Calories in – Calories Out

I don’t actually believe that the title statement is entirely accurate but it’s something people like to throw around and should help with SEO for the blog. The whole concept, in a nutshell, is that your bodyweight is the result of the difference between the calories you take in through your pie-hole and the calories you burn. If the number is positive then you gain weight, and if it’s a deficit then you lose weight. Calories in, calories out.

There are more complex metabolic processes going on behind the scenes for something this simplistic to be accurate, but as evidenced by my use of the word ‘believe’ when talking about something quantifiable like biology should tell you that I’m not an expert so I won’t try to bro-science my way into a longer explanation that will likely be more untrue than true. Let’s just put our nutrition dogmas aside for the purposes of this post and move forward.

HOWEVER, there are still some important ideas going on here that anyone who is training seriously or semi-seriously (like us) should keep in mind. There are a few different common types of fitness goals that are very dependent on nutrition. To generalize, they are:

  • lose weight (i.e. lose body fat and get slim)
  • get better at sports (i.e. crush your rope proj)
  • gain weight (i.e. gain muscle mass and get jacked as shit)

All of these play on the idea of body composition. Its practically impossible to do all three of these simultaneously unless you’re training and eating and juicing like a top-flight body builder (not that there’s anything wrong with that). If you’re eating at a caloric deficit to lose weight it can be very, very difficult to train at your maximum effort level and your performance will likely stagnate or suffer. A caveat to this would be the case where dropping absolute mass would make climbing easier, thus improving your performance. If you’re eating to build muscle or train at a very high level it can be difficult to consistently get enough clean calories to also maintain or lose body fat. So while I won’t say that these three outcomes are mutually exclusive because the internet police will anecdote me to death, I will say that it’s very difficult to do without a full-time coach or oodles of extra time and willpower to work your diet out to that level of specificity for long periods. With that in mind I’m going to try and write this from the perspective of an amateur athlete instead of some ‘ideal case scenario’ where everything is working perfectly all the time.

James and I started paying attention to nutrition about 3 weeks ago when our weekly volumes got up past the point of what we’d normally do outside of training (8-9 hours). I noticed that I was having a very difficult time giving good efforts in workouts due to my low carb, high fat diet. As much as there are zealots online that will tell you that you don’t need carbs to perform well, my personal experiences thus far have shown that once the effort level passes anything other than very moderate I run out of gas immediately. This was most evident for workouts like hard ice pitches, pushing a weighted sled or multiple sets of heavy (for me) squats or deadlifts. As soon as this was starting to impact the quality of my training I decided to make a change and introduce some targeted carbohydrates around training times. However, I’ll leave that topic for a dedicated post and talk specifically here about caloric intake. Around the same time James was becoming interested in his macro-nutrient intake. Both of us are data nerds so when he brought the idea up at the gym I knew it would be another chapter in our…….(duh duh duhhhhhhhhh)…JOURNEY…….TO………..ALPINISMMMMMMMM (read this in an echoy voice for maximum effect)

But yeah, seriously, one night at the gym he said ‘hey, I just heard of this cool new app, it lets you put in your food.’ He was, of course, just realizing that MyFitnessPal was a thing. For a bit of background to the uninitiated, MFP is a mobile app that lets you easily record everything that you eat so that you’re better able to incorporate nutrition into your goals. It’s very popular. If you need proof of its popularity, this FREE app was recently purchased by Under Armour for $475 million dollars. People care about this stuff (come onnnnnnnn SEO). I’ve been hip to MFP for a couple of years now. As a life-long chubbers I’ve always been interested in occasionally trying to cut my body weight down via calorie counting and MFP fits the bill to a T. Super easy to use, works on Android, IOS and web browsers and has just about every food known to man. It also lets you customize your macros so that I can make it work for my general LCHF diet.

Once we started using MFP we noticed two things. The first was that neither of us were eating enough to make up for our increased level of activity. Between standard maintenance calorie expenditure (the calories your body burns just trying to keep the lights on) and the extra work we were putting in each week on the training plan we weren’t coming nearly close enough. James was way under on his protein each day and I wasn’t eating enough calories in general. Normally for matty2fatty (the clever, accurate and super mean nickname a cousin accidentally gave me), this would be a Godsend. Weight loss, here I come! But in practice it was the shits. I wasn’t able to work out with much intensity. I had already cut down to around 210-212lbs, which was comfortable enough for ice season, so I didn’t really care about dropping any more weight. So for the first time in probably forever I realized that my goal shifted from losing to maintaining weight for the purposes of training as hard as possible.

