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A carbohydrate-loading diet (also known as carbo loading) is a strategy used by endurance athletes to increase muscle glycogen reserves in order to improve performance. Glycogen is the body’s storage form of glucose, the chief energy source for the body. When carbohydrates are consumed, the body changes much of them into glucose. Glucose that is not needed immediately is stored as glycogen in the muscles for later use. Normal levels of muscle glycogen are more than enough to maintain exercise lasting less than 75 minutes. However, intensive training in endurance sports lasting longer than an hour depletes muscle glycogen stores, increasing the need for carbohydrate intake to assure normal levels of blood glucose and sufficient muscle glycogen reserves.
Research has found that carbohydrate-loading diets improve endurance athletes’ performance. Carbohydrate loading can be accomplished in two stages: the depletion stage and the carbohydrate-loading stage. On day one of the depletion stage, the athlete trains to exhaustion in his or her sport in order to deplete muscle glycogen in specific muscles. The athlete must engage in the sport during this stage because carbohydrate loading only occurs in the specific muscles exercised. For the next three days, a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet (60 to 120 grams carbohydrate) is consumed while the athlete trains moderately. During the carbohydrate-loading stage, the diet is switched to a high-carbohydrate intake (400 to 600 grams carbohydrate) for the next three days, while training time is reduced. This will result in muscle glycogen “packing,” increasing the muscle glycogen to a new, higher level.
Following a less stringent, modified carbohydrate-loading diet can eliminate potential problems with the classic carbohydrate-loading diet. The modified carbohydrate-loading plan is followed for six days prior to competition. It requires the athlete to consume a 50% carbohydrate diet for the first three days and then increase to a 70% carbohydrate diet (or 4.5 grams per pound of body weight) for the last three days before competition. The athlete begins training at a high aerobic intensity; then training time is gradually reduced on successive days.
Some problems associated with the classic carbohydrate-loading diet include increased blood cholesterol and urea nitrogen levels, which may cause problems for people susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, or kidney disease. The glycogen depletion stage may cause vitamin and mineral depletion, ketosis, the loss of lean tissue, and a reduction in training capability leading to a negative effect on performance.
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The information presented in Aisle7 is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2016.