Wherefore Pasta?

Pasta is known as runners food.  The discovery of the benefits of carbohydrate loading  gave runners the reason to load up on something with a lot of carbs the days before a big race.  What could be better than pasta?  Yes, rice or potatoes could easily fill the role, but pasta is sexy.  It’s delicious.  It’s fun to eat.  Over the last two decades, the benefits of carbohydrate loading have come into question, particularly the traditional method of starving your carbohydrate stores for a few days, then feeding them maximally for three days before a marathon.  This loads up glycogen stores in the muscles and liver, to provide a source of energy for the marathon.

Making pasta is simple, but takes muscles.  It consists of flour with either water or eggs.

Making pasta is simple, but takes muscles. It consists of flour with either water or eggs. Then, blend.

Athletes, ever looking for an edge, were eager to use carbohydrate loading techniques, but were not very happy about starving themselves of carbohydrates for several days during the last week or so before a marathon.  Researchers, seeking ways to keep the benefits of carb loading without the starvation element found it was not as critical to starve the cells as once thought, and that carb loading could still work.


The pasta dough is thick and hard to roll. It may need a bit of water to make it workable.

One paper I studied, “Metabolic Factors Limiting Performance in Marathon Runners”, by Benjamin I. Rapoport, published in PLOS Computational Biology, 10/21/2010, examined and explained some very interesting numbers in marathon running.  He gave a formula for calculating the number of calories used in running a marathon, based on one’s weight in kilograms and the distance of the marathon.  The amount of calories consumed is based on the distance run, and is approximately 1kcal per kilogram per kilometer.  This calculation includes the basal metabolic rate and the energy expenditure from running on top of that.  For me, weighing about 81kg, my total calories consumed during a marathon is 1kcal/kg/km x 81kg x 42.195km, or 3418kcal.  He estimates the available energy for muscle activity to be on average, about 1800 kcal in the leg muscles and about 600 kcal in the liver, assuming one has carbohydrate loaded.  So, that is 2400 kcals available but a need of 3400.  He points out if we could use fat as our energy source, we could do five marathons without a problem, since we have plenty of energy stored as fat.  But, the faster we go, and the harder we push, the more our bodies want to use glycogen, i.e., carbohydrates, and less fat.


The pasta machine works very well.  It can be used to roll the pasta progressively thinner and thinner, and then cut it for the style desired, in this case, fettuccine.

The pasta machine works very well. It can be used to roll the pasta progressively thinner and thinner, and then cut it for the style desired, in this case, fettuccine.

The article mentioned above makes a strong case for average runners running a marathon to carbohydrate load and to take on extra carbohydrate in the form of easily digestible gel during the race, in order to avoid running out of carbs, and therefore hitting the “wall”.  It attempts to show mathematically how to calculate carbohydrate needs during a marathon, according to body build, conditioning and weight.  It gets very technical, though, and should one be interested in studying it, it can be found here.

Stamping out ravioli.

Ravioli can be made using a molding form. We took the rolled dough, added a filling of spicy Italian chicken sausage and spinach, and stamped out some delicious ravioli.  Other tools are available for other ways of making ravioli.

I’ve now run seven marathons, and have definitely hit the wall in six.  It is a miserable feeling, when suddenly the legs won’t work, they are in pain, and walking is the only option. I certainly don’t think there is one formula of feeding the muscles that will avoid this.  But, one very helpful point Rapoport makes in his article is that a steady pace, or steady effort, is the most efficient way to run a marathon, and that working harder at the beginning, or pushing harder up hills, is counterproductive.

Raw Fettuccine

Fresh, raw fettuccine, ready to drop into boiling water. It cooks very quickly when it is fresh.

In the past, I had my doubts about carbohydrate loading and how and whether to do it.  Most of my running partners know about it, but don’t really know how it is applied.  From what I’ve read, it still makes sense to deprive the muscles of carbohydrates before the three day loading, but this step is not as critical to the overall effect as once thought.  Also, current research suggests that a single short, intense effort the day before a marathon, followed by a high carbohydrate meal, can be almost as effective as the longer plans.  Generally, though, a low carbohydrate meal means about 10% of calories in the form of carbohydrates, and a high carbohydrate meal contains 70%-90% carbohydrates.  Note that the number of calories does not increase.

Cooked ravioli.

Ravioli cooked and ready to eat. A little olive oil and parmigiano, or some simple tomato sauce goes well with this.

Also, if one takes on carbs in the form of gels or glucose-containing sports drink during a race, it makes up for a lack of carbohydrate loading.  Important here is that sufficient glucose is consumed, and able to get into the blood stream, to make a difference to the muscles.  Given that runners may not consume enough during a race, or their systems won’t allow digestion while running, it certainly is a good idea to maximize muscle glycogen before the race.

Cooked fettuccine

Fettuccine, cooked and ready to eat. We made a sauce of chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, mushrooms, tomato paste and spices which tasted great.

Matt Fitzgerald wrote a very nice, short description of carbohydrate loading for Active.com, “The Evolving Art of Carbo-Loading”.  I will be carbohydrate loading for my next marathon, and will write about the experience.  Meanwhile, I intend to revisit pasta making, as it was a lot of fun, tasted great, and was a very nice way to share an experience with my daughter, Audrey, who did at least half the work.


Leave a comment


  1. There is nothing better than homemade pasta! Yum.

  2. TonyWalter

     /  February 10, 2013

    I enjoyed the article and learned somehting too. Of course I’m glad the concept of pasta loading still survives it’s a fun tradition. Reading this I grew increasingly hungry with the pictures. Possibly the greatest benefit for you might be the spending of time with your daughter making the pasta which makes you happy and happy people live longer than unhappy people. And happy runners live even longer. Hey, it might be true….

  3. Brandon

     /  February 16, 2013

    Pasta is sexy? Who knew a limp noodle could be sexy. The pasta making looks fun and delicious.

    • If you ever shared a spaghetti dinner with a beautiful woman, you’d surely know how sexy it can be. Then, of course, there’s the famous scene from Lady and the Tramp.

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