Over the past few years, my opinions of using caloric restriction for weight loss has changed from supporting it, to being against it, in all but the most extreme of circumstances. Even as athletes, I know many people believe that training hard and restricting calories will double the benefits. But not so. For the most part, counting calories is a waste of time unless you have a real overeating problem. But there is one situation where calorie counting can be of benefit to the athlete. That is, counting them to ensure you are getting enough!
When eating a high carb diet, like most athletes, the danger is with the easily digested carbs, it is too easy to eat too many (empty) calories. Therefore risking eating too many of them. But when you switch over to the way I recommend for many people (less carbs, higher fat and moderate protein), the danger is with the more satiated appetite, you may inadvertently eat too few calories. Long term, this can cause a number of problems that will generally be felt as a lack of energy, or a “run down” feeling. An accident I made a number of years ago when making the switch myself.
The thing is, we all need a certain amount of nutrients and calories to make this machine that we call a body, function correctly. As an athlete, we are regularly throwing extra stressors into the mix making our nutritional requirements far higher. Restricting calories in this situation can possibly lead to vitamin or mineral deficiencies, a lack of macro nutrients to fuel the body (carbs, fats, proteins) and slower recovery from your training sessions. So instead of your usual 5-6 sessions per week, when not eating enough calories, you may start to struggle to get in 3-4.
Other negative effects can include a decrease in bone density, loss of muscle mass, too much weight loss and even a decrease in endurance. The average recommendation for the average runner is close to10,000kJ (2.400 calories) for Women and 12,500kJ (3,000 calories) for Men. Although I always say, there are very few people who are average out there.
If you run 5 k a few times a week and are aiming to lose weight, I would reduce it to a more moderate amount. If you are like Shaun and I and love running for hours on end until you can barely walk, maybe these figures are too conservative for you. The best way to figure out your ideal intake is trial and error. If you feel lethargic all the time and have unexplained weight loss, your calories may be too low. If your goals are purely weight loss, caloric restriction can be beneficial to a certain extent, just have one day a week where you eat the recommended amount of calories which is known as a re-feed day. This can reset the metabolism and help get over the plateau effect you may be experiencing.
Unfortunately, I can’t provide any magic figure. But don’t get too hung up on it. Checking your calories doesn’t have to be anything you need to do for life. Most people after a few weeks can get a good gauge of their intake after a few weeks. Then they just need to keep an eye on their weight and energy levels. So when I say don’t count calories, well you can, but mainly to ensure you are getting enough of them.