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Load Up or Level Out? Carbohydrate Loading for the Young Rower

It’s the night before a big regatta, and the rowing team is deciding what to eat. Should they head to the local Italian restaurant for a big plate of pasta, or should they eat a normal meal?

Loading up on carbs, also called carbohydrate loading, is a common method athletes use to prepare for competition. The idea is simple: eat a meal loaded with rich sources of complex carbs like pasta, rice, bread or beans the night before a race, and by the next day, the muscles will be chock full of glycogen, the primary source of energy used for working muscles. As a result, the rower presumably avoids early muscle fatigue, low energy, and may glean the ultimate benefit: rowing fast.

Or so the thinking goes.

Here’s a reality check: There is little scientific evidence supporting carbohydrate loading in children and young teens.

Here’s why:

Carbohydrate loading is a practice based on research in adults, hinging on the body’s ability to efficiently break down, process, and store carbohydrate in the muscle. But, young athletes metabolize carbohydrate differently, preferring to use fat as an energy source, rather than carbohydrate. Also, young rowers are limited in their glycogen storage capacity—they aren’t able to store large amounts of it in their muscles. Females have less muscle mass compared to males, and therefore, they have even lower capacity for glycogen storage. As young rowers get older (read: late teens), they evolve into processing and storing carbohydrate more readily, similar to that of an adult.

Added to this inherent difference in metabolizing carbohydrate, rowing generally occurs in short, fast bursts, particularly on race day. This brief, intense exercise doesn’t require a need to access glycogen from the muscle. Glycogen is needed during endurance events or prolonged exercise. But in the young athlete, we don’t have a lot of evidence that high carbohydrate intake during prolonged training is beneficial, either.

So, what does all this mean? And, if rowers are carb-loading, where do the carbs go?

While young rowers don’t need to load up on carbohydrate before an event, they still need a daily high carbohydrate diet. Young rowers should level out their carb intake throughout the day, including complex carbs at each meal and snack. Simply make sure a grain (bread, crackers, oatmeal, quinoa, or pasta), vegetable, fruit, or dairy product is included in each meal or snack.

If rowers are routinely carb-loading, the biggest risk is in eating too much, beyond one’s carbohydrate and calorie needs. Eating more carbohydrate than needed may lead to excess fat storage and unwanted weight gain.

Equally as important as leveling out carbohydrate intake throughout the day is to get the timing of eating regulated, at about every three to four hours, so that a consistent supply of carbohydrate is available to muscle.

Nailing these two nutrition strategies—leveling out carbohydrate intake at each meal and snack, and spacing meals and snacks every three to four hours – will keep the young rower ready for competition without a need to “load” carbs the night before a race, or go above and beyond a normal healthy meal.

Written by Jill Castle, MS, RDN | Sep 29, 2014

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (www.fearlessfeeding.com). She is the creator of Just The Right Byte (www.justtherightbyte.com), and is working on her next book, entitled Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. 

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