Tracking Nutrition to Lose Fat, Build Muscle, and Improve Performance
This is an overview of the strategies I’ve developed to lose fat, build muscle, go fast, and occasionally just eat like a normal human that isn’t worried about anything besides feeling good and enjoying food.
As a heads up into my personality and methods, I’m a numbers guy. I’ve kept a detailed training log of every ride, run, and strength training session since 2010. I enjoy analyzing data sets and the objective feedback it provides. I look at nutrition in the same way, with objective data (how much I’m eating and what) along with my subjective measures (do I feel strong and healthy?) providing the feedback I need to make changes and keep myself in a positive balance.
As you’ll soon find out, I have a lot of specifics on macronutrient quantities, but I don’t discuss/recommend specific foods because I don’t have any major preferences or diet limitations (and foods that work for me may not work for you). When I go food shopping, I try to stick to whole, nutrient-dense foods, organic when affordable (Costco is great for this), and even change brands depending on what’s on sale.
Let’s go ahead and dive in. I have this broken down into three diet phases. I’ll also outline the tools and methods I use to track my diet at the end.
These three phases are similar, but success in each phase requires little tweaks that help ensure success.
This is where I try to spend most of my year. I’ve found eating a diet that supports optimal energy, recovery, and health is usually optimal for body composition. Constantly being in a calorie deficit to lose fat while also trying to be at peak strength is a recipe for bad results on both fronts. My weight may fluctuate 3-5 pounds during the performance period, but I’m not too concerned with that as long as I’m going fast and feel healthy.
Here’s how I break down the calories and macronutrients to support optimal performance.
- Calories: Maintenance + Calories Burned Riding
- Protein: 1.6-1.8 g/kg
- Fat: 20-30% Total Calories
- Carbohydrate: Rest of Remaining Calories
- Fiber: 35-40g
At 176 pounds (80 kg), my maintenance calorie intake is roughly 2200 calories (it need not be exact, it’s all estimates anyhow). In theory, if I hit this calorie number and do nothing besides my normal day-to-day activity I should maintain weight.
After that, I use the power meter or heart rate monitor (power is much more accurate) on my bike to figure out calories burned through riding that day. If I don’t ride, then I shoot for that 2200 mark. If I perform a 2-hour ride with intervals and burn 1600 calories, I’ll add that to my maintenance goal of 2200 calories, making my goal for that day 3800 calories.
My protein intake will remain constant in that 1.6-1.8 range, so 128-144 grams at my current body weight. This number will vary quite a bit in the research, with pure endurance athletes commonly seeing 1.2 g/kg as the recommended protein amount, and strength training athletes seeing numbers as high as 2.2 g/kg. I like to stay somewhere in the middle for a couple of reasons; 1) I like eating a higher protein diet, 2) I strength train year-round.
I’m not too strict with this 20-30% range, but I always aim for lower fat intake. That said, I always try to get some fat in every meal, ideally from sources like olive oil, nuts, avocado, and coconut oil (a personal favorite for cooking).
The biggest challenge for an endurance athlete training with higher volume is replenishing carbohydrate stores. It can take a full 24 hours to replenish carbohydrate stores, so eating a higher carbohydrate diet is a must if you want to perform well day-to-day. High is, of course, relative to your overall calorie intake and training volume. An athlete riding 6 hours per week likely doesn’t need to have a rice cooker with a permanent home on the kitchen counter.
Let’s say you start with your carbohydrate stores full on Saturday. You head out for a hard 1.5-hour group ride and knock out some extra miles afterward for 3 hour’s total ride time. During the ride, you barely eat anything, and throughout the rest of the day, you’re strict with calories while also keeping carbohydrates to a minimum in an attempt to keep your weight down. On Sunday your plan calls for another 3-4 ride at your endurance pace. 90-120 minutes into the ride you bonk and have to drop your wattage/speed goal significantly to finish the ride. You essentially jumped into your car with a quarter tank of gas and expected to drive 3-4 hours… bad idea.
Was the extra ounce of body fat you possibly burned worth destroying your recovery and performance the following day? I’ve gone down this route far too many times, and trust me when I say it’s not effective and will kill your chances at real improvement.
Focusing on fiber intake minimums ensures diet quality is high. I can still hit those macronutrient guidelines while eating processed crap all day, but if I also make hitting that fiber goal a priority then eating better foods is a must. There isn’t a lot of fiber in whey protein and pop tarts (not saying those are bad things, I love pop tarts).
TIPS FOR THE PERFORMANCE PHASE
- Never train hungry
- Time carbohydrate intake around your training sessions.
- Aim to consume 45-90 g/hour of carbohydrate during training sessions 2+ hours long
- Find carbohydrate sources that digest well in large quantities; for me, this is rice, pasta, bread, and fruit (everything…)
- Hydrate throughout the day
FAT LOSS PHASE
It took a lot of years before I truly understood how to consistently and effectively lose body-fat. I previously used the classic “ride my bike a shitload and try to eat as little as possible” method, and to be honest it worked. The problem was that I also burned through a ton of hard-earned muscle, constantly bonked on rides, would frequently be grumpy (AKA Hangry), and didn’t get any faster, which was my primary reason for losing weight. The scale looked great, but nothing else that truly mattered did.
