Skip to main content

The Manual may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

Carbohydrates 101: The dos and don’ts of carb loading

Will carb loading help you meet your fitness goals?

Gluten free diet concept - selection of grains and carbohydrates for people with gluten intolerance, copy space
anaumenko / Adobe Stock

Carbohydrates are a primary energy source for our bodies and are especially important for fueling our workouts. Throughout your workout, your body utilizes carbohydrates from glycogen stores, often stored in the liver or muscles. With the idea that carbs help to fuel great workouts, many athletes have turned to a fitness and nutrition practice known as carb loading, which can help some athletes improve their athletic performance.

So, what exactly is carb loading, and how is it done? Which types of healthy carbs should you consume during carb loading? Below, we’ll break down all the answers in this carb loading guide to help you determine if carb loading is a tool to incorporate into your fitness routine. Further, we’ll note common mistakes made when carb loading to help you succeed.

a sliced loaf of bread on the counter
Mariana Kurnyk / Pexels

What is carb loading?

The concept behind carb loading starts with the idea that the body stores glycogen to be used for energy. To carb load, an athlete will consume a large portion of carbohydrates a few days before a major event or competition to load their body up with high glycogen stores. In addition to consuming more carbs than normal, carb loading also involves athletes reducing their activity levels in the days before an event. Reducing physical activity before a competition helps athletes hold onto as much glycogen as possible, hoping to improve their athletic performance.

A carb-loading strategy can be an effective approach to improve athletic capabilities, but only for athletes competing in certain types of sports or exercises. Research suggests that short-duration exercises (under 90 minutes) do not require excess carbohydrates for optimal performance. This also includes short bursts of activity (such as sprints) or weight-training exercises. On the other hand, carb loading helps to reduce fatigue and improve an athlete’s energy levels by 2 to 3% for exercises that last longer than 90 minutes.

Shot of person's feet while running
Fotorec / Pixabay

Who should and shouldn’t try carb loading?

Athletes who perform long-duration exercises over 90 minutes may benefit from carb loading. Carb loading is often used by athletes who participate in prolonged sports such as endurance cycling, swimming, and long-distance running. However, carb loading may not be the best strategy if you’re training for recreational purposes. One of the most common mistakes that can hold back your training is trying carb loading when you don’t need to. Many people falsely believe that every active athlete needs to try carb loading when this is not the case.

For most general and gym exercise sessions under 90 minutes, carb loading will not provide any benefit. Furthermore, consuming too many carbs can impair your exercise performance and lead to excess weight gain.

Man swimming backstroke
Yulia Raneva / Shutterstock

How to carb load for athletes

There are various carb-loading strategies that athletes use. Some athletes also seek guidance from nutritional experts or coaches to monitor their carb intake. The most common approach to carb loading involves consuming about 10 grams of carbs for every kilogram of body weight. Usually, this is done about two to four days before the sporting event or competition. Some athletes prefer a less aggressive, same-day carb loading technique which involves consuming about 1 to 4 grams of carbohydrates for every kilogram of body weight. Which method you choose depends on how you feel and perform best while exercising.

Many athletes also continue to consume carbohydrates during exercise as well, often in the form of electrolyte drinks with added glucose.

A brown rice-based dish with toasted bread slices served on a plate with spoon and fork.
yalamber-limbu / Unsplash

Consuming the right type of healthy carbohydrates

The types of carbs consumed also play a role in the effectiveness of a carb-loading strategy. Eating carbohydrates low on the glycemic index, such as pasta or grainy bread, may be more effective at providing energy during exercise. This is because low GI index carbs are slowly released into the bloodstream. Examples of healthy carbs to consume include whole grains from brown rice or healthy steel-cut oats.

If you’re new to carbohydrate loading, it’s best to stick to safe foods that do not cause your stomach upset. Trying new foods that you do not regularly consume or foods too high in fat can cause digestive symptoms and impact your performance. Carbs to avoid when carb loading before an athletic event include things like ice cream, pizza, donuts, or any other processed carb that is also high in fat content.

Pasta carbonara
Rob Wicks / Unsplash

Should you try carb loading?

