Race Week: Carb Loading to Recovery

Your Plant-Based Guide to Nutrition During Race Week

What’s up everybody, Coach Kyle here!

If you’re a marathoner or plan on being one in the future you probably have heard of carb loading.

This practice of maximizing your body’s onboard storage of carbohydrates for a long-distance race is well known among anyone who has even a limited knowledge base when it comes to running and it has been around in various forms for a long time. I first remember learning more about it in college during my exercise physiology classes.

Why Carb Load?

Let us start with why a runner may carb load and then we’ll get into what it means.

Most people have about 2,000 calories of stored carbohydrates (CHO) within their body in the form of glycogen within muscle and liver. A carb loading protocol can help squeeze a bit more into the body.

This glycogen / carbohydrate is a big source of fuel during any distance of run but after 2-hours we start to deplete our storage. The feeling of fatigue can be related to a near-depletion of glycogen. So topping it off can help prevent our tanks getting to the E.

Who Should Carb Load?

If your running event is lasting 15-20 or more miles you’ll likely benefit form a carb load.

At this range, if you take in some calories during the run, you’ll likely not risk getting to the point that your glycogen stores become depleted, but why risk it? The brain senses that onboard carbs are becoming depleted so it preemtively induces fatigue to slow you as a safety measure. I’m guessing that if you start with (for example) 2,500 instead of 2,000 calories of glycogen you’ll run better! That’s 5 more miles of fuel.

How to Carb Load

You’ll now learn how I generally suggest my clients carb load.

The old school method that I first remember learning about was to do a carb depletion phase that for many runners could be an American Horror Story mini-series. Your current diet may be 50-60% carbohydrate but this older Ahlborg Method suggested reducing your carb intake to ~10% of your daily calorie intake on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before a weekend race.

The theory was this depletion phase was needed to stimulate your body to suck up extra carbohydrate, but thankfully more recent research has shown this isn’t really the case!

It now turns out that (to quote the study from the U. of Western Australia) performing a single short bout of high-intensity exercise followed by consuming a high carbohydrate diet of ~10-12 grams of carbs / kg of bodyweight over the rest of the day does a great job of carb loading over a single day.

Don’t worry, at the end of this article you’ll see exact numbers, amounts, and food examples!

Is the Western Australian CHO Loading Method Right for You?

Remember that the W. Australian CHO Loading Protocol mentioned above requires a high-intensity run the morning before the race + lots of carbs, the idea being this hard but short run + many carbs work together to stimulate supranormal muscle glycogen levels. If you’re following the Hal Higdon Novice 1 or another plan that has very little to no hard running, this method is not for you.

Research has also shown that doing a tough workout that’s anything long and/or hard like your last Sunday long-ish run the weekend before the race, tapering, and eating extra carbs the 3-days pre-race can be enough.

The nice thing about the W Australian method is that it’s only a single day of having to eat (or drink) 2,500 to 3,000 calories of carbs vs three days of eating 2000-2500 carb calories each day.

Carb Loading Mistakes

Now that you know how and why to carb load, what mistakes do you want to avoid?

First off, like I said above, if you just run easy and don’t regularly do workouts you’ll want to avoid the protocol suggested by researchers at the University of W. Australia and go with the 3-day protocol that does not require a high-effort bout of exercise.

Whether you go with the 3-day or single day method, another mistake you can make is eating too much fiber. Fiber keeps you regular by slowing digestion, softening the stool, and reducing constipation. But the reason I often suggest reducing fiber intake the day or two leading up to an event is a lower fiber diet will help reduce your weight a bit by allowing your GI system to empty out before race day.

A final carb loading mistake I’ll mention is thinking that eating a big pasta meal the night before is a good idea. By that time it’s too late to do any real carb load if that’s all you’ve got and that big pasta meal is just going to cause you trouble on race day. If you don’t get it pooped out pre-race, it’ll weigh you down until forcing you to stop at a porta-john.

Let’s Go Over Details

Alright, so let’s get some numbers and specific examples laid out.

We need to know how much you weigh. Let’s go with 130, 150, and 170 pounds. These are each a bit under 60, 70, and 80 kilograms.

A single gram of carbohydrate is equal to 4 calories. So a 100 calorie piece of fruit contains 25g of carbohydrate.

Let’s use a daily calorie intake of 2500 for our examples.

So with the W. Australian method, you’ll taper as your training plan dictates. 24 hours pre-race you’ll perform a single short high effort run. Seriously, all it was is a 1-2 mile warmup jog, 2.5 minutes at MOD/HARD + a 30-second full sprint followed up by eating 10kg of CHO / kg of body mass or 12kg of CHO / kg of lean body mass.

