You’ve trained hard all spring, raced all summer, and maybe even finished your season with a fall marathon. Now you’re ready for some recovery time. This is typically the time of year when athletes tend to significantly decrease their training volume and intensity, but do not think to decrease their caloric intake. During training, an endurance athlete can often consume 3,000 to 5,000 calories per day without gaining weight. But when training volume is halved, caloric intake also must be decreased in order to prevent unwanted weight gain.
The “off season” or transition period of your training program is valuable because it gives your body a much-needed break from strenuous training and it allows your musculoskeletal system an opportunity to repair. This is a good time to try new activities and make nutrition changes. Perhaps you want to race lighter next season, or maybe you want to increase your muscle mass. Now is the time to focus on these changes, not during your season. Let’s look at how to maintain your weight through these periods of lighter training.
The number of calories, or energy, an athlete needs each day depends on their age, body weight, gender and training volume. Daily energy need (or total energy expenditure – TEE) is composed of two primary components: resting energy expenditure (REE, the amount of calories needed to maintain basic body systems and body temperature at rest) and activity energy expenditure (AEE, calories needed to fuel exercise and activities of daily living). TEE = REE + AEE. Your REE can be calculated by a mathematical formula or measured by a physiologic test. Your AEE can be calculated by multiplying your REE by an activity factor or can be measured while you exercise. During times of heavy training one’s AEE is higher than in periods of light training volume (i.e. more training equals more food needed, less training equals less food needed).
For most athletes, REE changes very little between seasons, provided they remain relatively weight stable. Therefore, this number is a good place to begin assessing one’s caloric needs. Table 1 provides you with two formulas for estimating your REE.
Once you have calculated this number, or have had it measured, you then multiply it by an activity factor from Table 2.
For example, Jane has just completed her final race for her season and is decreasing her training volume to more of a moderate level. She weighs 138 pounds and would like to maintain this weight until she starts her next training cycle in the spring. How many calories should she eat per day if she exercises moderately?
Using Table 1, we calculate Jane’s REE to be 1380 calories (138 x 10). The Activity Factor for moderate exercise is 1.6. Therefore, her total energy expenditure is 2208 (1380 x 1.6) calories per day; her AEE would be 828. This is derived by subtracting REE (1380) from TEE (2208). Therefore, Jane needs to consume 2208 calories per day to maintain her current body weight if she continues to be moderately active. If she wanted to lose weight, she could decrease her calories, increase her activity, or do a combination of the two.
As mentioned earlier, for more accuracy, REE can be measured by a simple physiologic test. The athlete comes into the office in the morning before eating and lies on a table for ten to twenty minutes while breathing into a small device that looks like a scuba snorkel. The device measures oxygen uptake, which is translated into calories burned. These test results, combined with a consultation from a Registered Dietitian trained in sports nutrition, will improve an athlete’s training program by providing specific information on how many calories they need per day to reach their goals. A Registered Dietitian can also perform a computerized diet analysis, assess eating habits and patterns, and provide specific education to help an athlete reach their “off season” and “in season” goals.
The off season is crucial to a quality training program because it allows the athlete time to reflect on their previous season and performances, gives time to strengthen their weaknesses and is useful for repairing overused muscles. It is also the best time to incorporate any new dietary changes and to focus on developing a complete nutrition program. This off-season seek the guidance of a Registered Dietitian to design a personalized nutrition plan to maximize your recovery period and lead to a stronger and faster racing season!
Colleen Cooke, MS, RD is the Sports Dietitian at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and an avid endurance athlete with 13 marathons and three Ironman race finishes. She can be reached at email@example.com.