The key macronutrient burned during exercise is carbohydrate. So as well as consuming carbs on the bike via drinks, bars and gels, cyclists and other endurance athletes have for decades indulged in the practice of ‘carb loading’ the evening before an event – filling up on extra bread and pasta ready to store in advance of a big effort.
However, in more recent years it’s become popular to put a focus on upping protein consumption, at the detriment of carbohydrates. Not only that, but some research has suggested that women might not have the same capacity as men to store carbs anyway. As a result, the traditional ‘pasta party’ has become a little less popular, with demand for the streak and salad bar (all figurative, mind) building rapidly.
To better understand the benefits – or lack – of carb loading for women we spoke to director at Elite Nutritional Coaching, Joseph Agu.
Agu, who wrote an assignment on exactly this topic during his final qualifications, was keen to put the record straight, saying: “In terms of day-to-day glycogen levels, there doesn’t seem to be a difference between how men and women store carbohydrates. In terms of the super compensation of glycogen storage - AKA carb loading - it was originally thought that, based on a study by Tarnopolsky and colleagues in 1995, women couldn't carbohydrate load to the same extent as men, if at all. This idea seems to have stuck amongst many."
In short, the women in this study didn't get enough pasta to see the effect.
Not with Agu however – he explained: "[In the study] both male and female runners were asked to increase carbohydrate intake for four days, manipulating carbohydrate intake from 55 to 75 per cent of total energy intake. The results of the study showed that men increased muscle glycogen content 41 per cent and improved performance time 45 per cent following a one-hour cycling bout, whereas women showed no increase in muscle glycogen and improved performance time by only 5 per cent. The authors speculated that a possible reason for this gender-related difference could be that the increase in dietary carbohydrate intake may not have been enough to elicit glycogen super-compensation. The female participants in this particular study ingested 6.4 g/kg body weight of carbohydrate, while the men ingested 8.2 g/kg body weight of carbohydrate. Several studies suggest that there is a ‘carbohydrate loading threshold,’ of 8-10 g/kg that is necessary to achieve the ergogenic benefits of carbohydrate loading."
That's the long version. In short, the women in this study didn't get enough pasta to see the effect. Agu added: “This study has since been replicated with women consuming sufficient carbohydrates to cause glycogen super compensation."
However, it’s not a simple open and shut case – Agu goes on to say: “From a practical perspective, women may find it more difficult than men to reach threshold intakes required to carbohydrate load. In terms of carbohydrate usage during exercise, females tend to oxidise less carbohydrate during exercise than men - therefore, proportionally more fat, and this increases very slightly the longer the event. Though not fully understood, one possible explanation is that women have a lower rate of glucose appearance in the blood, and therefore less carbohydrate to use during exercise."
To to cut a long story short, it seems that though women use a little more fat than men, they still really benefit from loading up on carbohydrates before long events
What does it all mean? It seems that though women use a little more fat than men, they still really benefit from loading up on carbohydrates before long events if they want to enjoy the best performance possible. Agu confirms this saying: “I don’t see how this [the slightly higher use of fat] would make a great deal of difference in terms of the advice I’d give to females, as opposed to males. During a sportive, for example, despite using more fat and less carbohydrate than men on average, women are still susceptible to 'hitting the wall' - when muscle glycogen decreases to a level that causes fatigue. When we also consider the fact that women tend to have a harder time consuming enough carbohydrates to cause glycogen super compensation [as suggested by a number of studies], I see no problem using similar recommendations for both women and men."
It's always better to potentially over consume carbohydrate before a longer event and not need to use it.
"In my opinion, it’s always better to potentially over consume carbohydrate before a longer event and not need to use it, than under consume and fatigue due to carbohydrate depletion."
When should we carb load, and how much do we need?
So there you have it – our expert would still have women loading up on the carbs before heading out for a big bike ride as well as once on the bike. So how do we actually go about it, and how far out from a ride should be begin to increase the carbs?
Agu says: “Around three to five days is typically sufficient for anyone to manipulate glycogen levels to a maximum extent. 7-10 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body mass per day for this duration will be sufficient. The lower end of this range is more suitable for events lasting 2 hours or less, and vice versa. For protein consumption, I see no reason to change this. Keeping it relatively high - around 1.5-2g/kg of body mass - at all times is the best approach."
The meal you have for dinner the night before your bike ride – be it Ride London, the Dragon Ride, or a major touring adventure, is one you really want to get right. Discussing what you should eat. Agu said: “I think a meal containing 30-50g protein, 20-30g fat and 100-150g of carbs is a good solid meal to consume the evening before and wouldn’t be too heavy. On the morning of the event, around half this amount will suffice. The goal with these meals really are to keep glycogen topped up, since the majority of this will be done in the days leading up to a big event."
Eating extra carbs in the days leading up to an event means that, though you clearly can’t forget about nutrition once you start your ride, you’re not relying on ride nutrition completely. Agu says: “My general approach is to maximise muscle glycogen prior to the event, then develop an individual feeding strategy on the bike. Leaving the majority of fuelling to be down on the bike is just one more thing to worry about, so having this taken care of in advance is a better approach in my opinion."
A few recipe ideas to get you started...