An Athlete's Guide to Counting Calories

There’s a lot of talk these days about whether counting calories is obsolete. I was talking with a coach just last weekend, for example, who is adamantly against this “antiquated” practice. His position is that an athlete’s focus should not be on calories, but on consuming high-quality foods. “If the fuel going in is clean,” he explained, “then counting calories isn’t that important.” But for athletes whose free time (or nutritional knowledge) is limited, counting calories may be the best solution for optimizing sport performance in the kitchen.

Not All Athletes Have Personal Chefs

To be fair, the anti-calorie-counting coach I spoke with is working with world-class, professional athletes who are afforded the luxury of having a majority of their meals prepared by a nutrition expert, so little thought by the athlete goes into preparing a “high-quality” meal. For most high-school and college athletes, this is not an option. Especially for the student-athlete, who has to manage training responsibilities in conjunction with academic obligations. Crafting a performance nutrition plan is a much more involved process when you have to juggle meal planning, grocery shopping, and meal preparation on top of work, school, and practice!

In addition to a lack of spare time, many athletes I work with lack a basic understanding of macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fats) and their significance in association with specific nutrition goals (fat-loss, muscle gain, and weight maintenance). Most athletes don’t know the bioenergetics needs of their sport, and few know the specifics of meal frequency or even hydration levels. So telling my athletes, “Just eat healthy and don’t worry about counting calories,” doesn’t give them much to go on.

Instead, I teach athletes how to identify food groups needed to construct a personal nutrition plan that fits their individual preferences and circumstances. And initially, this begins with calorie counting. As the athlete’s nutritional knowledge and understanding matures, calorie counting may then become obsolete for them because they will have taken the time to learn the principles of nutrition and how to construct a nutrition plan that includes quality foods (and even unhealthy foods, too, in moderation).

Initially though, we count calories. The reason? A calorie is a unit of energy. In nutrition and everyday language, calories refer to energy consumption through eating and drinking and energy usage (burning up of energy) through daily activity. The number of calories food contain tells us how much potential energy they possess. Below are the caloric values of the three main components of the food we eat:

1 gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories

1 gram of protein contains 4 calories

1 gram of fat contains 9 calories

Consuming the right number of calories our body needs each day, every day, is the first step to attaining peak performance. Knowing your allotted daily calorie intake is critical in terms of attaining optimum health in association with specific nutrition health goals (i.e., gain/maintain lean muscle, fat loss, etc.).

How Many Calories Does Your Body Really Need?

Performance nutrition fits into a special needs category—not everybody requires the same number of calories each day. Our calorie needs depend on several factors, including our gender, weight, height, shape, and overall health. Metabolism refers to how much energy your body uses or how many calories you burn in a day. Therefore, a starting point to measure your metabolism is calculating your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the total number of calories that your body burns at rest each day—the number of calories it takes to maintain your body if you just lay in bed all day.

Use this calculator tool to help accurately estimate your BMR. By adjusting the dials at the top of the calculator to accommodate for gender, age, weight, and height, you’ll get a pretty good estimation of the number of calories your body burns at rest. For example, an 18-year-old female athlete who is 5’5” and weighs 140 lbs has a basal metabolic rate of 1,544 calories. That means she needs to eat that many calories to maintain her body at rest.

But knowing how many calories your body requires at rest isn’t enough knowledge to help you attain peak performance. Your calorie needs will be different depending on your level of activity, which might change day to day. Using the calorie tool from the link above, estimate what your normal daily activity level is (or just use yesterday as a sample). The calculator allows you to input the estimated time you spend sleeping, standing/walking, performing light exercise (housework), performing moderate exercise (strength training, most sports), and vigorous exercise (fast running), and assumes that the remaining unaccounted time is spent sitting. Taking our 18-year-old female athlete from above, let’s say she sleeps 8 hours per night, 2 hours standing/walking, 1 hour doing light exercise, and 1 hour doing moderate exercise. That’s a pretty generous estimate, considering we have her sitting for 12 hours a day! Her BMR doesn’t change, but the total calories she expends during the day is 2,748 calories. This athlete would therefore need to eat around 2,700 calories to maintain her current body weight and composition at this level of activity.

Activity takes energy to perform, and peak performance requires lots of energy. Lean tissue (muscle) requires more calories to maintain than fat tissue. The body also requires energy to help repair itself after tough workouts, practices, or games. All these factor in to an athlete’s performance nutrition plan, and it can get complicated quickly! To set yourself up for success, I recommend starting with calorie counting. Find your BMR, estimate your daily caloric expenditure by factoring in activity, and go from there. By breaking down performance nutrition into a series of small steps, rather than one drastic change, changing the way you eat becomes a manageable task. If you approach changes gradually and with commitment—like upping your calorie intake to gain muscle mass, or changing the timing of your meals to make sure you aren't overeating before bed—you can create a personalized performance nutrition plan sooner than you think.

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Mike Bewley, MA, CSCS, C-SPN, USAW-I is a guest contributor to the Volt blog. He is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Clemson University, a specalist in sports nutrition, and the founder of online nutrition platform NutraCarina.