I get questions ALL the time about how many calories a person needs for training. For me, I believe people should keep things simple and focus on the bigger things in life rather than counting calories. However, with a recommended calorie count in mind, in order to foster weight loss and to contribute to gains in performance, I believe that women should eat around 1800-2200 calories/day and men around 2400-2800 calories a day. Of course those ranges are given to account for training volume and intensity but I really don't believe that an active woman needs 3000 calories on a daily basis in order to fuel her exercise. Similarly, I don't think Karel gets close to 3500 calories on his big training weekends when he can easily put in 250 miles in 3 days of racing. I do, however, recommend taking in 150-250 extra calories a day for every hour of exercise. This would be an easy way to take the guessing away from how to eat on long training days versus's recovery days.
The reason why I brought this up is because an athlete I helped a few months ago with her nutrition emailed me a great question. I will post a little of her question because I am sure many people have the same question: First she tells me she has lost weight..not a lot, but her clothes are feeling looser. Then she says that she feels like she is lacking energy; and in talking to her coach about that, the coach suggested that she eat at least 3000 cals a day in order to help her training which is about 8-10 hours a week. Now, here is where I think a lot of people can relate: I have been scratching the surface of the 2000 cals I eat daily and I am not quite sure of how to get the extra 1000 cals I need on a day to day basis. Does all of this make sense?? How can I get to eating 3000 cals daily and still do it the “healthy” way…
Here is my reply: As far as 3000 calories I believe that number is too hight. Even for an active male, I only recommend up to 2800 calories for an IM athlete male. I believe for a woman, 2000 calories is a great number and then 150-200 extra daily calories for every hour of exercise. So, if you work out for 2 hours one day, then give yourself 2000+ 300/400 extra calories (to equal 2400 calories). However, those calories should not come from bigger meals (over 400-500 calories meals) but rather from pre or post calorie snacks. That means more small snacks of carbs and protein during the day. I think the reason why people think "more" calories when they look at training volume is a belief that hours worked out = calories burned. However, although calories are burned through training it is important to recognize what calories are burned through aerobic exercise and what calories are burned through anaerobic activities. It is those calories burned through anaerobic activities that are necessary to replace. However, the intensity of the workout must be above 85% in order to replace depleted glycogen (stored carbs) in the muscles. Just because a person works out for 4-5 hours or 8-10 hours a week does not mean that every calorie burned needs to be replaced. With an understanding that the body should train as efficient as possible, it is important to rely on your stored fat as a source of fuel and thus, keep some of the workouts (primarily, those lasting around an 90 min. or more) aerobic. And as I have mentioned many times before, it is through interval training (around an hour or less) that the body will get faster due to 85%+ max efforts with recovery intervals as to not deplete all of the glycogen stores (2000 calories worth in the muscles). As far as feeling like a 2000 calorie diet leaves you with not enough energy, take a moment and look at the daily diet. Rather than seeking extra calories or supplements, an energetic body will enjoy fruits and vegetables (for vital nutrients), plenty of water and the oh-so important post training fuels. As well as pre training snacks for workouts more than 90 min. or afternoon workouts. A person can easily live off a lower calorie diet and be active so long as they focus on balacing the blood sugar with protein+carb foods for all meals and snacks. In addition to the post workout snack to either repair muscles or to prevent yourself from overeating, any drop in blood sugar from going too long between meals (100-200 calorie snacks should be every 1-2 hours before and after meals) will cause the body to feel lathargic and tired. Think about your training volume and intensity before planning out your daily meal calories and hopefully you will feel like you have more energy with a new way of thinking about your training routine :)
I'm sure there are people out there that think "there is no way I can only live off 2400 calories as a male athlete. Even with 1000 extra calories on a sat. for an IM athlete who just trained for 6 hours, I know it sounds strange to not eat 3000-5000 calories to support your training routine. I'm sure people have tried to eat les calories and found themselves bonking at training or just tired all day long. I am trying to change the thinking of all athletes and see food as fuel. Too many times athletes eat junk food and see it as "calories" rather than as fuel. Simple sugar foods, carbs without protein and low fiber foods will not fuel exercise. They will cause you to crash and just feel awful all day long...especially if you eat these foods before and after training. Understanding how the body works and how it process's fuel (anaerobically versus aerobically) is something that I spent my entire graduate school learning. Now, I'm sure that there is a Registered Dietitian out there that doesn't support my beliefs but then gain, I wonder how many nutritionists are racing in Ironman's, focusing on sports nutrition and training 10+ hours a week? Rather than being the person that sits here and tells people what to do, I believe in practicing what I preach. With a brain full of expensive information in my head (expensive due to grad school and now a dietetic degree) I don't only want to show people it can be done but I will write countless articles, speak about it until every athlete in the world hears me and I will conduct nutrition consulations at a "cheap" price (kate says I need to raise my price but I am not that famous yet :)) until I can educate everyone on their own, individual, nutrition plan.