It’s the night before your big race. You’ve been training for months and you’ve gone through all of your necessary race prep. Your last step? Carbo load. Since you were a young athlete, coaches have always told you to load up on carbohydrates the night before a sporting event so that your muscles have sufficient energy to burn. But is this really the way to go? Does a massive pasta dinner the night before a race really lead to a better performance? The short answer is no. Here’s why.
The theory behind loading up on carbohydrates before a race is that it provides a greater store of glycogen (how your muscles process carbohydrates into burnable energy) for them to tap into while you’re running or cycling or swimming (or all three). By creating a cache of extra glycogen, you’ll be able to go for longer with more energy — at least in theory. But the truth is that loading up on glycogen is only relevant if the race you’re partaking in has a duration longer than 90 minutes. Registered dietician Nancy Clark, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, says that “If you plan to compete for longer than 90 minutes, you want to maximize the amount of glycogen stored in your muscles because poorly fueled muscles are associated with needless fatigue.” But there’s a catch. This timeline is really only relevant if you won’t be able to eat and take on more carbohydrates and burnable sugars while you’re running or participating in your event.
If you’re able to take energy gels or the like during your event, or are lining up for a 5k, you can eschew the traditional pasta dinner the night before. It won’t necessarily hurt you, unless you eat a gratuitous amount of pasta, but you won’t see any real benefits either. So then is there a meal that you can eat pre-race that you’ll see real benefits out of? In an article published by Men’s Fitness, Abby McQueeney Penamonte — registered dietitian, nutrition coach at Life Time Fitness, accomplished ultra-runner — suggests the following: “Eat what you normally have used in training. Instead of paying attention to what you’re eating only the night before, make changes to your diet a few months out to improve performance. Focus on shifting the diet and replacing starches with ample vegetables. Add in protein and mix in some good fats.”