Pasta Parties and Carb Loading
By Emily R Pappas, M.S.
Just the idea of “carb loading” sounds too good to be true, right?!
Team “pasta parties” are often the norm before games in high school and college.
So, can a big bowl of pasta the night before a big game really increase your performance—or is there a little more to it?
Let’s take a look at what the evidence says!
What is Carb Loading?
Athletes, particularly endurance athletes, have long claimed carb loading to be the key to their success.
As we know, carbohydrates are our most vital fuel source. During the onset of moderate to high intensity physical activity, your body uses stored carbs, called glycogen, for energy. With this high reliance on carb stores, it has been proposed that carb loading will increase these glycogen stores in the muscles. The idea here is essentially like filling your body up with plenty of gas to get you through a big event or competition with ease.
Sounds pretty reasonable in theory…but what about the actual application?
Current research shows that carb loading is really only going to help fill glycogen stores if the athlete has been in a carbohydrate-deprived state for some time (and those stores are EMPTY!).
But when we consider training and performance for the female athlete, depriving her body of carbs in order to carb load at a later date is going to have some detrimental effects.
Remember, carbohydrates FUEL both performance and recovery! If you deprive your muscles of carbs, you are DECREASING your body’s ability to recover!
Preparing for an important soccer game? Depriving your body of carbs before hand is not going to help you prepare to perform at your highest.
Rather than considering carb LOADING & pasta parties, let’s consider a more efficient carbohydrate intake strategy…
So, When is It Best to Up the Carbs?
Carbs are your body’s preferred fuel for this type of high-energy activity since it relies on the anaerobic system to power through. And this system can ONLY use carbs! (NOPE your biochemistry WILL NOT “change” in response to an alternative diet like “KETO”)
So what does this mean for you, the female athlete?
Carbs should be consumed AROUND your training!
Before training, consuming complex carbs helps ensure you have the preferred energy source in your blood for delivery to your muscle once glycogen stores are used up.
After training, your muscles are PRIMED for glucose absorption. This is when your muscles are especially sensitive to insulin (the hormone that tells your muscles to absorb sugar) and are craving those carbs the most.
With proper post-workout nutrition strategies, eating a meal with a mix of complex and simple carbs right after training will ensure that your muscles:
Refill their glycogen stores for your next training session.
Receive the energy they need to help shuttle protein into them to stimulate the muscle-rebuilding process.
Remember that the further away you are from training, the less your muscles require fast-acting carbs. Instead, you’ll want to fuel your body with slower-digesting energy sources like fats and high-fiber carbs (fruits, vegetables, whole grains).
Say No to the Pasta Party Carb Load
The general idea of a pasta party is great for team-bonding, but you may want to figure out a better meal to bond over.
Eating lots of fast-acting carbs in the form of something like pasta, especially right before bed, may just slow everyone down. Remember, carb loading is only effective (to a SMALL extent) if your glycogen stores are depleted. For the female athlete, this would mean eating low carb for a week before engaging in the pasta party…..not an ideal scenario for the typical athlete playing 1-3 games a week ON TOP of practice and lifts.
So what happens if you eat a meal full of fast carbs when your muscles aren’t in this deprived state? Fat storage! Remember, carbs are energy. If your body does not need that much energy at the moment, it will just be stored for later!
A Better Pasta Party Meal Plan
Instead of just pasta, invite your teammates to come up with some healthier, more diverse options. Maybe something like this:
Whole-wheat pasta: for added fiber and nutrients for a slower rate of sugar release into your blood
Beef or turkey meatballs: for protein needed for muscle growth and recover and fats to allow your body to slowly release its energy the night before the game.
Side salad: for greens that are loaded with vitamins and minerals.
What is the Better Alternative to Carb Loading?
Instead of focusing solely on carbs, it’s best to look at the whole big picture.
Pay attention to your nutritional priorities for top performance.
This means, you first want to make sure that you are eating ENOUGH CALORIES throughout the day. Too few will leave you fatigued, eventually cause muscle loss, and increase your risk of injury—something no athlete desires.
Second, be sure that you are eating the right distribution of macronutrients, and then prioritizing carbohydrates around your activity.
Overall, your biggest goal, especially the night before a big event, is to eat until you are satiated and satisfied. This will not only take away any additional stress you may put on your body, but also ease your mind as you prepare to perform.
Hatfield, D. L., Kraemer, W. J., Volek, J. S., Rubin, M. R., Grebien, B., Gómez, A.L., et al. (2006). The effects of carbohydrate loading on repetitive jump squat power performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(1), 167-171. Retrieved from SCOPUS database.
Burke, L. M. (2007). Nutrition strategies for the marathon: Fuel for training and racing. Sports Medicine, 37(4-5), 344-347. Retrieved from SCOPUS database.
Rebecca T. McLay , Christine D. Thomson , Sheila M. Williams , Nancy J. Rehrer. Carbohydrate Loading and Female Endurance Athletes: Effect of Menstrual-Cycle Phase. Volume: 17 Issue: 2 Pages: 189-205 https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.17.2.189
About the author
Emily holds a M.S. in Exercise Physiology from Temple University and a B.S. in Biological Sciences from Drexel University. Through this education, Emily values her ability to coach athletes with a perspective that is grounded in biomechanics and human physiology. Outside of the classroom, Emily has experience coaching and programming at the Division I Collegiate Level working as an assistant strength coach for an internship with Temple University’s Women’s Rugby team.
In addition, Emily holds her USAW Sport Performance certification and values her ability to coach athletes using “Olympic” Weightlifting. Emily is extremely passionate about the sport of Weightlifting, not only for the competitive nature of the sport, but also for the application of the lifts as a tool in the strength field. Through these lifts, Emily has been able to develop athletes that range from grade school athletes to nationally ranked athletes in sports such as lacrosse, field hockey, and weightlifting.
Emily is also an adjunct at Temple University, instructing a course on the development of female athletes.