The Race Eve pasta dinner: Is pre-race carb loading a good idea?

I may or may not have touched on the folly of carb loading, that your diet and glycogen stores are a body of work, and not something you can fix in the 48 hours before your race (though your glycogen stores and physical condition are certainly something you can break in the preceding 48 hours).

Still, the Race Eve Pasta Gorge is a favorite runner ritual, and while you may not substantially improve your glycogen reserves, you at least won’t go to bed hungry.

This leads me to two questions.

  1. Can there be a situation where a Race Eve carb-load can be beneficial?
  2. Is the Race Eve carb-load beenficial for races shorter than the marathon? If so, when so, and when not so?

When is a Race Eve Carb Load beneficial?

I think there is a set of situations where a carb load might be a good idea. Whether they all funnel into one common situation or they all exist on their own, I’m not certain.

They of course depend on what your diet has been throughout the training cycle.

And of course, you are best off eating minimally processed foods. Pasta and its sauce are probably as processed as you should get. Pizza and fried food should remain out of the question until your race is over.

The key question: Have you been restricting your diet recently, whether you’ve done so throughout the training cycle or just recently?

A runner who has been cutting weight, a runner who has eaten lower-carb, or a runner who has intermittent fasted… may have a sufficient glycogen deficit that a carb load right before the race could benefit them.

Cutting Weight: Obviously, a runner cutting weight has been operating at a long term calorie deficit. Presuming training has proceeded without injury or other issues, the muscles may have spent considerable time somewhat depleted of glycogen. A big carb meal following some body-priming rudimentary activity (like a shake-out run, cross-training session, or a walk) could help maximize the available stores on race day.

Low-Carb Dieting: Few runners follow a low-carb protocol due to fast running’s extended usage of glycogen. Keto-style dieting is typically practiced by weightlifters, whose intense physical activity is typically limited to a weightlifting session maxing out around 60 minutes.

The runners who do practice low-carb diets tend to be recreational runners who either don’t run far when they do, run at a very easy pace when they do run long distance, or ultra runners who run those races at a lower, fat-burning-friendly intensity, and only eat carbs during those races, when they’re needed.

Still, provided their bodies can comfortably handle the re-introduction of carbs, low-carb dieters can also top off their glycogen stores by eating a carb-rich meal the day before.

Intermittent Fasting: Runners who practice intermittent fasting do tend to eat a lot during their limited feeding window. Depending on when they eat, it’s possible they may have sufficient glycogen stores. If they consume most carbs before or after their workouts, they’re more likely to have substantial glycogen stores. Otherwise, it may benefit them to top off their glycogen stores with a carb-rich meal the day before.

That Aside…: Barring any restricting dieting, it’s more likely that a carb-load isn’t going to provide much benefit over any other healthy meal. If you’ve been getting enough to eat throughout your training, especially following most of your workouts, you probably have enough glycogen stored whether or not you pound rotini until nauseous 15 hours before your race. The marginal utility of a carb-rich meal is minimal at best.

One notable exception: If you have been rather active in the day prior to Race Eve:

  1. First of all, you should have been resting up and minimizing activity ahead of your race. Any muscle wear/damage sustained will not fully recover before the race. Take it easy to cut your losses on any damage.
  2. A carb-rich meal eaten shortly after any activity will result in greater protein and glycogen processing and storage. Basically, what you eat will be put to greater use than if you hadn’t been active.
  3. Any muscle wear/damage from the last day will mostly remain, unfortunately. Any protein consumed (combined with sleep) will heal a bit of it, but you’ve now depleted yourself a bit ahead of the race. However, any glycogen lost will probably be restored, and possibly more.

Is a Race Eve Carb Load beneficial for races shorter than a marathon?

As long as the meal doesn’t cause a bunch of water retention, isn’t so heavy it adds weight to your body, and of course doesn’t make you feel ill… it can be beneficial to eat a carb-rich meal the night before any race between the 5K and the marathon.

Going back to the dieters… a glycogen top-off could help some runners on race day. Some extra protein could help with healing if the runner gets good sleep the night before. A Carb-Load meal would mostly help runners who have been eating low-carb or have been substantially restrictive with their diets leading up to the race.

But generally the window where this may be beneficial for sub-marathon races is even smaller than with marathoners and ultra runners. You’re not going to completely deplete your glycogen stores in anything shorter than a 20 mile race. In most race distances you won’t even come close.

This is a case where your body of work with your diet becomes paramount. If you practice a sound diet, that should be more than enough for your glycogen stores.

Rest and recovery in the days before a sub-marathon race are much more important to your performance than what nutrition you manage to successfully take in the day before. You can do more to hurt yourself from a Race Eve buffet than help.

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