When you pass a sign that reads “All you can eat pasta dinner” do you think about carbohydrate loading? Most of us do and most of us are loading the wrong way.

What is carbohydrate loading? As we exercise, our bodies use sugar for energy. Sugars come from the carbohydrates we eat, the same carbohydrates newer diets would have us avoid.

Carbohydrates are broken down in our bodies to different forms of sugars, including glycogen. Glycogen is stored in the liver and utilized for short bouts of energy. It also helps our bodies break down fats into forms we can utilize for exercise. Managing the glycogen stores in our bodies is crucial to training and competing at a high level.

Poor race nutrition can hamper even the best-trained athletes. An extremely fit age-group triathlete from southern Maine recently came to my office because of difficulties he was having with his energy during races. After leading the pack in the swim and holding his own on the bike, he was falling behind on the run. He was disappointed, especially because his training splits were good enough to place him on the podium.

We talked about injury and technique. Finally, our conversation turned to food. This athlete’s race nutrition? A donut for breakfast and a sports drink during his ride.

This athlete simply wasn’t getting his body the fuel it needed to race. As experienced athletes know, race-day nutrition actually begins before the event, with a period called carb loading. In this time, we fill up our bodies with excess carbohydrates so that we’ll have plenty of sugar on hand to compete.

Years ago, athletes were taught that carb loading could take place the night before a race. They suffered through heaping helpings of pasta and bread in the hopes it would carry them through the next day’s event. It turns out there is a much better way.

Proper carb loading should begin with a depletion event in which the athlete has a long, strenuous workout that will empty the body’s stores of sugars. This should take place anywhere from three to seven days before the race. By depleting the carbohydrate stores, the body can take on new carbohydrates much more effectively.

Over the next few days, athletes should think about loading their bodies’ carb stores by decreasing their energy utilization rather than by simply increasing their food intake. It’s smart to increase carb intake a little, and most performance coaches suggest shifting from a diet of 65 percent carbs to one with 80 percent.

The most important aspect of the carb load is the taper, in which athletes do very little exercise. In the days leading up to a big event, workouts should be short and less intense.

As race day approaches, it’s a good idea to keep meals stable and regular. Eating an unusually large, carbohydrate-rich meal the day before a big event is a recipe for digestive problems. Athletes should stick with their normal nutritional routine.

When race day finally comes, athletes can compete with the confidence their loading technique has added vital energy. Studies show performance is significantly enhanced by a proper carbohydrate load, especially in events lasting longer than about an hour.

And what about my patient the triathlete? He worked through a carbohydrate load cycle, tweaked his race-day nutrition and took off like a rocket during his next event. He finally saw his race splits equal his training ones, and his standings improved significantly. 

Dr. James Glazer is a sports medicine physician for Coastal Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Freeport. He serves as a consultant for the U.S. ski team.