How to Structure Your Nutrition to Support Your Performance Goals Part 1: Calories and Macros
The aim of this two-part blog is to provide you (athletes and coaches) with the tools to know how to structure your nutrition to support your performance goals and to give you guidance on what areas are worth focusing on most. To do this we will use the pyramid below to outline the hierarchy of importance for sports nutrition.
The most important area to consider is at the bottom of the pyramid, as we move up the pyramid the areas discussed will be less of a priority but are still important to consider. It’s worth noting that pyramids often oversimplify topics related to nutrition, as described by Gemma McGuinness Nutrition here with reference to Alan Aragon – so it’s important to consider that nutrition for athletes is a lot more nuanced especially when you consider different sports, positions, goals, etc.
I will discuss some considerations for the individual in each of the below categories, but it’s also important to consider the order of importance can also change depending on the athlete/sport/goals, etc. For example, if an athlete struggles with digestive issues before training/competitions you might prioritize the timing of the meal over its exact calorie or macronutrient content. For the sake of this article, we’ll look at each tier of the pyramid and discuss some considerations around each one.
How to structure your nutrition / Calories
Fuelling your body with the energy it requires will be the first and most important step for optimal performance. It can be a tricky one to balance for sure, especially in sports where there can be a focus on body composition/weight classes. It’s important you provide your body with enough fuel to support training and performance.
There is a balance that must be found here though as not fuelling correctly by either under or overshooting your targets may result in unwanted body composition changes, and performance being negatively impacted. This begs the question how much do I need?
This will depend on the individual and it will likely vary from day to day, especially with a varied training/competition schedule. To give yourself a starting point to work with, the three links below might be useful. These are calorie calculators that also give targets related to macronutrients. We will discuss the role and importance of each macronutrient as well as what you should aim for.
- Sigma Nutrition
- Precision Nutrition (this one also generates a general nutrition program for you)
- Howley Health
These calculators give you a general estimate of your daily needs but as discussed already this can vary depending on your training activity each day. Once we gain a better understanding of macronutrients in the next section we will discuss some practical steps we can take to manipulate our caloric intake to suit our needs for the day. For now, an estimate of our average daily needs will be really useful. If we can meet our energy needs on average throughout the week that’s a great starting point.
How do I know if my estimated calories are correct?
It’s important to be able to assess if you’re meeting your energy requirements or not. One of the easiest ways to do this is to monitor your body weight regularly while also tracking your caloric intake. There are definitely other metrics to work off such as skinfolds, circumference measurements, how you’re feeling during and after exercise etc. and there are nuances involved in these measurements but it can be a useful monitoring tool to begin with. Using a few of these tools together to get a more well-rounded picture is advisable but simple body weight tracking can be a great starting point.
It’s important to be aware of the following concepts and their impacts when monitoring your intake and body weight:
This is when your calorie intake and your energy expenditure are equal on average. If you’re at maintenance calories for a sustained period of time your weight will likely remain the same.
This is where your energy expenditure (calories out) is higher than your caloric intake. You’re in a calorie (energy) deficit. Over a sustained period of time in a calorie deficit, your weight will likely decrease.
This is where your caloric intake is higher than your energy expenditure (calories out). This means you are in a calorie (energy) surplus. Over a sustained period of time in a calorie surplus, your weight will likely increase.
How to structure your nutrition / Macronutrients
Now that you have an idea of your energy (calorie) needs, we can have a look at macronutrients and how much we need of each. To begin with, it’s important we understand the role of each macronutrient
Proteins are essential for growth and repair, they also play wide-ranging roles that are essential to life. Protein contains 4 calories per gram.
Carbohydrate is an essential fuel source for achieving and maintaining high levels of physical performance, in particular intense exercise. Carbohydrates will be your main fuel source for high-intensity activity. Additionally, it plays a crucial role in the recovery between exercise bouts by replenishing glycogen stores. Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram.
Fat is an essential macronutrient that is a rich source of energy but also serves many crucial roles including (but not limited to) hormone production and vitamin absorption. Fats contain 9 calories per gram.
Depending on our individual needs we can follow the guidelines in the table below to gauge the amount of each macronutrient we need. You will see they are often given in a range of grams per kg. This is the number of grams of the macronutrient you should target based on your body weight in kg. For example, an 80kg individual targeting 2 grams per kg for protein, should aim for 160g of protein in their diet. Each macronutrient has a caloric value. With this information, we can work with our calorie target to figure out how much of each we should target and how much we can fit in.
Fueling for performance
For each macronutrient, you can see there’s a range recommended, when looking through the lens of fuelling for performance there can be a tendency to go for the highest end of the range or if it’s a case of targeting fat loss, for example, there might be a tendency to target the lower end. Often times going for either approach will result in overshooting calorie targets or under fuelling.
In reality, we will have to assess which macronutrient we need to prioritize and which one we can maybe limit intake without having too much of a negative impact. Again, this depends on the sport/position/goals, etc. so take a look at the table below to see how different sports might need to prioritize different macros.
|Endurance||PRO – CHO – FAT|
|Power||PRO – CHO – FAT|
|Strength||PRO – FAT – CHO|
|Weight loss||PRO – FAT – CHO|
Fuelling for the work required
Earlier in the article, I mentioned that your calorie needs can vary day to day depending on a number of factors including your training and competition demands. With the goal of fuelling your training and performance, it might be necessary to increase your energy intake when you need it most and potentially reduce your intake on days when you mightn’t need as much energy.
There are a number of ways you can do this, but practically speaking it might be easiest/make the most sense to adjust your carbohydrates based on the demands of the day. Carbohydrates are our main fuel source for high-intensity activity so it makes sense to keep carbohydrates high when we have a large amount of high-intensity exercise and reduce them when our demands are lower. Naturally, this will also affect calories, when activity is higher energy demands are higher, and when we’re less active or energy demands are lower. So when we are adding or taking away carbohydrates we can add/subtract to/from our calorie targets. With this, it means that our protein and fat will stay the same. Here’s an example of what carbohydrate targets might look like for a low, medium, and high day.
|CARBOHYDRATE RECOMMENDATIONS BY PERFORMANCE RANGE||g/kg BW|
Low-intensity or skill-based activity.
Moderate intensity program, 1 hour per day.
Endurance program, moderate to high intensity 1-3 hours per day.
Carbohydrate Recommendations from Burke et al, 2011.
These of course can vary, you might want to manipulate protein and fat also, or even manipulate things differently altogether but this is an example to show how one might implement the concept of fuelling for the work required. Practically speaking, I would recommend reducing fat intake to the lower end when carbohydrates start to get that bit higher. It can be very difficult to fit it all in while also ensuring calories are where they need to be. Being a little bit smarter with your food choices as you get to the higher end of things will also be important to manage your appetite and feeling of fullness.
There are a lot of moving parts in sports nutrition so it can be difficult to know where to start. Using something simple like the pyramid described above can be a great start in adding structure and helping guide decisions on what you should prioritize. First and foremost we’ll need to make sure we’re fuelling properly and giving ourselves enough energy to support training and performance. Then we can have a look at things in a bit more detail to understand the role of different macronutrients, how they support specific aspects of our training, and how much we need. If we can address these areas and account for a few individual differences then our nutrition will be in a really good place, from there we can consider some more nuance and start to have a look higher up the pyramid which we’ll cover in Part 2 of the blog.
- Burke LM, Hawley JA, Wong S, Jeukendrup AE. Carbohydrates for training and competition. J Sports Sci. 2011;29(suppl 1) :17S-27S.
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