Carbohydrate loading is the process used by athletes to load muscle and liver glycogen stores before endurance events. This phase is usually accompanied by a training tapper period. The combination of higher carbohydrate ingestion and reduced fuel usage enables the athlete’s glycogen stores to increase by up to 150-200% of their normal levels. The body utilises this extra fuel in combination with fat stores as the event extends beyond two hours in duration.

For the recreational athlete carb-loading need not be too complicated. This article gives you lots of ideas to try and general guidelines to follow. As a general rule, always try to practice your race day nutrition and carb-loading plan well ahead of race day to give yourself time to modify things as needed. Ideally practice the weekend before a long run which may not be the full length of a marathon but may be at least 30 kilometres.

Timing, volume and food choice are the three key pillars of carb-loading.


Carbohydrate loading should commence 36 hours before the race (48 hours prior if competing in ultra marathons). If you are racing Sunday morning, this means increasing your carbohydrates from Friday afternoon onwards.


Too much carbohydrate and you feel like a stuffed pig, too little and you will inevitably hit the hideous “wall” somewhere between 34-38km when your glycogen stores run low.

The general recommendation is to consume 7-10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. For example: a 50 kilogram female runner needs 350 grams of carbohydrates over the course of a day. In practice, this may be difficult to achieve if you choose foods that are bulky and filling such as pasta.

Eat enough food in small amounts that you consume sufficient carbohydrates but avoid eating so much that you feel stuffed and lethargic. Again, you may have to play around with the foods you select to make sure they do not irritate your digestive system while running at a high intensity. There is no advantage to ingesting higher amounts than suggested and in-fact his may lead to undesirable weight gain or constipation.

Food choice

Small low-fat meals consumed regularly throughout the day are ideal. Avoid sugary drinks, “junk foods”, packaged health foods, drinks high in sugar and lollies as they cause a rise in insulin and blood sugar. This is followed by an overcorrection in insulin and severe drop in blood sugar causing symptoms such as fatigue, sluggishness, headaches and light headedness. No one needs these symptoms on race morning.

Don’t remove all fibre. Reduce fibre on race morning but don’t avoid it during the carb-loading phase as you may end up constipated. Include fibre rich foods such as fruits (kiwi, apples, oranges) and vegetables with the skins on and avoid large quantities of animal products that are slow to digest such as steak.

Include easily digested proteins such as fish, eggs, chicken or plant-based proteins during the carb-loading phase to help stabilise blood sugar levels.

Race morning

Consume 1- 2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (minimum) on race morning 90 minutes -2 hours before racing.

For example: A 50kg athlete would consume two slices of wholemeal toast with peanut butter and banana

Tips for ingesting more carbohydrates

  • The trick to ingesting sufficient carbohydrates is to have both carbohydrate rich liquids (smoothies) as well as solids.
  • Consume dry oats or other wholegrain options as snacks or breakfast as you can ingest more volume of dry weight oats in a Swiss muesli than you can in a cup of porridge due to the difference in water content
  • Add extra carbohydrates as toppings such as yogurt with a muesli topping
  • Sip smoothies throughout the day that include oats or buckwheat
  • Increase your frequency of meals throughout the day. Small meals every two hours will be more easily digested than large meals every 3-4 hours
  • Avoid drinking high volumes of fluids at meal-times as they will expand your stomach and make you feel full more quickly. Instead sip fluids between meals.

Pre-packaged bar options (use sparingly for convenience)

  • Power cookies
  • Paleo Bars
  • Lara Bars
  • Bounce Balls
  • Emma and Toms bars or balls

Carbohydrate loading snacks and meal ideas

Wholegrains for slow sustained energy release. e.g. wild, brown or basmati rice, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, rye, amaranth or barley Carbohydrate rich vegetables e.g. sweet potato, baked potato, carrots, pumpkin, parsnip, corn on the cob
Pancakes + syrup with banana Waffles with banana, yogurt and berries
Banana and mango smoothie with almond or coconut milk Oats or quinoa porridge with yogurt, banana and berries
Bircher muesli bowl Banana bread
Homemade muesli bars with oats Noodle bowls
Wholegrain wholemeal or sourdough toast + jam + almond butter, or avocado or banana and nut butter Creamed rice with sultanas and banana (can be made from left over rice)
Home-made muffins with banana Sweet potato flat bread
Risotto Wrap or sandwich
Sushi bowls with rice Legumes mixed with vegetables and rice such as yellow dhal and brown rice
Pad thai Stir fries with fish and rice

For a sample meal plan visit our website and down the Carb-Loading Meal Plan found under “Freebies” at

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