How Many Calories Should An Athlete Eat

How Many calories Should An Athlete Eat

It is the role of a sports nutrition specialist to understand the individualized needs of a client. Being able to set them up for success begins with a proper understanding of their sport, body composition, environment, and lifestyle. Determining the right amount of calories for an athlete starts with these principles.

Can All Athletes Benefit From the Same Diet?

While there are fundamental truths about nutrition that apply to all athletes, each player’s position and sport plays a role in the macronutrient ratio and total calories they consume. For example, you cannot create the same program for a linebacker as you would for a running back.

How Athletes Are Differ from Sport to Sport

Each sport has its own duration, aerobic demands, and anaerobic requirements. A sport close in activity type such as basketball to soccer still has many details that would change the calorie intake of the client. The pace of play, muscle recruitment, and playing time all change energy expenditure of the sport.

Athletes don’t just differ in their game time requirements, but also in how they prepare. The practice schedule and strength training required will adjust the amount of carbohydrate and protein they consume.

By now, you probably understanding how detailed and complex this level of specificity can become.

Creating a Simple Plan

It is said that perfection is the enemy of completion. This is true in nutrition programming. You can never create the perfect nutrition plan for a client, but you will get closer with each change you make. Taking the appropriate time and consideration into your plan is a good idea, but never delivering it because you are afraid it is wrong is not.


Any program your client follows that gets them closer to the target calories is a step in the right direction. You improve your plan once you reassess the client. To start, don’t overcomplicate things but focus on proper nutrition principles ensuring the client is eating enough complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fat to support their athletic performance.

Determining the Daily Energy Expenditure

The first step to creating a caloric plan for your client is to determine the type of client they are. You already know that each sport has specific details making caloric consumption unique, but for now, let’s focus on three possibilities.

How Many Calories For Endurance Athletes

Athletes who take part in sports that are primarily aerobic (such as marathon’s) will require a significantly greater carbohydrate intake. The fuel an endurance athlete burns from extensive aerobic exercise also requires a larger caloric intake. While they will need some amino acids, the requirement is minimal when used for the repetitive micro tears of the fiber and requirements for glucose transport.

How Many Calories For Power Athletes

Sumo wrestling is predominantly an anaerobic sport. While you will most likely not work with a sumo wrestler, it makes for a visual example that is easy to understand. Sumo wrestlers fight resistance for the entire time they compete. It is slow moving isometric contractions met with explosive attacks for position and takedowns.

An athlete who competes in a purely anaerobic sport will require more protein but will also need an increase in carbohydrates and fats to meet the metabolic demands. The calories will increase compared to the non-athlete. But given equal time for both sports and the weight of the individual, pure anaerobic athletes would consume fewer calories for the aerobic athlete.

Calorie Requirements for Power and Endurance Athletes

Most athletes you work with will fall into this category, but some will tip more in one direction than the other. An aerobic/anaerobic athlete will have a heavy metabolic demand and face CNS (central nervous system fatigue).

A basketball player will require anaerobic strength for a jump shot, defending to protect a pass, and sprinting into position. They experience aerobic activity by jogging up and down the court for the times in between intense activities.

These athletes require a significant increase in both carbohydrate and protein with a smaller but still significant amount of fat. These types of athletes are perhaps the more challenging to plan.

Creating an Hour by Hour Caloric Method

The most effective way to determine the calories of an athlete for any sport is to start with the hour by hour method. In this method, you take several days to a week and track their normal activities. While this is not perfect, it gives us a general idea of what that individual experiences. We have a lot of data giving us an idea of how much we burn during different thinking tasks and physical activities.

Thanks to technology such as fitness watches and heart rate monitors, we can get a better understanding of the caloric demands placed upon an athlete during their sport. While it may not give us the full picture of the muscular energetic demands, it can point us in the right direction.

At this point is where science meets art and as you become a more experienced sports nutrition specialist, you will see things that these methods and technologies do not. Combining accumulated group data, real time technological data, and our intuitive expertise is a recipe for success when answering the question of how many calories an athlete should eat.

Calorie Guidance Rather Than Calorie Counting

You have taken much time and consideration in preparing your athlete’s plan and, to be blunt, you are quite proud of your work. But here is the unfortunate truth: your client won’t stick to your near perfect plan. The program you create is for guidance rather than perfect adherence.

True, there may be some clients that stick to the plan more than others, but we are all people who simply fall victim to life. Having completed the program does not mean your job as a sports nutrition specialist is not done. In fact, it has just started since there is much more work in holding the client accountable than there is in setting up the nutrition program.

Calories for Young Athletes

Youth athletes experience more needs than adults. It is important to consider both the developmental and academic demands of a client. You have have heard the term “dumb jock” before, but we should change this term to “deficient jock” as the lack of mental performance is more likely because of falling short in the daily calories they need for the demands placed upon them.

This is especially true for the teenage athlete who is also going through a major hormonal shift. While a male athlete may produce more testosterone and building more muscle mass, not having enough calories to support this change can lead to a weak body and mind.

Changing the Body Composition of An Athlete

As a sports nutrition specialist, you will inevitably come across a client who needs to lower or gain body weight. This is a special level of expertise that can make a significant impact on the athlete’s performance both in a positive or detrimental way. Gaining weight too quickly can make a client sluggish, and losing body fat too quickly can reduce strength and energy.

Sometimes, the body composition of a client will adjust based upon the quality and quantity of the foods being correct for their specific sport. So when beginning with a client who needs to gain or lose weight, you should minimally adjust the calories away from what will give them peak performance. If they have not made a positive weight gain or weight loss change after having reassessed the client, then take the calorie surplus or calorie deficit once step further.

Become a Sports Nutrition Specialist

Want to take your Sports Nutrition knowledge to the next level? Check out our Sports Nutrition Specialist Course that teaches you about the foods and supplements to optimize an athlete’s diet.

You will learn about the different proteins, carbs, fats, and micronutrients that can take an athlete’s performance to the next level. You will understand calorie and hydration strategies to bring out peak performance in any athlete.