A Message to Endurance Athletes Who Worry a Lot about Calories

I deal with a lot of athletes—mainly women—who worry a lot about calories. In particular, they worry about eating too much. As athletes, they fear that eating too much will negatively affect their performance. But they also fret about how eating too much will affect their appearance. Most of these athletes fail to cognitively distinguish these consequences, practical and aesthetic, which in my view is the heart of their problem.

As an endurance coach who works remotely with athletes, I find it difficult at best and more often impossible to fix this problem. It seems to require skills and expertise that I lack. All I really know how to do is lay out the facts. Any athlete who truly understands and embraces the facts cannot continue to obsess about calories, but the embracing part has to come from within the athlete and often requires some deep internal work. As they say, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

Here’s a fact: Not eating enough harms endurance performance more than eating too much does. As I wrote in a previous post on this blog:

Athletes who eat slightly more food than they need every day will tend to feel good and perform well in workouts because they have plenty of fuel available for them, and they will also tend to recover from and adapt well to training because the raw materials that these processes depend on also come from food. The only negative (aside from long-term health issues, which are themselves mitigated by high activity levels) is that they will show up at the start line a few pounds over their ideal racing weight.

In contrast, athletes who habitually eat too little are unlikely to even make it to the start line. Lacking the fuel they need for optimal workout performance and the raw materials they need for recovery and adaptation, they are at high risk of succumbing to overtraining fatigue or injury before race day comes around.

Obviously, maximizing endurance fitness and performance requires that you eat neither too much nor too little. But if you’re going to err, you’re better off erring on the side of eating too much.

Accepting and embracing this fact alone will not break an athlete of calorie fixation. The athlete must also be able to accept and embrace at least one of the following statements:

“My fitness and performance are more important to me than my appearance.”

“My fittest body is my most attractive body, even if it’s not my skinniest body.”

Overcoming persistent worries about eating too much requires a form-follows-function mind-set. You must believe that if you eat and train properly for maximum fitness and performance, your body will end up looking the way it ought to look.

But that’s only half the battle. It’s one thing to be committed to eating the right amount (and at all costs not undereating). It’s another thing to actually eat the right amount day after day after day. At first blush this may seem an almost impossible needle to thread on a consistent basis. Suppose that, through a combination of resting metabolism, exercise, and non-exercise activities, your body burns exactly  2,583 calories today. This, therefore is the exact number of calories you need to absorb from food to meet but not exceed your energy needs for the day. How the heck are you supposed to pull that off?

And yet, there are millions of endurance athletes who succeed in maintaining an optimal racing weight while also fueling themselves sufficiently to train recover well over periods of weeks, months, and even years. What’s more, the athletes who do this most successfully spend very little time worrying about calories. It’s the ones who spend the most time worrying about calories who tend to miss the mark, either by chronically undereating or by pinballing between overeating and binging. I cannot emphasize this point enough: Worrying about calories is neither necessary nor useful with respect to the goal of eating enough without eating too much.

One reason it’s not necessary is that the human appetite control system works exceedingly well to guide each individual to the appropriate amount of food intake. If you think yours doesn’t work terribly well, it’s most likely because you eat a lot of processed calorie bombs that override that system or because you’ve been trained by society to ignore your body’s hunger and satiety signals. In either case, the problem is correctible. You will find it much easier to avoid overeating if you replace those processed calorie bombs with natural, whole foods, and research has proven that anyone can relearn how to perceive, interpret, and heed the body’s innate hunger and satiety signals through mindful practice.

Calorie counting can help to some degree, but not as much as you might think. It is next to impossible to accurately measure how many calories your body actually burns or how many calories your body actually absorbs from food in a given day. The main benefit of calorie counting is simply that it gets you to pay more attention to what and how much you’re eating, but there are less onerous ways to achieve the same objective.

I think a heuristic, habit-based approach works best. Start by eating in a way that ensures you’re taking in at least as much food energy as your body is burning. (Remember, if you are going to err, it’s best to err on the side of excess, especially if you are a caloriphobe with a history of undereating.) You’ll know you’re getting enough calories if you feel energetic during and between workouts and your weight is either stable or increasing.

If you think it’s likely that you are consuming more calories than you need on this routine, find little ways to cut back. You might, for example, eat 10 percent less oatmeal in the morning, dress your salads with a drizzle of oil, vinegar, and spices instead of ranch dressing, and impose a 7 pm “food curfew” on yourself. Whatever you do, the core idea here is to take only small measures so as to avoid leaping from overeating to undereating. If, after taking one or more such measures, you are still gaining weight or you have other evidence that you are in a state of excess, try something else, continuing this tweaking process until you have a set of eating habits that allow you to train and recover well and attain or maintain your optimal racing weight.

Note that you’ll probably want to have slightly different routines for rest days, light training days, or heavy training days, but don’t overthink the matter. If your eating habits are slightly more consistent from day to day than your training load, you’ll still end up in a state of balance at the end of the week.

The great thing about habits is that they do not require continual reinvention. Once you have a set of eating habits that matches up well with your training habits, just live them. That’s what the most successful athletes do. There is no need to worry about calories ever again.