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As you count down the weeks and hours until your upcoming triathlon, you're likely nervously excited to put your training to the test. If you're like many athletes, you may be planning on "carb-loading" the night before in an effort to perform at an optimal level during the race. You can't help but enjoy an extra loaf of fresh-baked bread, alongside a large bowl of pasta, to top off your fuel tank. But surprisingly, carb-loading has a few drawbacks compared to its many advantages.
Carbohydrates are your primary fuel source. By consuming adequate carbs on a daily basis (around 55-65 percent of your daily caloric needs), your body will have enough stored fuel and immediate energy for exercise as well as for daily metabolic functioning. Muscles can store approximately 500 grams worth of digested carbohydrates (glycogen), meaning you'll have the opportunity to store up to 2,000 calories worth of potential fuel on the days leading up to your race.
Avoid excessively consuming carbohydrates, i.e. three bowls of pasta the night before a race, to overflow your fuel tank and ensure ample fuel on race day. Rather, taper your training volume while maintaining a normal healthy and balanced carb-emphasized diet. Carb-loading can be a very beneficial practice for an endurance event, but shorter-distance athletes will not need an extreme amount of carbohydrates on the days leading up to a race. For a sprint or Olympic distance triathlon, which typically require one and three hours of racing, forget about loading up on a heavy, calorie-filled carbohydrate meal and focus on a balanced meal, rich in slow digesting carbohydrates.
Although many athletes associate carbs with pasta, pretzels and bread, carbohydrates can be found in many nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, as well as protein-rich foods such as legumes and dairy products. Some foods break down quicker than others, a factor that is dependent on the food's glycemic index. While immediate energy through quick-digesting carbohydrates is most advantageous during exercise, as well as after exercise for transporting amino acids to the muscles for quick repair, your body will function most efficiently prior to exercise by consuming slow-digesting carbohydrates.
On the night before a race, aim for around 500 to 550 calories (+/- 50 calories) of primarily slow-digesting carbs; they should count for approximately 70 percent of your dinner meal. You can still have your pasta or pizza, but consider the other options of sweet potatoes, veggies, fruit, brown rice or quinoa. You'll also want to add in lean or low-fat protein, such as turkey, chicken, eggs, a veggie burger, tofu, milk, beans, cottage cheese or greek yogurt, as well as a little health fat such as olive oil, fish or nuts.
Avoid eating late the night before a race, especially when you will need to eat a pre-race snack at least two to three hours before your race start. Try to eat dinner around 5 or 6 p.m. so you have a few hours to digest your meal before getting a good night of sleep. Be sure to drink plenty of water on the days leading up to a race, and although it is recommended on a daily basis, it is highly encouraged to minimize processed and added sugar in the week or two leading up to your big race.
Marni holds a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology, is a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and holds a certification by the American Dietetic Association in Adult Weight Management. Marni is a Level-1 USAT Coach and is currently pursuing a registered dietician degree. She is a 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship finisher and finished the Ford Ironman Louisville Triathlon on Aug. 30, 2009, in less than 11 hours. Marni enjoys public speaking and writing, and she has several published articles in Hammer Endurance News, CosmoGirl magazine and Triathlete Magazine, and contributes monthly to IronGirl.com and Beginnertriathlete.com.