Carbohydrate loading is a key strategy used by many athletes in preparation for endurance events and rightfully so. Endurance events deplete body carbohydrate stores known as muscle glycogen. By super-compensating muscle glycogen, time to exhaustion for endurance events can be extended. Muscle glycogen stores can be super compensated in as little as 24 hours of very high carbohydrate eating and rest in athletes.
A common belief is that women can’t increase their muscle glycogen stores as well as men. Unfortunately, a majority of the studies looking at carbohydrate loading have been done on male athletes. An early study on female athletes found that they were less responsive to carbohydrate loading compared to the male athletes. However, the female athletes had a smaller energy intake than male athletes in this study. This in turn led to smaller amounts of carbohydrate consumption. For instance, while both had carbohydrates intakes of 75% of their energy intake, the male athletes were eating 3000 calories per day, so this equated to 7.9 grams of carbohydrate/kg body mass. On the other hand, the female athletes were eating 2000 calories per day, so 75% of energy intake of carbohydrates equated to 6.4 grams of carbohydrate/kg body mass.
Later studies that increased the energy intake of the female athletes so that they were being provided with higher amounts of carbohydrate found that the males and females had similar increases in muscle glycogen. This suggests that with substantial carbohydrate intake, female athletes can carbohydrate load just as well as males. However, more studies are needed looking at gender differences in carbohydrate loading such as the impacts of hormones as the ability to store glycogen changes across the menstrual cycle.
In conclusion, it seems likely that female athletes can super-compensate muscle glycogen stores just like male athletes. However, to do this, female athletes need to ensure they also have adequate calorie intake so that the carbohydrates consumed are stored as glycogen rather than used as an energy source. For more on how to practically implement carbohydrate loading, click here.
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