Macronutrients: How Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fats Improve Athletic Performance

People often ask me, “What is the recommended carbohydrate intake?” or “what is the percentage of protein that I should consume in my diet?” A 40-30-30 distribution of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, respectively, is recommended for most people, but the needs of those with sporting goals are more personalized.

For athletes and active people, it is important to calculate the correct balance of macronutrients, as it could affect your training and sports performance.

Calculation of macronutrients for training and physical and sports performance

Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are known as macronutrients. “Macro” means large, and we need more of these nutrients than we do of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Usually we get the micronutrients along with the macronutrients.

The number of different macros that athletes need varies according to the type and intensity of the activity they perform. The macro percentages for strength training, for example, differ somewhat from those for endurance runners.

This is a brief summary of what athletes should know about their macros.

How much protein do athletes need?

Protein helps exercise, but not as a main source of energy; it also has other more important functions in the body. Of course, protein is necessary for muscle repair and development , but it is also important for enzyme production. Enzymes are proteins that help thousands of chemical reactions take place in the body, including the production of energy from food.

Hormones – such as insulin and glucagon, which help regulate blood sugar levels – are made up of the amino acids in the proteins you eat. And your body uses protein from food to generate antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that help the body fight infection.

The regularly recommended protein intake is expressed as a percentage of total calories, but sports nutritionists prefer to calculate the protein need of each athlete based on their body weight.

Therefore, it is logical that athletes require more protein than sedentary people, since they commonly have greater muscle mass.

  • The average recommended protein intake for endurance athletes ranges from 0.5 to 0.6 grams per pound of body weight (or 1 to 1.3 grams per kilogram of body weight).
  • Strength athletes require a little more, so they are recommended to consume between 0.7 and 0.8 grams per pound of body weight (between 1.5 and 2 grams per kilogram of body weight). That means that a 180-pound (82-kilogram) athlete may require a minimum of 90-110 grams per day to support their endurance activity, or a minimum of 130-150 grams per day to support their strength training.

Ideally, however, your protein intake should be tailored to your amount of lean body mass (MCM), as body weight alone cannot be taken into account. Your MCM understands your body weight that is not fat (muscles, bones, organs, tissues, and water) and can vary slightly between people of the same body weight.

Body composition tests can determine your MCM, and it is recommended that athletes consume 1 gram of protein for every pound of lean mass. Strength athletes may require slightly more, up to 2 grams per pound of lean mass. With this personalized approach, protein intake can provide the right mix to support the athlete’s amount of lean body mass.

Recommended carbohydrate intake for athletes

Carbohydrates serve as the main source of energy during exercise , so it is very important that athletes consume adequate amounts. This ensures that they have carbohydrate stores available in the muscle, liver, and bloodstream.

The necessary carbohydrate intake depends on the activity:

  • For most moderately active people, a balanced diet that provides about half (45 to 55 percent) of the calories from carbohydrates should be sufficient.
  • Endurance athletes may need a proportionally greater amount, typically in the range of 55 to 65 percent of total calories.
  • Ultra-endurance athletes, such as those who participate in events lasting more than four hours, require even more, up to 75 percent of their total calories from carbohydrates.

Sports dietitians prefer to calculate the required carbohydrate intake based on body weight, rather than a percentage of calories, as this gives the athlete a specific intake goal:

  • For regular training, it is recommended that athletes consume 2.5 to 3 grams per pound of body weight (between 5.5 and 7 grams per kilogram).
  • Endurance athletes (runners, cyclists, swimmers) require more. Your goal is between 3 and 4.5 grams per pound of body weight (7-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram).
  • Ultra-endurance athletes participating in competitions lasting four hours or more may require 5 grams per pound of body weight or more (11 grams or more per kilogram).

The role of fat intake in athletes

Fats provide the body with essential fatty acids. They are called essential because the body cannot produce them, so they must be obtained through food. They are an important part of the structure of every cell in the body and serve as a valuable source of energy during activity.

Rather than suggesting a precise amount of fat for athletes, sports nutritionists often recommend an intake of about 25 to 30 percent of their total calories – the recommended amount for the general population.

Since carbohydrate and protein intake is more specific, once the goal is met, fat intake tends to naturally fall within the recommended range. In addition, as with the general population, athletes are recommended to choose mainly unsaturated fats from foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados, fatty fish and oils such as those made from seeds (canola, safflower or sunflower oil) and oil from olive.

While carbohydrates are considered the main source of energy, the body uses both carbohydrates and fats for fuel, depending on the intensity and duration of the activity. When the intensity of exercise is light to moderate, fats provide about half the energy the body needs, especially when the duration is increased. For example, after jogging for more than 20 minutes at a moderate pace, fats begin to become more important than carbohydrates in maintaining activity.

Keeping your macros in proper balance is essential for good performance, and athletes should avoid eating tendencies that upset that balance.

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