For our three runners that would mean consuming 600, 700, or 800 grams / 2400, 2800, or 3200 calories that day to maximize glycogen storage. The study suggested that “Muscle glycogen increased from preloading levels (+/- SE) of 109.1 +/- 8.2 to 198.2 +/- 13.1 mmol.kg-1 wet weight within only 24 h, these levels being comparable to or higher than those reported by others over a 2- to 6-d regimen

Now if you’re not doing hard running or not wanting to do a 3-minute MOD/HARD running bout the day before your event, you may simply want to increase your carbohydrate intake for the 2-3 days prior. With this I would suggest eating about 75% of your calories from carbs. For a 2500 regular calorie intake you’d try to get about 1700-1900 calories from carbs.

I like to suggest drinking many of the new carbs and eating some low fiber easy to digest carb sources. This makes compliance to the carb intake easier and reduces your chance of GI distress on race morning.

So, what does 500 grams or 2000 calories of carbohydrate look like?

Well, a carton of Minute Maid orange juice is 4 pint glasses, which isn’t really that much juice. How many grams of carbs would you get if you had 4 glasses of OJ? 104. There, you’re 1/5th to 2000 calories of carbs and you can have a glass at each meal!

How about a pre-run bagel with some jelly on it? You’re at 75 grams!

After your run, for breakfast you may have a couple tofu breakfast scramble burritos. Two tortilla shells come with about 40g of carbs and if you threw a smallish potato into the scramble that’ll add another another 20 or so. That’s 60g for the meal.

Have a cookie as a snack! 50 grams, boom!

(we’re almost to 300 grams!)

Lunch may be 2 cups of cooked leftover spaghetti and some sauce which add another 80 grams. Let’s throw in a white bread roll you grabbed from the grocery store bakery for 20 more grams, bringing you to 400 grams for the day thus far.

At dinner we need another 100 grams, so let’s go with a couple baked potatoes with a bit of salsa, vegan cheese, facon bits, and maybe some hot sauce on it for 70 or so grams of carbs. Why not have some So Delicious dairy free ice cream for dessert and nail that 500+ grams of carbs for the day.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Obviously it’s not the healthiest day with few vegetables, fruit, and no whole grains, but the day pre-race we’re focused on having a great run and less about our general diet. The other 89 days out of the training campaign have your fruit, vegetables, and whole grains!

How to Nail Your Plant-Based Pre-Race Fueling

The race is upon you.

Every decision you’ve made over the last 3-6 months went through the “how will this affect my race?” filter.

You paid for your entry fee, shoes, protein shakes, a foam rolling torture device. You’ve done your strength work and course research.

Even your family has helped and sacrificed. Maybe your spouse has ridden alongside you as a support bike on a few long runs, helped with some food prep, nicely forced you out the door for some recovery runs when you weren’t feeling like it.

Below you’ll learn a few tips and tricks to make sure you don’t frack up the last few months of hard work and sacrifice because you didn’t mind your race morning details

The Short Shakeout

I think doing a super easy 10 minute jog 3 hours before the start of your race can be a helpful tactic.

The first reason I initially started investigating the shakeout run was to get a great pre-race poop out. And you know what, it works! Whether your event is local or you’re driving there from a hotel, you can get dressed, start the coffee, go jog for 10 minutes, come back to take a poop and your coffee will be as ready as you are!

Other reasons I’ve enjoyed performing shakeout runs are that they force you to wake up plenty early and this simply gets you up and going. I think they help relax you a bit and help the legs to wake up.

Breakfast

If your shakeout run ends ~3 hours or so before the start of the event, you are perfectly timed to have breakfast.

Don’t overcomplicate things here! Just as you practice race pace through training you should practice your morning meal to determine what works and what does not.

A couple slices of bread with some jam and maybe some peanut butter on them with a banana and coffee on the side comes out to about 400 to 500 calories. This is a fairly standard breakfast where you can change a bit here and there but if it remains fairly constant over the weeks and you decide that it works for you, eat that on race day!

If you want to make the morning of the race as straightforward as possible try to prepare this meal the evening prior so you don’t have to think about it before the event. Just grab and go!

Second Breakfast

If breakfast and the race are separated by three hours or so, you’re bound to get hungry 90 or so minute pre-race.

A nice rule of thumb here may be to pack roughly half of what you had earlier in the morning. If we use the example above, for you may just fold over a slice of bread with some jam + an apple. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Immediately Pre-Race

One of my favorite pre-race calorie options is this isotonic gel from Science in Sport.

