The Golden State Warriors face off against the Toronto Raptors again this Sunday.
Many athletes are superstitious by nature. They wear the same shirts or carry the same good luck charm, especially if they’re lucky enough to make it to the NBA Finals.
Some follow identical pregame rituals or won’t cut their hair during the season.
For Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, his reported game day ritual begins with his wife’s signature spaghetti.
“This pasta has become our official pregame fuel, for a good reason: Stephen needs to load up on carbs before doing all that running on the court,” cookbook author, TV host, and actress Ayesha Curry wrote in an excerpt of her first cookbook, “The Seasoned Life,” published on Eater. “And since consistency is key when it comes to performing well, maybe my pasta has something to do with it.”
For Steph Curry, a six-time NBA All-Star and three-time NBA champion, the game day pasta might be as much about consistency as it is about nutrition.
“Ayesha’s recipe is high in carbohydrates, which are essential for excellent performance during exercise,” said Paul Salter, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and sports nutrition consultant for Renaissance Periodization.
During his Olympic years, swimmer Michael Phelps famously ate 12,000 calories, many of which came from carb-loaded foods like egg sandwiches, pizza, French toast, and pasta with sauce.
Tour de France cyclists give Phelps a run for his calorie numbers. Many of them top 8,000 to 10,000 calories in a day during the 21 race segments. In addition to eating carb-rich meals like muesli and pasta, many cyclists also fuel up with specially designed carb gels and bars midrace.
Indeed, carbohydrates are often singled out as the endurance athlete’s best source of energy. Through a process commonly referred to as carbo-loading, players can “stockpile” carbs in their bodies for when they need to call on the reserves for drive.
“In general, carb-loading helps you store up as much carbs as possible in the liver and muscles. This is called glycogen,” said Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, author of “The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide for Every Runner.”
“Glycogen and dietary carbs are the main fuel source during exercise. Glycogen stores only last for so long, about 15 to 30 minutes, during exercise. Carb-loading makes sure you have as much glycogen stored as possible,” she said.
To put it another way, Rizzo says, carbo-loading is “filling up your gas tank so that it will take longer to ‘hit the wall.’”
“Carbohydrate-loading is a multistep process that takes place over several days,” Salter said. “It is typically only necessary for high-intensity activity lasting more than 90 minutes.”
Salter says that actually doesn’t include Steph Curry.
“A typical basketball game is 48 minutes. However, Steph probably plays between 35 and 40 minutes per game,” Salter said. “Even if we consider the time he spends during warmups and shootaround, this is not necessarily high intensity and would not technically qualify as an event that requires specific carbohydrate-loading protocol.”
That’s why Salter adds that he wouldn’t call Steph’s pregame meal a true carbohydrate-loading stage.
Curry is certainly a stellar athlete with incredible skills and stamina, and he’s so well trained that one basketball game may not really count as “endurance” for him.
The meal is a great quick source of carbs, but Salter doesn’t technically count it as carbo-loading.
Instead, carbo-loading may mainly benefit athletes who will exercise or perform for extended periods of time.
“Not everyone needs to carb-load,” said Brian Van Cleave, a personal trainer at Anatomy in Florida who has completed more than 100 endurance races. “A lot of folks get deep in the weeds as they approach their first endurance event and think that this is something that everyone does. The fact is, most people don’t.”
Van Cleave says he doesn’t even carb-load before his races. “It just doesn’t agree with me,” he said. “Instead, I will eat how I normally do and then supplement with some extra sugars on race day.”
What’s more, carbo-loading could backfire if you’re doing it improperly, at the wrong time, or for the wrong reasons.
“If you carb-load for these [shorter] events, you won’t burn off everything you consume and can gain weight,” Rizzo said.
Despite renewed focuses on fats and protein over the past few decades, carbs have remained the consistent preexercise food.
In one report published in the journal Nutrition Today, the authors concluded that protein and dietary fat can help for strength and lower-intensity training, but “current research still points to carbohydrate as an indispensable energy source for high-intensity performance.”
But again, that’s for high-intensity performance. For the average athlete, carbo-loading may not be necessary. A balanced diet and proper midrace refueling may see you through every step of the process.
If you’re unsure whether you need this element of preparation, talk with a registered dietitian or sports nutritionist. They can review your needs, help plan meals, and strategize for the right options, carbs included.