So, how does one go about eating to maintain weight while working out for high volumes each week? The general theory is to first calculate the number of calories your body needs each day to perform basic metabolic processes. MFP can do this for you or you can use an online calculator. One of the areas of ambiguity in this calculation is that most online tools will ask you your activity level to make an estimate of the calories you’re burning. If you have a desk job like me, I generally pick the most sedentary option I can and then go the route of adding in exercise as needed to adjust. This makes it easier to figure out what to eat on rest days. For me, depending on the source, I need between 2450-2550 calories a day to sit on the couch or at my desk and not lapse into a coma. If I wasn’t active at all, I could adjust my caloric intake up or down from that number if I wanted to lose or gain weight. The value of the difference is what determines the general rate at which you’ll lose or gain (taking metabolic variances out of the picture). This is the IN/OUT principle. The tricky part comes when you start exercising. If you want to lose/maintain/gain then you need to accommodate for those extra calories you’re burning. This isn’t a huge issue if you won’t exercise very intensely or frequently, but lately I’ve been noticing that I’ve been burning a LOT of extra calories. This is making it difficult to keep up.

For example, I went ice climbing yesterday. The day involved a ~40min uphill hike in, four 60m pitches of WI3 ice and then the hike back out. My Suunto Ambit2 told me I burned around 2,200 calories. I use the chest strap heart rate monitor to keep tabs on calories burned as well as my heart rate zones for the purposes of the training plan. While there are some concerns that these chest strap devices aren’t entirely accurate because they don’t include VO2 Max into their calculations, it’s likely still a good general estimate, which over the long haul is all that matters for me. MFP also has calorie estimators in its software but isn’t nearly as specific as the Suunto so I stick with that. Your mileage may vary, and if you don’t have a bunch of cash to drop on a silly watch then the MFP feature is much better than nothing.

Going back to my daily needs, if I want to maintain my weight, I would need to eat ~2,500 calories for the general daily requirement + 2,200 calories to replace what I burned through exercise for a total of 4,700 calories. Even for a fat kid, that’s a LOT of effin’ calories. If you were dirty bulkin’ and didn’t care what you ate that’d be about 10 Big Macs, or about as much as professional monster Jay Cutler eats every day. I managed to get about 2,200 in by 6pm then went out to a Korean BBQ joint and lost count of how many tiny pieces of meat I ate, but likely still didn’t come close to 4,700 calories. Most other days though it’s not quite so hard, as on a normal training day I might burn an extra 700-1000 calories.

Pro tip: Buy a food scale. One of my biggest problems and likely contributor to me being a fatty is that I’m terrible at estimating portion sizes, meaning that I tend to underestimate how much of something I’m eating. As a result, I actually eat way more calories in a day than I would have thought otherwise. What my brain thinks is one ounce of cheese is actually three, 6 ounces of steak is actually 12, and so on. It may seem like you’re bordering on an eating disorder, but I suggest that if you have the same problem you should buy a food scale and weigh everything out for a few weeks to get a better picture of what you’re actually eating. It will make a huge difference, and if you’re actually serious about the nutrition side of things it’s a small step to take that can potentially have a large impact.

Our immediate training plan calls for 2 days of max strength training and the rest of the volume of easy cardio for another 4 weeks before transitioning into more endurance-focused efforts. My nutrition approach for this section is going to be to continue to eat to maintain weight to maximize the strength sessions. Once we get through this section I’m going to shoot for a month of eating at a deficit to cut approximately 5-8lbs of body fat to prepare me for the spring and the beginning of rock climbing season. Eating at a deficit will not be as impactful in the endurance-focused sessions as I’ll be mostly working in zone 1 (i.e. no high-stress, muscle damaging efforts) and my knees, hips and ankles will benefit from moving less mass around.

If you’re someone that knows more about this topic than I do, which I expect will be a lot of you, feel free to set me straight in the comments section. I treat these posts as learning opportunities and recognize that there are major gaps in my understanding of how nutrition interacts with training efforts. I’ve also made my MyFitnessPal profile public if you want to take  look at what I’ve been eating or add me as a friend, or whatever they call it.

Next up in my nutrition related posts will be our intro-level understanding of nutrition timing by James and macro-nutrient design by me.

Happy eating!


3 thoughts on “Calories in – Calories Out

  1. Fascinating reading; it’s a very calculated, scientific approach. I’ve had spurts of that kind of discipline, but I’ve honestly found the best approach for me personally is listening to my body. Unscientific, I know; archaic as hell, actually. But it works for me. I’m not after weight gain or loss, as long as I’m able to continually make even tiny gains in my power-to-weight ratio. So that – for me – is eating what I want, when I want. And it works, with occasional small course corrections.

    Or maybe I’m just too lazy to track it all and treat it with as much gravity as it perhaps deserves. Either way, your discipline is inspiring. Keep it up!

    1. Oh, I agree. I’m interested in the physiology side of things so learn about it out of general interest. I actually only track maybe 1 week out of every 6 to keep myself on track. If I had REAL discipline I wouldn’t be in a position where I needed to track calories in the first place 😉

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