The truth about carb-loading before a big race

What to eat before a race. Nutritionist Steph Lowe recommends a breakfast of chia and banana pudding.
What to eat before a race. Nutritionist Steph Lowe recommends a breakfast of chia and banana pudding.  Photo: Supplied

When it comes to preparing for a race, it seems we've been going about it all wrong - from a food perspective, at least. Hands up who's given little thought to their nutrition intake until the day or so before the big race, then judiciously launched into some heavy duty carb loading courtesy of giant bowls of pasta? 

Steph Lowe, sports nutritionist at The Natural Nutritionist and author of e-book Real Food For Athletes, says there are many issues with this model of race day preparation, not least the notion of rampant carb loading.

"We've seen a few changes in the sports nutrition world and we definitely need to stop perpetuating the carbohydrate loading myth because it just doesn't make sense," she says.

Steph says the traditional thinking of carbohydrate loading – eating more carbs to maximise your storage of glycogen (or energy) in the muscles and liver – is based on a false assumption.

"The carb-loading myth assumes we have this unlimited storage capacity, but that's not how human physiology works," she says. "Everybody has a limited ability to store glycogen, relative to their size. Generally, we say well-trained runners can store 1500-2000 calories but beyond that point, you can't eat more food and hope for a greater storage capacity."

Not only is trying to eat more carbs than you can store pointless, overdoing the refined carbohydrates such as pasta, bread and rice can also have a negative impact, Steph says, pointing out that the week before the race, our food requirements might actually be less because we've generally eased off on training.

"With the conventional carb-loading protocol, we get athletes to eat buckets of food when they've stopped training," she says. "For many people that leads to digestive distress, gut problems, water weight gain or even outright weight gain if they go too crazy." 

What to eat

So now we know where we've been going wrong, what should we be eating to best maximise our performance on race day? Steph believes we should start considering our food intake at the same time we start training, "so we're focused on nourishing and complementing our training."

The key nutrients prospective runners should look at every meal are a few generous servings of veg, quality protein, good fats, such as avocados, nuts and seeds, coconut creams or olive oil. And yes, we should be eating carbohydrates, but the right kinds.

"The last macronutrient which is really relevant for athletes is prioritising whole food carbohydrates. By that I mean fruit, starchy veggies, maybe some quinoa and buckwheat," she says.

The night before ...

For that all-important pre-race day dinner, Steph says carbohydrates are important, but not to eat a bucket-full in the hope it will propel you along the next day.  

"We should prioritise whole food carbohydrates in that meal," she says. "The night before a race you could have sweet potato mash with meat and veg, or if you don't eat meat, something like quinoa and vegies or salad. That will be enough to take us to our maximum glycogen content as it shouldn't have been depleted because we haven't been training much on race week."

The morning ...

When it comes to the morning of the race, Steph says we have a couple of options, but it's important to follow the theory that nothing new happens during race week or on race day. 

"The first option is we can go into a race fasted, which means no food or just a coffee," says Steph. "For most people, a race is well within their muscle glycogen storage, so they can use that 1500 to 2000 they've got on board without needing any exogenous carbohydrates from food. But that will only be beneficial for an athlete who's practised that in training."

If that's not the case, says Steph, the important thing to remember about your pre-race brekkie is not to overdo carbs.

"That can be quite a disadvantage, because it will spike our insulin and start that blood sugar rollercoaster, which means we'll feel all the peaks and troughs and may feel quite flat at some point during the race," she explains. "We advise our athletes to move away from something carbohydrate dense and prioritise fat and protein, so that might mean a smoothie or a chia pudding – a great way to have food in the tummy but to really control our blood sugar which is so important for that performance to follow."

Timing is also an important factor when it comes to the pre-face breakfast and Steph says the traditional advice of at least a two-hour window before the race is also outdated. 

"The two-hour window relates to the old guidelines that were carbohydrate dense because of that blood sugar impact," she says, explaining that 90 minutes is usually an adequate window, but again this is something that should be practised prior to race week. 

"At some stage during your training period, generally when you're getting close to your race distance, you should do what we call some race day replications, where you trial a couple of brekkie options, go for a run where you try to match the timings, and see how you feel. Some people find they need to eat quite far out otherwise they get a stitch, and that's the last thing you want on race day."

So there you have it. Eat well in the lead up, focus on whole foods and don't do anything untested and out of the ordinary in the week of your race, and you'll be well on your way to achieving your personal best. 