The beauty behind it and similar products is that, being isotonic, it does not need to be chased by any water. The pack is a bit larger than your standard gel but that’s simply because it is much more liquid than goo.

If you’re participating in an even that requires no intra-run fueling, like a 5k or 10k, you will be good to go after taking this. For longer events you’ll have to keep reading below for intra-running fuel options!

Simple Vegan Intra-Run Fueling Methods and Options

For the purposes of this article let us assume you’ll be running for three to five hours.

Any less than this and you’ll probably be fine with just a gel or two during the run. Any more and you may be wanting some real food from aid stations.

But for a half marathon to 50 miler these tips will do do you well if you practice and follow them.

KISS

Distance events are tough.

The goal with the nutrition plan below is to keep it as super simple as possible.

Cutting out options so you don’t have to think about what to do, and just do, will reduce the chances of messing it up. This also makes the plan repeatable for your long runs in training and during races.

The Basics

During a two to six hour run you’ll need calories and water.

Let’s start with hydration and make it as easy as possible. Generally I like keeping the water and calories separate because I suggest drinking to thirst but taking in carbs on a schedule is most helpful. Drinking as thirst dictates is the easiest but you’ll want to try to take in about a bottle per hour. Warmer temps will have you thirsting for more, which you should drink, and lower temps or lower efforts will have you requiring less. I like to suggest drinking to thirst but having the hydration at hand. Some research suggests that the simple negative feeling of thirst is what can slow us, not actually the water loss but the uncomfortable thirst feeling.

Now with calories, there’s a fairly large range but 200-300 calories hourly will likely work well for most people. If you’re a 130 pound runner you’ll be on the lower end and if you’re 170 you’ll be on the upper. Let’s use an even 250 as a goal per hour. I’ll present three options below:

Spring Energy – If you go through that link you’ll receive 15% off anything from Spring Energy. This is a cool company making some great natural products. Their ingredients include basmati rice, mango, banana, etc. Real food. The Canaberry is super tasty and vegan. The LongHaul has honey but is another fave of mine. What I really like is the Speednut that is a 235 pouch, so you could simply take one per hour plus some aid station calories on the go and likely be a-ok.

Maurten Gel – Use code ‘kylesentme’ for 15% off at The Feed to get this hydrogel. This is some good stuff. It has a jello like texture and a pleasant but neutral taste and requires no water to be washed down, which is fantastic. You’ll need to take one every 20 minutes for 300 calories hourly.

Maple Syrup – You may have have expected this, but there are actually companies who specialize in using maple syrup as a running fuel. While these companies are great, like the above two options they’re pricey and packaged. However, if you want a tasty and sustainable option all you need is to visit your local grocery store and pick up some real syrup (not that aunt jemima crap) in a recyclable glass bottle. How you store this is up to you, but I suggest this reusable soft flask from Gu. That 5oz flask holds 500 calories of maple syrup, good for 2 hours of running. How much easier can we get? Once gone, the beauty of a soft flask is that it does not take up a lot of space.

How to Bring it With You

This is the most difficult consideration and I’m not sure there’s a best answer.

Using some sort of hydration pack or vest is nice because it keeps everything close to your body and you don’t have to carry something like a handheld. I’ve never enjoyed having water on a belt due to bounce.

Two options I’m keen to suggest are a pack with chest pockets that holds either a bladder or bottles on the back. You could stick your calories in the chest pockets and you’ll have your hydration on your back. The nice thing about using the bottles is that you can visually see how much you’re drinking and have a goal of “finish this bottle this hour” where with a bladder you can’t quite tell how much you are drinking.

Another option is to have your calories in a small belt or a pack but hold onto a bottle for your hydration. For a marathon, you could start the marathon with a single bottle in your hand. During the first hour you drink that and then simply stop for a few seconds at an aid station to refill it once per hour. Maybe during the final one or two hours you could ditch the bottle and just take from aid stations as it’s not uncommon for there to be more stations after the halfway point of a marathon.

In the end with the specifics on what you’re going to use and how you’re going to use it, it comes down to practicing during the long runs to see what works best. Experiment and give yourself time and opportunity to decide what is a viable option for the marathon.

The Perfect Plant-Based Recovery Protocol

Running can often be the easy part.

You lace up your shoes and mentally pump up your mind, head out for your long run, and return having done a great workout.

Then what?

It’s often easy to run because you just go out and run. But that does not make us stronger. Exercise weakens us. It’s easy to imagine with bicep curls. Such weight lifting literally causes microtears in your muscles.

