The Right Way to Calculate Calories for Triathletes - 52 Weeks to Mont Tremblant - Week 31

This is the fifth article in a five week series where we discuss proper nutrition for triathletes. The week focuses on the proper way to calculate caloric needs and set a macronutrient breakdown that maximizes your fitness and goals. As a thank you, I’ve included a promo code below to grab a free copy of my recipe book.

The Three E’s of Nutrition

The three E's of nutrition are: essential nutrition for survival and basic health, essential nutrition for optimum health, and essential nutrition for athletic performance. Each "E" is a different level of nutritional practice and each applies to individuals based upon their specific goals.


First, essential nutrition for survival and basic health is what most of the general population follows. The guidelines are set forth by the US Government and updated every so often based on new science regarding the recommended daily allowances (RDA) of good nutrition. These are mostly guidelines for the average person and not meant to guide someone towards optimal health.

Next, essential nutrition for optimum health focuses on increased intake of vitamins and minerals above what the government RDA. This integrated approach to nutrition provides a more detailed and specific recommendation to persons looking to improve certain deficiencies. This area continues to expand as we find innovative uses for certain nutrients beyond basic survival.

Finally, essential nutrition for athletic performance is the most recent discovery in nutrition. This is the focus on improving athletic output through proper nutrition. It's a display of superior health.

PDIs, or Performance Daily Intakes, are key components of the three E's. The level of PDI will vary depending on the body type, body composition, and activity levels of each individuals. The smaller and less active person will require PDIs at the lower end, whereas a large, more active person will focus on the higher end of PDIs. Additionally, the RDA for the essential nutrition for survival and basic health group may leave an individual deficient in certain areas. PDIs consisting of both whole food sources and supplements can reduce those areas where basic nutrition eaters are lacking.

The same goes for more active people. To achieve peak performance and fitness requires a strategic level of PDI. Understanding how the PDIs fit into each athlete or healthy, active adult is essential to removing deficiencies and increasing athletic performance through nutrition.

Determining body composition

I performed a body composition assessment using skin fold calipers to determine I’m between 10-12% body fat. I chose this method for several reasons, one being affordability and the other being convenience since I own one already. The skin fold measurement is a popular option for the two reasons listed above. It's also widely used at local gyms, health centers, by sports teams, and in area schools. Body fat measurements, as a whole, are an excellent way to initially assess a client and provide motivation through the coaching journey as they see improvement.

With the skin fold test, it's important to understand how body fat sits on the body. For example, a lot of it is under the skin. That's why the skin fold test requires proper calipers to measure the thickness of the skin fold. The measurements from the calipers are used to determine the body's density and subsequently the body fat percentage.

The skin fold test requires ample practice as user error can be a large factor in deviations in measurements. Because of this, I measured multiple spots, three times each and took the average value of each for the calculation. This type of assessment also requires the calipers to be right on the skin and not over clothing. Doing it over clothing can cause inaccurate measurements which is another possible deviation in data for inexperienced skin fold assessors.

Determining calorie needs

To determine daily caloric expenditure, I used the hour-by-hour BMR calculations. Here are the calculations used:


162 lbs, converted to kilograms- 162 divided by 2.2, 73.5 kg. When multiplied by the lean factor of 1 for 10% body fat, and then multiplied by 24 for total BMR, we arrived at 1,766 calories at rest per day. Break that down by 24 hours, dividing 1,766 by 24 for each hour in the day, I expend 73.5 calories per hour at rest.

Training day caloric expenditure was calculated at 3,425 calories. I arrived at that number by multiplying 73.5 by .8 (sleep activity is -20% of BMR) for 58.8 calories. Then multiplying that by 7 hours of sleep for 411.6 calories. Very light activity, (200% of BMR) working a desk job and household chores after work accounts for 16 hours of that day. 73.5 x 2 = 147 x 16 = 2,352. That leaves one hour of an extended max effort workout which accounts for 73.5 x 9 (extended max effort is 900% of BMR) = 661.5 calories. Add 411.6 to 2,352 and 661.5 to arrive at 3,425 (rounded) for a typical training day.

A recovery or rest day accounts for 3,087 in caloric expenditure. 10 hours of sleep (73.5 x .8 x 10 = 588), 8 hours of very light activity at work and at home (73.5 x 2 x 8 = 1176) and 6 hours of light activity (300% of BMR) with periodic walks or slightly more strenuous household chores (73.5 x 3 x 6 = 1,323) arrived at 3,087 for the day.

A competition day increases the calories to 4,733. 8 hours of sleep (73.5 x .8 x 8 = 470.4), very light activity around the house and office for 8 hours (73.5 x 2 x 8 = 1176), moderate activity (400% of BMR) accounts for 3 hours, and exceptionally heavy activity (600% of BMR) accounts for 5 hours on a long training cycling ride (73.5 x 6 x 5 = 2,205). I’m using 600% because it’s a steady effort with few hard efforts. I believe a maximum output for that long of a duration would be detrimental to the health and recovery of the athlete.

Charts for calculations

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Macronutrient breakdown

If you’ve been following along for a few weeks now you’ll notice from previous posts on fat, carbohydrate, and protein my personal macronutrient percentages are 25% of my calories coming from fat, 60% from carbohydrate, and 15% from protein. It’s important to mention that every person is different and might need a different breakdown than this. It’s very goal dependent.

I’m not necessarily trying to lose weight at this point so my macro split works for maintenance. If you want to lose a few pounds or training for shorter distance races, you should consider a dip in fat and carbohydrate with an increase in protein for example.

Your current fitness is also a factor that must be considered when calculating a macronutrient breakdown. You must understand that this split should change over time and it isn’t a magic pill to your goals. If having a macro split unlocked the magic of weight loss or muscle growth that’d be amazing. Unfortunately that’s not the case. If you’re interested in finding out what’s ideal for your current fitness and goals, send me a message!

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