After years of doing it wrong, I decided I would start taking the guesswork out of the equation. I like to think of fat loss as a math equation with a few moving variables. If I’m willing to track these variables there’s no reason I can’t make adjustments and figure it out.
I like to set clear goals and a timeline for my fat loss phase, typically 3-12 weeks. The shorter periods are used mid-season when I have a break between races and only if I noticed that my diet has relaxed a bit too much (if the spandex is tight, something isn’t right). Longer periods are used after my winter break.
Here’s a real-world example:
Joe Martin Stage Race – April 14th
Ideal weight: 160 pounds
Current Weight: 168 pounds
Goal: Lose 8 pounds by April 1st
Timeline: At a reasonable rate of .75 pounds/week weight loss, it will take be ~11 weeks to reach my goal. The diet will need to start on January 14th.
Setting this up gives me a clear and measurable goal. Having a timeline keeps me focused and will help me get through the tough mental patches when I want to eat an entire large pizza and wash it down with a couple of beers.
Alright, let’s dive into the details.
Fat loss requires consistently maintaining a calorie deficit. Many factors come into play when determining caloric requirements and achieving a calorie deficit.
- BODYWEIGHT – A heavier body burns more calories. This is the biggest contributor to calorie requirements, so don’t try to eat like a 125-pound cyclist if you’re a 6’4 and 200 pounds.
- BODY COMPOSITION – A person weighing 175 pounds at 10% body fat will burn more than another 175-pound person at 20% body fat.
- NON-EXERCISE ACTIVITY THERMOGENSIS (NEAT) – This can vary a lot from person to person, and will also change throughout a diet. Fidgeting, folding laundry, headbanging to Cannibal Corpse, etc. are all daily movements that burn calories.
- EXERCISE – These are the calories burned through training.
- THERMIC EFFECT OF FOOD (TEF) – It takes energy (calories) to digest food. For example, 100 calories of protein will require 20-30 calories to digest, so you’re only “absorbing” 70-80% of the calories you eat. 100 calories of pure sugar might only take 2-3 calories to digest, so you’re absorbing 97-98% of the calories you just ate. These example numbers aren’t exact, but you’ll absorb more calories from foods like sugar and fat than you will from vegetables, protein, whole grains, and other whole/unprocessed foods. This is why diet quality is important!
Here’s how I set up my diet for fat loss:
- Calorie Intake: Maintenance – 300-500 + Calories Burned Riding
- Protein Intake: 1.8 to 2.2 g/kg
- Fat Intake: 25-35% Total Calories
- Carbohydrate Intake: Rest of Remaining Calories
- Fiber Intake: 35-40g
Let’s break this down so we can understand the changes from the performance diet.
Starting with my maintenance level of 2200 calories, I’ll then drop 300-500 calories from there. I set my calorie calculator to target a 500 calorie deficit, but I use hunger as a guide and have no problems eating a protein bar or something similar if my hunger levels are too high. I still use my power meter and heart rate monitor to estimate calories burned through activity, but I won’t always eat back all the calories if I’m not hungry.
For example, let’s start with my fat loss calorie goal of 1700, then factor in 1000 calories burned from riding. That puts my calorie goal at 2700, which is a solid amount of food. If I ate 2500 calories and I’m not hungry before bed then I won’t eat that extra 200 calories. This puts my calorie deficit at 700 calories for the day which on paper is aggressive, but remember this isn’t a perfect equation and listening to my body takes priority.
Research has shown protein to be muscle sparing while in a caloric deficit, and I’m always strength training during fat loss phases which also increases protein requirements. My goal during fat loss phases is to always burn as much fat as possible while minimizing muscle loss. 1.8 to 2.2 grams per kilogram may seem like a high amount, but with proper planning I have no issues hitting my daily target.
I’m still aiming for lower fat intake, but because calories and carbohydrate intake are lower overall, the percentage of fat will be higher. Keep in mind I’m still never avoiding fat and try to include a healthy fat with every meal.
Same rules as my performance phase, but because protein intakes are higher and I reduce overall calorie consumption, carbohydrate intake will be lower. Lower does not mean “low”. I’m still easily taking in 200+ grams per day depending on my training volume.
Same as in the performance phase. Eat your fiber and keep things clean!
TIPS FOR THE FAT LOSS PHASE
- Avoid processed/sugary ride foods and sports drinks. I switch to whole foods and fruits during my longer rides mostly and only use designer sports foods sparingly.
- Keep hunger levels around a 3-5 on a scale of 1-10. 1 = completely satiated, 10 equals = starving. I like to be a little hungry throughout the day, but never uncomfortable.
- Keep busy. If you’re sitting on the couch watching cooking shows, then you’re going to eventually give in to the boredom and hunger and start snacking.
