Should you Take Carbohydrates during a Race?

Time Trial
Time Trial (Photo credit: davharuk)

A new review study shows that taking carbohydrates during shorter races is useless.

We have all been told that taking carbohydrates during an endurance race will boost our performance. Numerous scientific studies have indeed shown this effect but unfortunately the set-up of the experiments did not always correspond to what most of us do.

Many researchers asked elite athletes to exercise at a fixed intensity for as long as possible. They then compared how long it took the athletes to get exhausted with and without taking carbohydrates. These tests are called time-to-exhaustion tests. The problem is that they do not mimic a real event; in real life you typically try to cover a fixed distance as quickly as possible. A time trial would therefore be a better test.

Moreover, the athletes usually performed their test after an overnight fast. Scientifically this makes sense, because it is easier to compare two fasted individuals than two fed ones, as not everybody digests and absorbs food in exactly the same way. However, this is not a realistic situation as nobody would race without a pre-race meal.

In the last issue of Nutrition Journal Paolo Colombani and his colleagues reviewed studies that have tried to mimic real-time events by studying recreational athletes (as most of us are) performing time trials 4 to 2 hours after a meal. They concluded that taking carbohydrates does not lead to significant improvements during races shorter than 70 minutes. For longer races, the picture is a bit more complicated, as 10 of the 17 studies showed improvements up to 13%.

You can therefore gain some time by not having carbohydrates during shorter races (I always have to slow down when I am having a drink or a gel). Concerning the longer ones however, you will have to experiment to find out what is best for you.


5 thoughts on “Should you Take Carbohydrates during a Race?

  1. I agree. When I first began to run half marathons and races over an hour I was a GU junkie. I followed the label and was downing GUs every 30 minutes, even before the race or long run. I’ve weaned off them and never use them for anything less than a half marathon where I might use 2-3 if I am running hard and not drinking an electrolyte drink. As for carbs the week before or night before, no, I eat normally and if it’s a marathon I think about getting a little extra carb but a big meal the night before with pasta jsut means the next day’s run will be uncomfortable to me. Eat normally, carry a GU or two just in case but most runs under a marathon we can just rely on a normal diet.

      1. People new to running get all excited by the whole experience and gear, the new things that come with running. They feel they need so much more than they do. My “coaches” that have a lot of experience they kind of taught me to tone everything down and be more natural in my approach to nutrition and diet. It does keep me from being anxious about it! I do swear by coffee before running though! 😀

  2. If you’ve read “Born to Run” you know that we are designed to run. It is obviously good to have some knowledge to improve performances, but in general our bodies know what we need. We should learn to listen to them and trust them a bit more often…
    Enjoy you coffee, I’m sure it helps you!

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