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Should Endurance Athletes Count Calories?

Posted by: on August, 8 2016

Found on Ironman.com and written by Lisa Dolbear

Two educated perspectives on whether active athletes need to worry about their daily totals.

With the boom in fitness trackers, more people than ever are counting calories to reach health and wellness goals. But when you’re training for three sports at a time, is it really necessary to be that precise about what’s going in your body? We talked to IRONMAN Certified Coaches Courtney Benedict and Andre Bekker to get their perspectives on counting calories and other food-related data tracking.calories

Counting for clarity

Benedict, a 38-year-old Integrative Nutrition Health Coach from Arlington, VA, believes that counting calories is a great way to gain insight on areas that may be impacting an athlete’s ability to perform to the best of their ability.

Benedict says that when she first starts working with someone, she’ll have them do a food journal for several days to get an idea of what they are eating, how they are fueling their body, and what quality of foods they are eating. “If an athlete is struggling with being hungry all the time or gaining weight while training, this is where tracking calories for a few weeks can be helpful—because a lot of athletes have no idea how much food they are actually consuming,” she notes.

While Benedict believes that calorie counting should only be used as a short-term tool to better understand an athlete over a certain period of time, Bekker prefers to use other methods to analyze his athletes. “I don’t let my athletes count calories ever—it is mostly wrong in any case,” the 53-year-old Orlando, Florida coach states.

While his view might seem harsh, his opinion is based on science: “Eating properly and being healthy is a must, but counting calories adds to an athlete’s mental stress and there’s no scientific proven value behind it.”

Numbers or neurosis?

Bekker believes one of the greatest risks of having athletes count calories is that they’ll become obsessed with it. “My suggestion for all triathletes worried about calories is to take that focus and use it instead to improve on the simple basics of triathlon.”

In other words, stop searching for answers through fad diets, cleanses, and special food equations, and look to smart training and the power of the mind. “We are surrounded by people trying to take shortcuts or discuss things that are either so advanced they’re incomprehensible, or they’re just plain impossible. All a triathlete needs is a strong mental approach backed by the simple basics: keep things balanced, avoid food obsession and learn to eat intuitively.”

Related: The Dangers of Underfueling

In this hyper-connected world where athletes train with a variety of gadgets designed to bring a deluge of data to one’s training plan, Bekker may be on to something. For all the number crunching, counting and calculating that’s done, how much of it is as reliable as our gut instincts?

“Scientists will tell you that we cannot completely accurately measure calorie expenditure without sophisticated in-lab measurements—and even these vary. We also cannot trust food calorie data as so many factors can contribute to its true caloric makeup. Variables like climate, shelf-life and labeling contribute to the inaccuracies of these equations and over time provide the athlete with misleading information,” Bekker says.

Benedict echoes the idea that calorie counting can become an obsession for some athletes, and, if used over the long term, can lead to disordered eating disorders and eventually ‘take the fun out of eating.’ “The key is figuring out what works for that particular athlete’s body and being able to eat well without having to count calories all the time,” she adds.

Tool not a testament

Both coaches are committed to helping triathletes foster the best possible mindset and lifestyle that supports their training goals. Benedict’s philosophy on short-term calorie counting to help unlock an athlete’s true potential is not unlike Bekker’s back-to-basics approach.

Calorie counting is another set of numbers to help guide the athlete through training, just as the numbers on our watches and power meters do. Using it on occasion to get a quantitative analysis on performance and progress can be helpful, but it’s important not to forget that focusing the mind and building the basics is where real progress begins

Lisa Dolbear is a three-time IRONMAN, marketing professional, and mother of two.