Green chicken curry with cauliflower rice 

Try this before the big race. 

What to eat before a race, such as the City to Surf.  Nutritionist Steph Lowe recommends her healthy recipes, which include steak with sweet potato chips, banana chia pudding and green chicken curry with cauliflower rice.

What to eat before a race, such as the City to Surf. Nutritionist Steph Lowe recommends her green chicken curry with cauliflower rice. Photo: Sarah Craven Photography

 

Ingredients (Serves 3-4)

2 green chillies

2 cloves garlic

1 stick lemongrass

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 tablespoon turmeric

¼ cup cold pressed extra virgin coconut oil, plus extra for cooking

1 can coconut milk

1 can coconut cream

1 small sweet potato, peeled and roughly chopped

500g chicken thigh, diced

Sea salt and pepper, to taste

1 bunch broccolini

1 zucchini

1 cauliflower

1 lemon

¼ bunch coriander

Method

Halve chillies and remove seeds. Roughly chop along with garlic and lemongrass and blend with curry powder, turmeric and coconut oil until a paste forms. If you are unfamiliar with lemongrass, simply remove the tough outer leaves and the bulb (end) and slice the stalk using all of the fleshy part. Stop slicing when you get to the greener, more woody section. 

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large pan and cook paste for two minutes or until it becomes fragrant. Add coconut milk, coconut cream, sweet potato and chicken and simmer for 15 minutes or until chicken is cooked and sweet potato is soft. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add chopped, washed greens and simmer for 5 minutes. 

Thoroughly wash cauliflower. De-stem, dice into small pieces and blitz in a food processor or blender until it resembles rice. Lightly sauté in coconut oil. Serve curry on top of cauliflower rice with fresh coriander and a lemon wedge. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days.

Almond and banana chia pudding 

Try this the morning of your race. 

What to eat before a race. Nutritionist Steph Lowe recommends her steak, sweet potato chips and salad recipe.

What to eat before a race. Nutritionist Steph Lowe recommends this fuelling almond and banana chia pudding. Photo: Supplied

Ingredients (Serves 1)

¼ cup chia seeds

200ml coconut milk

1 teaspoon rice malt syrup, plus extra for topping

1 vanilla pod, split and scrapped 

1 teaspoon rice malt syrup, plus extra for topping

1 banana, for topping

Crushed almonds, for topping

Extras: coconut yoghurt, cinnamon

Method

Mix the chia seeds, coconut milk, rice malt syrup and vanilla seeds and pod together and allow to soak overnight. 

Top with banana and crushed almonds. For extra flavour, add a touch more rice malt syrup, coconut yoghurt and a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Steak, salad and chips

Another great, night-before-the-race option

What to eat before a race, such as the City to Surf. Nutritionist Steph Lowe recommends her steak with sweet potato chips and salad.

What to eat before a race, such as the City to Surf. Nutritionist Steph Lowe recommends her steak with sweet potato chips and salad. Photo: Supplied 

Ingredients (Serves 2)

2 grass-fed steaks (your choice of cut) 

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)

Sea salt and pepper, to taste

1 medium sweet potato

2 tablespoons cold pressed extra virgin coconut oil

2 teaspoons cinnamon

Sea salt, to taste

1 bunch of broccoli

100g kale

1 tablespoon cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oil

½ cup flaked almonds

¼ cup goji berries

½ large avocado, diced

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)

The juice of ½ lemon

¼ teaspoon sea salt

goat's feta, to top 

Method

Marinate steaks in 2 tablespoons EVOO, sea salt and pepper for 1-2 hours. 

Meanwhile, to make the chips, preheat oven to 180°C. Slice sweet potato into thin chip-like pieces and sprinkle with oil, cinnamon and salt and bake for 20 minutes. Finish off under the grill until crispy. 

Drain marinate into a pre-heated fry pan before adding steak and cooking for 6-8 minutes per side, depending on your desired result. 

To make the salad, dice broccoli heads into small florets and cut the stems into bite size pieces. Lightly steam all and allow to cool in a large mixing bowl. Sauté kale in coconut oil until soft and add to the bowl. Top with almonds, goji berries and avocado. Combine EVOO, lemon juice and salt in a small bowl and dress the salad. Sprinkle with goat's feta and serve with your choice of protein. Serve with the steak and crispy sweet potato fries.