense folks doing hard things would want these stores to be overflowing like a teenager who's received permission to fill the gas tank of their Civic with dad's credit card before a Friday night out.

So, how does one go about loading up their muscles full of the good stuff since hammering a #1 combo at Tony’s pasta house the day before a big hike won’t do the trick?

A true carb load is a process that unfolds over a period of 1-2 weeks before an event where an athlete focuses on draining the current reserves in an effort to prime the muscle for maximum uptake of carbs. This involves a reduction in carbohydrate intake while also cutting back on the total amount of exercise or training a person is doing.

This process doesn’t seem to make sense at first glance, but it’s quite logical when you look at each step individually.

The Difficult Workout.

I’ve been asked to do the dishes a time or two in my life. It’s a chore I wouldn’t say I hate, but it’s also one that I feel like is a complete waste of time. The latter sentiment usually has me rushing the task and making a bigger mess of the kitchen than it was before the plates were stacked to the ceiling. There’s generally water surrounding every square inch of the counter surrounding the sink, some on the floor, and even a few splashes on the window in front me of me.

I keep a small sponge under the sink because of my dish-washing ineptitude and use it to mop up my mess once the task is complete. One stroke with the sponge and it’s full. I wring it out and take another pass until the sponge absorbs all of the water from my mess. I find myself still marveling at how quick the porous sponge absorbs all of the water. One final wring and the task is complete.

The difficult workout and reduction of carbohydrates in the diet 1-2 weeks out from an event allows the muscles to be in the sponge in this scenario; the more you wring (increase the intensity and/or length of the workout), the more you absorb when the true carb load happens.

Reduced carb intake

This process also only works like it's supposed to in the setting of reduced carbohydrate intake. After all, it doesn't make much sense to completely wring out the kitchen sponge while you have it sitting under the nozzle of the faucet. How much should you reduce your intake? It varies from person-to-person, but let's not get complicated with counting grams and whatnot here. A good place to start is by simply eating half the amount of carbs you normally would at meals. You do not need to avoid carbohydrates entirely for this to be effective.

Exercise Taper ( i.e. reduction in total exercise)

Like wringing a sponge of water under a running faucet, it also is pointless to try and fill carbohydrate stores to capacity before a big event while continuing to train intensely.

You'll want to begin an exercise taper as much as 7 days before the event. A sample week may look like this:

  • Sunday: 3-mile hike with 500-feet of vertical gain.

  • Monday: 2-mile casual hike.

  • Tuesday: 1-mile casual hike

  • Wednesday: 1-2 mile walk on flat ground

  • Thursday: Rest

  • Friday Rest

  • Saturday: Event/leave for your hunt, etc.

Fill That Baby Up! (Steady increase in carbohydrate intake)

Now comes the good stuff- load up on those carbs!

You can finally start looking at that menu at Uncle Tony’s Pasta House once you've completed the process outlined above; that is to say, you can slowly start ramping your carbohydrate intake up in an effort to fill your muscle stores to capacity. Yes, we have specific recommendations for how many grams per pound of bodyweight to aim for, but aiming to double your intake is a reasonable place to start if you don’t feel like dabbling in the math.

This could be as simple as adding in an additional slice of toast with jelly and a glass of juice at breakfast or swapping a bagel in place of bread on your sandwich at lunch.

Wrapping it up

The science behind this method is now that you've "rung the sponge", there's plenty of room for more water to move in or in our case, there's plenty of space for carbohydrate to be fully stored in the places we need them most- our muscles. In addition to that, that depletion makes our muscles much more likely to take up any carbohydrates it does see to the highest degree.

A few simple tweaks to your carb-loading approach can make a drastic difference in preparation before your next big trip. Tax the muscles, begin the taper, and fill the stores, oh, and be sure to ask Tony’s to include the garlic toast

Interested in implementing this strategy or other nutrition planning? Reach out to me!

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