Many swimmers consume too many carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the main fuel source for endurance athletes, but this fuel ingestion is blown out of proportion. Excess carbohydrate intake leads to weight gain and overloads the body, decreasing cells elasticity to engulf and utilize glycogen for energy. The following carbohydrate loading protocol is taken from John Berardi, Ph.D. and his endurance eating.  For more information, refer to their website.

Intense endurance exercise or repeated efforts, as in swimming, uses carbohydrate (glycogen in the liver and the muscle) and stored fat (triglycerides in the muscle and adipose tissue). Fat metabolizes slowly, making for a slow utilization. Fats also use more oxygen compared to carbohydrates. These differences make carbohydrates the ideal energy source for endurance athletes.

Many believe they use carbohydrate loading before competitions, as they stuff themselves silly with twenty pounds of pasta. This semi-effected method may help with performance, but is not the most effective. 

More sophisticated programs result in significant increases in glycogen stores (sometimes twice as much), allowing more fuel at the end of a race or competition. So, if you’re about to compete in long duration races or multiple races (most swim meets), you owe it to yourself to give carbohydrate loading a chance.

How Do I Carbohydrate Load? 
This carbohydrate loading protocol uses three days of low carbohydrates and three days of high carbohydrate intake. The theory behind this difference is to cause an increase in glycogen storing during the three days of low carbohydrate intake, setting your body up for a “rebound” of carbohydrate storage during the three days before the event.

As many swimmers know, the three days prior to the event you are resting during taper and eating more carbohydrates to increase glycogen storage.

On the three days of less carbohydrate intake, expect a brief decrease in energy, this is expected! Here is the method according to Berardi:

Day 6 – Training Day – Low carbohydrate diet (<200g carbohydrate)*
Day 5 – Training Day – Low carbohydrate diet (<200g carbohydrate)*
Day 4 – Training Day – Low carbohydrate diet (<200g carbohydrate)*
Day 3 – Recovery Day – High carbohydrate diet (>10g/kg carbohydrate)**
Day 2 – Recovery Day – High carbohydrate diet (>10g/kg carbohydrate)**
Day 1 – Recovery Day – High carbohydrate diet (>10g/kg carbohydrate)**
Event Day

*During the low carbohydrate days, you must increase your consumption of good fats (omega 3 fatty acids and monounsaturated) as well as complete protein sources in order to keep your energy intake the same. Therefore carbohydrate will make up only a small percentage of your daily intake.

**During the high carbohydrate days, decrease your fat and protein consumption as your diet should be >80% carbohydrate.”

I have used this protocol with much success. Too often swimmers overload their carbohydrate and glycogen stores too early, inhibiting the rebound effect. Use the elasticity of the cells for enhancement of glycogen intake!

Similar to all training methods, individually try this program, finding what works best. Some athletes do not respond or feel good with excessive carbohydrate loading. Remember this is for endurance athletes, sorry sprinter!

By G. John Mullen founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, and creator the Swimmer’s Shoulder System.

  • Dougplatte

    You state that “Carbohydrates are the main fuel source for endurance athletes.” This is an overgeneralization and it should depend upon your definition of an “endurance athlete.” Maybe a miler in swimming may rely upon Carbs as a primary source of fuel, but you can’t say the same thing for a marathon runner, or ironman triathlete. At much lower intensities, fat becomes the primary source for energy. 

  • G. John mullen

    Good clarification, endurance swimming (500, 800, 1500) uses carbohydrates, as the main fuel source. Open water swimming does use more fats.


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