It’s the recovery (adaptations) that end up making us stronger and faster. Your body regenerates beyond its initial state to a point where it can better handle the work it has been put under.

So while the workouts are part of the equation, what the pre-written training plan may not ask you about or remind you on is your post-workout recovery strategies.

Let us take a moment and go over an optimal plan for after a hard or long training run or for a race. We’ll touch on nutrition but also extra modalities you can utilize.

Step OneEnd of Run

The worst thing you can do for recovery is inactivity.

For a race all you have to do is simply walk the quarter or half mile back down the course and cheer people on. That’s good for you and it’s good for the people who are about to finish.

Upon completion of your run or race it can be helpful to keep moving. If we’re talking about a training run and it’s a comfortable temperature outside I very often like to end the run a quarter to a half mile away from my house and walk home. If I’m on the treadmill I’ll try to walk for 5:00 or more as a cooldown to the actual cooldown jog.

Step Two – Consume

This may take place in conjunction with or immediately after your previous active recovery.

If you want to maximise your adaptation and how quickly you bounce back from a hard run, consuming some liquid with electrolytes as well as a snack containing both protein and carbs will be optimal.

Normally I’m not a huge fan of habitually consuming protein bars. That being said, while traveling to a race they can be handy. Some of the more popular bars that you may easily find around at stores or even at the end of a race may be the Clif Builder’s (soy) Protein Bar and these Vega Sport Protein Bars. Aim for at least 20g of protein for recovery within an hour upon completion of the workout.

My usual recovery “shake” is two cups of the the Silk Protein Nut Milk that has 10g of pea protein per cup. If you want to go a bit farther I’ve mixed 10g of Purely Inspired Protein Powder with 1c of the Silk milk.

If you’re at a race, grab whatever the event is providing or plan ahead and bring your own. If you drove to a trailhead for a long training run sip on some protein milk during the drive home. If you’re finishing up at home I’ll often sip/eat while walking on the treadmill or (more likely) sip on the protein milk while doing my foam rolling and strength work after the run.

Oh! And here is a super tasty homemade protein bar you can make yourself!

Step Three – The Bath

It’s no doubt that you’ve heard of ice bathing.

The long held idea is that you recover better from a hard running session with an ice bath.

Now the tricky part is that you may well indeed recover better from spending 15 minutes in 15*C water after a hard running session, but at the same time you may have impaired muscle/strength gains and vascular adaptations. So you benefited less from the run, thanks to the ice bath!

What this means is that if you are doing frequent hard/long sessions, like at a Dopey Challenge, ice bathing is probably going to help you in such a case. But you’re doing your hard work a disservice if you jump in an ice bath after your regular Saturday long run.

Instead, after a training run, you may benefit more from a hot bath. Compared to Cold Water Immersion, a Hot Bath (or sauna) done right after a run while your body temperature is still elevated can improve how well your body cools itself. Increased core temperature is a major limiter of physical performance and this may be a simple way to improve the ability of your body to regulate temperature.

Step Four – Recovery Tools

There are a couple tools at your disposal to help aid in recovery after such very hard runs.

Yes, of course we’re talking about foam rolling and compression socks!

If you’re traveling to a big race, you may get lucky and be at a hotel with a foam roller, I’ve been able to use a few at a number of hotels. There is an absurdly expensive collapsible foam roller available if you’re extra worried about it. Here is an under 20 minute foam rolling routine that will serve you well.

Compression socks are easy to use…well, once you get them on. I have a number of pairs of Tiux and if you go through this link you’ll receive 50% off your order. Compression is not meant to be worn while sleeping but after a morning or afternoon workout/race I’ll put on a pair for the remainder of the day.

Step Five – Dinner and Bed

After big runs I normally don’t worry too much on what I eat as long as I eat enough. Sometimes hard efforts can reduce your appetite for the rest of the day so it’s important to be mindful that while you may not be hungry, you should eat.

If you want to be extra mindful of your lunch and dinner after a fatiguing run, aiming for lower fiber and fat to make digestion as easy as possible won’t hurt anything.

Taking some tart cherry juice and slow-release protein like casein (if you’re vegetarian) or pea immediately before going to bed can help regeneration during the overnight fast you’re about to experience while sleeping.

Aside from all this, improving how well you sleep will improve how well you recover every single day. Generally people sleep best with a heavier blanket on in a cooler room. Wearing a sleep mask and earplugs and maximizing your comfort will all improve your sleep. I often like to listen to this guided sleep meditation for running recovery as I fall asleep.