How should you carb-load properly as a cyclist?

Get the guide on carb-loading for optimal performance!

Many cyclists will be familiar with the concept of carb-loading: eating a diet that's far heavier in carbohydrate-rich foodstuffs in the few days before a sporting event, in the hope of benefiting from enhanced performance. Although it's possible to achieve some noticeable improvements in performance if carb-loading is done correctly (studies suggest that cyclists may achieve between a 1% and a 3% increase in performance compared with eating a less carb-rich diet prior to an event), it's important that the strategy is approached in the right way. Here we take a look at how carb-loading should be undertaken for optimal results, as well as consider which foods are going to provide the best way to ingest the amount of carbohydrate required.

What is the theory behind carb-loading?

Glycogen is the complex carbohydrate that the body uses to provide short-term energy. Stored in the liver and skeletal muscle, it is used to initially power the body through strenuous activity. After around 1.5/2 hours of continuous strenuous activity, the body will be completely depleted of glycogen and will need to draw further energy from fat stores. The theory behind carb-loading is that eating a significant number of carbs immediately preceding a sporting event will maximise glycogen stores, ensuring there is plenty of energy available to power the body. Note that the maximum amount of time that glycogen stores will last for, even in elite athletes, is around two hours. This means that the technique only has a limited benefit for longer, endurance events.

How much carbohydrate should I eat to carb-load?

Experts recommend that cyclists consume around 10g of carbs for every kilo of body weight for between one and three days prior to the big event. This translates as around 900g of carb/day for a 90kg individual. Although this sounds like a significant amount of carbohydrate to consume in 24-hours, the reality is that many individuals who train hard are already eating 6 or 7g/kg of body weight, so the increase isn't that significant.

How to carb-load the right way

Carb-loading isn't an excuse to chow down on the doughnuts! Ideally, the carbs should come from whole grains, eaten alongside good quality protein and plenty of fruit and vegetables. Items such as pasta with chicken and broccoli, porridge with fruit and honey; bagels with peanut butter and jacket potatoes can all provide significant amounts of carbohydrate, without being heavy on sugar, fats or processed ingredients. As well as eating a high carb diet, additional carbs can be obtained from suitable supplements, energy gels and snacks.

Oats and fruit are healthy sources of carbs

Oats and fruit are great sources of healthy carbohydrates / Image: Cleanlight Photo, Unsplash.

Snacks and energy gels for successful carb loading

Energy bars are an excellent snack to bump up carb consumption in the days prior to a race. Providing a slower sugar release than energy gels (which are frequently high in simple sugar (glucose) meaning they provide a rapid energy spike shortly after consumption), energy bars contain ingredients such as: oats; sugar; dried fruit; nuts; seeds; nut butters; and honey. Available in a wide selection of flavours and types, energy bars are perfect as tasty snacks to boost the carb-loading process. In contrast, energy gels are often more useful to provide a quick boost during a race, rather than as a source of carbohydrate during the carb-loading process.

Homemade energy bars and snacks

Whilst some riders prefer the convenience of ready-made energy bars and gels, others like to make their own. Flapjack based bars are always a popular choice, as are bars rich in dried fruit, nuts and good fats.

Can beginners and intermediate cyclists carb load?

Carb-loading can be a useful technique for any rider to try in the few days preceding an event. Although it can't take the place of regular training and overall condition, it may make a difference in a close-run sporting contest. That said, particularly for shorter, beginner events, it's often sufficient to just have a good breakfast on the day of the race. If you do intend to carb-load, it's worth doing a few "dry runs" to find out which foods and supplements suit you best. No two individuals are the same, so taking the time to discover the menus and snacks that give you the best results is always a winner.