Like many runners, I get excited to eat plates of pasta in the hours leading up to race day. But the “carbs are bad” trend can leave the everyday person confused about this practice. The reason that runners eat pasta is that it increases glycogen levels, offering them sustained energy for long races. It’s called carbohydrate loading.
Why Do Runners Eat Pasta? The Low-down on Carbohydrate Loading
Carbohydrate loading is a strategy that high-performance runners use before a long race. The goal is to increase your glycogen levels so that you have more endurance and less fatigue during a long-distance race. Since pasta is high in carbs, it’s a favorite food choice among athletes doing carb-loading.
Glycogen is one of your body’s most significant sources of fuel. Although your muscles naturally store small amounts of glycogen, you’ll usually deplete its stores by exercising for 90 minutes or more. So, you might also be wondering why do runners eat bananas.
The idea behind carbohydrate loading is that you’ll consume more carbs than you usually would in the time leading up to your event. As a result, your body will have more energy sources to pull from during your event.
A mistake I often see runners make is assuming that carb-loading will be able to carry them through their long-distance endurance activity. Don’t do this; it’s crucial to supplement your activity with periodic food and fuel sources during your race to reduce fatigue.
Benefits of Pasta for Runners
Eating carbohydrates like pasta has many benefits for athletes. They include:
- Maintaining optimal blood glucose levels
- Fueling the brain and muscles
- Improving recovery rates
- Reducing the chance of muscle breakdown
At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive that carbohydrates like pasta can help prevent runners from experiencing muscle loss. However, when the body doesn’t have enough glycogen from carbs, it turns to protein.
So, that means you’d have less protein in your body, which is crucial for building and maintaining muscle.
Determining How Much Pasta To Consume
Everyone has different needs, goals, and running lengths, so work with your doctor or trainer to ensure you’re striking the right balance of carbohydrates in your diet to maximize your performance.
Generally speaking, runners begin carb-loading with pasta and other carbohydrates anywhere from one to six days before the start of a race. At the same time, you should reduce the amount and intensity of your exercise, as this is a double-whammy for helping build up glycogen storage.
Many runners increase their carb intake by 8 – 12 grams per kilogram of body weight. Yes, that’s a lot of pasta you can potentially eat!
However, keep in mind that if you’re following a longer carb-loading cycle, you’ll likely gradually increase your pasta and carbohydrate intake, consuming the most in the days just before your race.
In contrast, runners who aren’t preparing for a long-distance endurance race often stick with eating 5 – 7 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight.
Good vs. Bad Pasta for Runners
When exploring the question, “Why do runners eat pasta?” I find that many runners make the mistake of eating the wrong kind of pasta.
It’s natural to assume you should choose whole-grain pasta when preparing for a race. However, runners on the brink of endurance racing get a pass on the whole foods trend because fiber can lead to digestive issues during the run.
Yes, that’s right—I’m giving you the okay to eat white pasta before your long-distance race. You can include some white bread with it while you’re at it.
While we’re on the subject of fiber, you should also avoid other fibrous foods like legumes. But this doesn’t mean you should necessarily replace them with sugar-packed white carbs.
Like pasta, sugary foods are an excellent energy source for running. However, unlike pasta, you’re better off concentrating your sugar intake so that you consume it within two or three hours before your run. You can opt for a handful of fresh fruit or go for a sugary energy bar.
Pasta-eating Mistakes Runners Make
The most common mistake I’ve seen runners make is overeating pasta and other carbohydrates when they don’t need them. That’s especially the case for new runners who overestimate how many calories they burned during a run, eating back all of them and more.
So, I recommend following this basic rule of thumb: If you’re running for more than 90 minutes straight, consider carb-loading. If not, skip it.
The reason being is your body stores enough glycogen to keep you going during workout sessions under 90 minutes. This includes high-intensity and interval training.
That said, every person is different. So, it’s best to experiment with what pasta and carbohydrate balance work best for your body, ideally under a doctor’s or personal trainer’s supervision.