- Avoid snacking – I used to be the guy eating 5-6 small meals throughout the day, but I found I was just always hungry and missed that feeling of eating a bigger meal. I now eat 3-4 big meals throughout the day.
- Go for walks. This is the single most effective strategy I’ve found for battling hunger. If I’m bored and starting to get hungry, then I’ll get my ass off the couch and go walk for 20-30 minutes. After a walk, I’m usually motivated to keep moving, mentally and physically. Before I know it an hour or more has gone by since I’ve thought about food.
- Always have healthy food on hand.
- Get rid of junk food in your house.
NORMAL HUMAN PHASE
After spending months eating to optimize your performance and body composition, you should have some solid habits set in place. You know eating an entire pizza and drinking a couple of beers each night isn’t great, but you also need not be perfect all the time. I usually enter this phase after my last target race of the season which always coincides with the beginning of fall/winter.
During this phase, I focus on eating well but avoid nothing either. I have a series of habits that I’ve developed that carry over to this phase and help me avoid getting too chubby:
- Avoid overeating (most of the time). Once, maybe twice per week when eating an awesome meal at a restaurant or having a holiday meal with the family I’ll eat as much as I want. When I was younger, this used to get crazy, but at the ripe old age of 32, I’ve found overeating to the point of discomfort isn’t healthy and I avoid putting myself in the pain cave with food.
- Fasting helps. I know this is a big fad and I will not try to convince anybody it’s a superior way to eat, but this is about what helps me and I truly believe fasting helps me feel better. I usually follow the 16/8 method of eating dinner around 7-8 pm and not eating again until 12-1 pm the following day. My energy and brain work better in the mornings without food, making breakfast is a pain when I wake up early, and it helps me manage my calorie intake without thinking too hard about it.
- Eat foods I love, drink beers I love. I like comfort foods and pizza, good beer, and whiskey, and when I’m serious about losing fat or performance, I try to keep these foods to a minimum. When I’m not worried about my next race, I prefer to enjoy all the awesome food and drink this world has to offer, and I love enjoying these things with friends and family. This is a habit that keeps my belly and heart full, and that’s important.
HOW I TRACK NUTRITION
STEP 1 – THE TOOLS
I use MyFitnessPal to track my nutrition. You can find nearly any food with a barcode along with a ton of restaurant foods. The free version of the app works great and will even remember your most commonly used foods. This is super handy, especially since most of us eat the same foods more than once throughout the day. I eat 4-5 different meals on a rotation with only slight adjustments based on activity level. You can also save common meals so that all you have to do is add the meal instead of each food.
I purchased an inexpensive digital scale from Bed Bath and Beyond. You want one that has an easy tare option and looks nice on your counter because it’ll be used all the time if you’re doing it right. This is much easier, cleaner, and more accurate than using measuring cups.
STEP 2 – SETTING CALORIE GOALS
Set Calorie Intake
The built-in calculator in MyFitnessPal works just fine for this. When using the MFP calculator make sure you start with your current weight. Next add your activity level, which is likely sedentary or lightly active. I ignore all the questions about my exercise habits because I intend on adding that in manually (I have TrainingPeaks automatically synced to MFP).
Next, you must choose whether you’re wanting to maintain weight or lose weight. During my fat loss periods, I choose to lose 1lb per week, which equates to a 500 calorie deficit. Like I mentioned above, I use my hunger as a guide here and sometimes only aim for a 300 calorie deficit. Smaller individuals and especially small women will probably find a 500 calorie deficit way too aggressive. 500 calories for a 170 male is a much smaller percentage of daily calorie intake than it is for a 140-pound woman. I recommend using the lose 1/2 pounds per week goal for smaller individuals.
STEP 3 – RECORD EVERYTHING… SOME OF THE TIME
This is the part where you’re probably thinking I record everything year-round except for two or three months where I eat what I want and get fat. This is far from how it works.
In reality, I’ll only track everything for 2-3 weeks at the beginning of a new phase, then use intuition and the feedback I got from those two weeks to keep going. For the rest of a phase, I’ll track only if I feel like my progress is stalling or I want to ensure I’m eating enough during a big training block (you have to eat like a horse during 15-20 hour training weeks). This usually means tracking for a day or two every couple weeks, and sometimes less than that.
If you’ve never tracked nutrition before you’ll benefit tracking for at least 4-6 weeks for your first time. This should be enough time to see where you can improve and make changes. Once you’ve recorded everything you ate for 4-6 weeks, you’ll have a very good idea of what your portions should be and probably be able to eyeball a lot of your meals without a scale.
I believe that tracking nutrition is a very useful tool for anybody wanting to lose body fat, build muscle, and improve performance. Similar to following a training plan where you track mileage, weight lifted, etc, you need to track your nutrition to see what’s working and what needs to be improved. Eating properly to support your goals is a skill, and once you’ve honed that skill it will become second nature. So while all of this number crunching and seemingly obsessive tracking might seem like overkill, in practice it is simple and a skill that will give you a huge leg up in your competitive life and health.