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When it comes to training, fueling, and recovering properly, there’s a lot of mixed messages. Not to mention all Mudders have different goals. Some are on track to earn their 100th headband, other’s just completed the 24 hour World’s Toughest Mudder, and others are looking forward to the first Tough Mudder Half they signed up for in 2018.
But even when you know your goals, there’s a lot of conflicting information floating around about what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and how to properly fuel your Tough Mudder training. There is no easy answer to these questions. But we've got the basics down.
WHAT IS A CALORIE?
In science-speak, a kilocalorie or calorie is a measure of energy that equals the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1°C. Basically that means that a calorie is energy, the stuff that keeps you going. Calories come from 3 main macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein, and fat in addition to micronutrients which are vitamins and minerals. They all have uses in the body in the right amounts, and each can be used as an energy source.
WHAT IS A MACRONUTRIENT?
A macronutrient is a nutrient that you need to get a lot of through your diet. The three most important macronutrients, or “macros,” are protein, carbohydrate and fat, and they all have very different chemical structures and complex sets of jobs in your body. Put simply, protein helps muscles grow and repair throughout the day, carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for Mudders, and fat helps transport nutrients, aids development of the brain and nervous system, and regulates hormones among other functions. But let’s break it down even further.
At 4 calories per gram, protein is in charge of a lot little repairs in your body on a daily basis, as well as replacing and rebuilding lean muscle mass. There are a lot of mixed messages about this macronutrient: how many grams we need, how often we should eat it, where we should get it from. The good news is that you’re probably getting enough if you eat a diet with variety. And no, too much protein won’t harm healthy Mudders, your body will just store it and use it for energy if necessary.
When we’re talking about food and use the word “fat”, we’re typically referring mainly to saturated and unsaturated fat. Saturated fat is produced by the body, therefore, we don’t have to get it from our diet. Unsaturated fat, which includes omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, are essential meaning that the body cannot make them and we must eat them.
And the fatty stuff has multiple uses in our body: repairs our cell walls, helps regulate our hormones, and helps with storage of fat-soluble vitamins. Plus, at 9 calories per gram it makes you feel the fullest for longest and can be used for energy during long, low intensity exercise (unlike carbs, which the body turns to for high intensity exercise).
Speaking of carbohydrates… we usually think about carbohydrates as our main source of energy, and that’s pretty true. Carbs in general have gotten a bad rep in the last few years- but if you’re active, you need them for energy.
Fun Fact: Alcohol is also a macronutrients, but it isn’t required by the body. Though sometimes an ice-cold cider feels necessary at the finish line.
SO WHAT’S WITH THE “IIFYM” DIET?
If It Fits Your Macros, or IIFYM, refers to the concept of flexible dieting or “calories in vs. calories out.” The idea is that you’re going to calculate how many calories you burn in a day then eat exactly that many calories to maintain your weight. Or, less than that to lose weight.
Knowing where the calories come from depends on your fitness/physique goals but the idea is that IIFYM allows for physique-conscious folks to hit their daily macros then fill in the rest with whatever they want. Yes, even pizza.
The IIFYM diet can be really solid because it promotes eating a balanced diet, treating yourself, and not cutting any major food groups. Better yet, it can be customised based on your fitness goals.
If your goal is fat loss, the general recommendation is to eat 10-11 calories per pound of bodyweight.
Those should include:
Fat: 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight
Protein: 0.8-1 gram per per pound of bodyweight
Carbs: 1 gram per pound of bodyweight
But if your goal is muscle building, the general recommendation is to eat 14-16 calories per pound of bodyweight.
Those should include:
Fat: 0.6 grams per pound of bodyweight
Protein: 1-1.2 grams per pound of body weight
Carbs: 2 grams per pound of bodyweight
HOW TO GET STARTED
First, figure out your macronutrient breakdown by picking a goal and doing simple multiplication. Then, find out your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) as a reference point. Even if you’re not doing IIFYM, you can see how many calories below or above your TDEE you’ll need to be for muscle building or fat loss.
There are plenty of apps that will help you do this or you can even use a paper notebook or Google Sheets/Microsoft Excel to keep tabs of all of the numbers.
THE PRE-PLANNED METHOD
There’s the pre-planned method then the “input as you go” method. In the pre-planned method, you’d cook a bunch of food then divide up the food group portions based off the recommendations above. So, yes, you’ll need a food scale for that.
Of course, you’ll need to factor in all of your snacks beforehand while trying to reach your macros goals. There are levels to pre-planning: you can cook large quantities then eyeball portions to refrigerate, weigh everything in portions but do nothing with the numbers, or weigh everything and stick pretty close to your numbers through the week. Mudders tend not to take themselves that seriously so options 1 and 2 will do just fine.
THE INPUT AS YOU GO METHOD
The Input As You Go method requires you to set a daily caloric goal, maybe even macronutrient goals too, and enter the food you eat into an app as you eat it. Like the first method, this takes trial and error because you may find you didn’t hit your macros or went over once the day is done. The As You Go strategy is more realistic and gives Mudders a general sense of how to tweak their diet day to day.
SHOULD YOU COUNT YOUR MACROS?
The biggest draw of counting macro’s is that nothing is off limits. But since you’re focusing on fitting each food to your macronutrient count and not necessarily incorporating a variety of healthy foods, you could be skipping on some vital micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Typically, the time, effort, cost and lack of fun necessary to be a devout pre-planner generally leads people to not count their macronutrients, unless you’re a physique competitor or professional athlete. Those are literally the only two types of people that might need to be a mathematician with their macronutrients. Everyone else can live a healthy, fun lifestyle by making smart food choices.
Overall, the macronutrient and calorie numbers DO matter for changing your muscle/fat ratio but if crossing the finish line at a Tough Mudder course is your goal, macro-tracking probably isn’t necessary.