Posted 19/02/2021 in Category 1

Getting the right amount of energy for sport

Getting the right amount of energy for sport

Athletes often have the constant nagging questions: What can, and can’t I eat? Does sticking to a diet really affect my performance? Are some foods really as bad as they seem? It is vital that we as athletes understand the importance of calorie intake and getting the right balance between energy intake and expenditure as consuming too many or too little calories can be detrimental to our performance and health. One of the most essential skills that any athlete can have is the ability to balance their energy throughout the day. As stated by Burke (1, p.2) "... unless an individual is purposefully altering their energy intake to lose weight, to gain muscle mass, or to gain weight individuals should aim to achieve a daily intake that is equivalent to their daily requirements".

What is Energy? 

Energy is shown in several different forms such as, light, chemical, heat and mechanical. However, our bodies can only utilise Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to create the simplest of movements (2). All biological functions of the body are created by energy. Whether the functions are complex or simple, all our energy comes from the food that we consume.

Energy is a key component within our life. It is required for basic functions in the body, including absorption, metabolism, digestion, and the ability to move (3). However, it is so simple for us to forget the importance of a diet or chose the wrong diet for our sport. Many of us hope that if we just train hard and focus on the physical aspects of the sport then everything will fall into place. When in reality, the food that we eat impacts on our strength, training, performance and recovery, it’s just what we eat that determines whether this is a positive or a negative impact.

Energy Sources

Energy content in food tends to be determined by the three macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein, and fat. It is also common for an athlete to consume the same nutrient more than others to generate more energy. For example, a marathon runner carb loading the day before their race. We measure energy in units of kilocalories. Per gram, fat contains 9kcal, protein contains 4kcal and carbohydrates contain 4kcal. The total amount of energy that a food contains per gram is referred to energy density, which shows fat is more energy dense than any other macronutrient (4).

It has been shown that foods containing high percentages of fat, for example, fast foods, result in a higher intake of energy. If we eat more fast food with bigger portion sizes, we tend to have a higher excess energy intake than if we ate from home (5). However, this outcome isn't beneficial if the energy isn’t used. Consuming too much energy but not utilizing it is one of the leading causes for obesity, which is extremely detrimental for our health. Although us athletes would more than likely utilize this energy, there would be minimal benefits to come from a diet of just fast foods, due to the high amounts of saturated fats and salts etc., that will be detrimental to performance if they’re consumed regularly.

Energy Expended

Total energy expenditure (TEE) is referred to as the energy expended in order to digest, absorb, and convert food, as well as the energy expended during physical activity. In simple terms, the total number or calories you burn for energy each day. It is imperative that we try to achieve an energy intake that matches our TEE, as it allows us to reach the potential requirements for energy, containing the macronutrients, aids the manipulation of muscle mass and body fat to achieve our required physique and it boosts the immune system (1).

To understand our TEE, we must first understand the three components that make it up. Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR; the energy needed for the maintenance of basic body functions when at rest), Thermic Effect of Food (TEF; used as the body works to break down pervious meals) and Physical Activity Expenditure (PAE; there are two different types; voluntary which is the result of physical activity/Involuntary also referred to as NEAT [Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis] shown as shivering and fidgeting etc).

The Harris and Benedict equation has been shown to be the most popular formula to work out TEE, using height, weight, age and sex to formulate the answer:

  • Males: 66.5 + (13.75*weight(kg)) + (5.003*height(cm)) - (6.755*age)
  • Females: 655.1 + (9.563*weight(kg)) + (1,850*height(cm)) - (4.676*age)

The results of this equation mainly focus on RMR, so to make it more accurate the value of the equation should be multiplied by Physical Activity Level (PAL). This replicates how active the individual is.

  • Sedentary: PAL = 1.2
  • Light Activity: PAL = 1.3-1.4
  • Moderate activity: PAL = 1.5-1.6
  • Very active: PAL = 1.7-1.8
  • Extremely active: PAL = 1.9-2.0

Energy Balance

Achieving a perfect energy balance is an essential skill that we require, however it can be difficult to maintain/achieve. It’s a lot simpler to consume energy rather than expend it, which is why we may train harder to maintain our intended physique. 

Energy balance is the relationship between energy intake and TEE. It’s defined by the law of thermodynamics which suggests that energy is never really created nor destroyed, but is transferred between the system (6). If the energy intake is greater than the TEE over a long period of time (energy surplus or positive energy balance) then weight gain will begin to occur (7). On the other hand, if the energy intake is lower than the TEE over a set period (energy deficit or negative energy balance) then weight loss will occur. 

Understanding the importance of consuming the right amount of energy for our sport, is a great step in the right direction. However, maintaining this knowledge and using it to our advantage is the most challenging yet rewarding steps towards improving sport performance. 

This guest blog has been prepared by Charlie Goode who is a second year sport and exercise science student at Leeds Beckett University. 

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(1) Burke L (2001) Energy needs of athletes. 2nd ed. NRC research Press.

(2) Costello N( 2020) Components of energy balance[PowerPoint slides] SPRT454 Nutrtion&Biochemistry SPEX. 3 February 2020.

(3) Hall,K.D., Hymsfield, S.B., Kemnitz, J.W, Scoeller, D.A.,Speakman,J.R.,(2012) Energy balance and its components: implications for body weight regulation. The American journal of clinical nutrition,95(4).

(4) British nutrition foundation (2018) energy density[online]. Scotland; {} Assessed [25/04/20].

(5) Bruemmer B, Krieger J, Saelens B, Chan N (2012) Energy, saturated fat and sodium were lower in entrees at chain restaurants at 18 months compared with 6 months following the implementation of mandatory menu labelling regulation in king country Washington. 8.Elsevier inc.

(6) Andrews R (2012) All about energy balance [online]. Update 2. Precision nutrition{}. Assessed [26/04/20]

(7) Gibson M, Dawson J, Wijiayatunga N, Ironuma B, Charindiara I, Ovalle F, Allison D, Dhurandhar E (2019) A randomised cross-over trial to determine the effect of protein vs carbohydrate preload on energy balance in ad libitum settings.18.springers nature.

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