Carb loading is a science-backed approach that can help you achieve your fitness goals if competing in long-duration exercise over 90 minutes. If you’re training just to improve your physical fitness, consuming a standard amount of carbohydrates is a better strategy to help you maintain a healthy body weight and exercise at your best.

Editors' Recommendations

Emily Caldwell
Emily is a full time freelance writer with a special focus on health, fitness, lifestyle, food, and nutrition topics. She…
Load up on high-fiber foods: Your guide to getting enough fiber in your diet
Learn about fiber-rich foods and how to get plenty daily
Fiber in beans

"You need more fiber in your diet." How often has your doctor, nutritionist, or mom told you that? You probably know you need fiber, but do you understand why it’s so important? 

The kind of soluble fiber that you find in grains, fruits, and veggies is best known for keeping you regular. You’re not as likely to suffer tummy problems or experience constipation if you constantly eat fiber-rich foods. While this is an essential component of healthy living, fiber has many benefits beyond regular, healthy bowel movements. Fiber also helps you maintain a healthy weight and reduces your risk for certain diseases. 

Read more
11 delicious high-carb foods that are actually healthy for you
The best healthy high carb foods do more than provide energy — read more below
Granola and fruit.

Carbs are healthy. Despite the bad reputation that they get from those individuals following a low-carb diet, such as Keto, Paleo, and the latest fad, the carnivore diet, many nutritionists, dietitians, and medical professionals believe that the right carbohydrates can -- and should -- be part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Carbohydrates provide energy to the cells in your body, especially during long and grueling training sessions, and fiber can help aid digestion and bowel regularity. Carbs also provide less than half the number of calories per gram compared to fat, making them a viable macronutrient for weight loss diets. But choosing the best high-carb foods is crucial, however, as not all carbs are created equal.
The key to maximizing the health benefits of carbohydrates is to choose high-quality sources of complex carbohydrates. Foods such as whole grains, organic fruits, organic starchy vegetables, and legumes provide carbohydrates and no added sugars.
These carbohydrates are lower on the glycemic index, which means they fuel the body with sustained energy and keep blood sugars more stable, leading to better insulin sensitivity. Here are some of the healthiest high-carb foods you can add to your diet.

Benefits of carbohydrates
Despite their bad reputation, carbohydrates are essential for your health due to the following reasons:

Read more
DASH diet 101: A meal plan and beginner’s guide
Your complete guide to the DASH diet
Boiled eggs on toast.

Although there are almost too many popular diets to count, the best diets for men share the same general principles -- eat whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, nuts, seeds, and legumes, and limit sugar, refined grains, trans fats, fried foods, excessive salt, and alcohol. With these commonalities aside, it’s the specifics and differences in the "rules" or focus of a diet that tend to differentiate one popular diet from another. For example, the Paleo Diet and the Whole30 Diet are nearly identical, except that the Paleo Diet permits certain natural sugars like honey and agave, whereas the Whole30 Diet does not.
Some diets are also defined by specific goals that go above and beyond weight loss or overall health. One of the most notable examples is the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, has become increasingly prevalent over the past few decades, a phenomenon believed to be at least partially attributable to our culture's heavy reliance on processed foods, which are often laden with salt. Given the extensive body of research demonstrating the correlation between sodium intake and high blood pressure, the DASH diet was designed to address hypertension by limiting sodium intake.
So, if you’re one of the millions of men who have been diagnosed with hypertension or pre-hypertension or who want to reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke, keep reading to find out why you should consider following the DASH diet, what foods you can eat on the DASH diet, and how the DASH diet can help you keep your blood pressure in check.

What is the DASH diet?
As mentioned, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, is a diet designed and recommended for those who want to prevent or treat hypertension and reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke. The defining feature of the DASH diet is its established sodium limit, which is 2,300 mg or one teaspoon per day for the standard iteration of the diet and only 1,500 mg or 3/4 of a teaspoon on the lower-salt version.
Besides limiting sodium, the DASH diet restricts red meat, added sugars, and excessive fats. Instead, it focuses on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and legumes. Like all the best diets, the DASH diet emphasizes the importance of eating foods in their most natural state and eliminating processed foods.

Read more