Maintenance Calories for Athletes

Aug 22, 2023

Edited by: Danielle Abel

You've probably heard of maintenance calories before, but the concept can be quite elusive in practical terms. In our experience, there's a gap between what people think maintenance is, what TDEE is, and how to combine these 2 concepts relate. Not only that, sometimes people think that maintenance is just a static number, but it's quite dynamic, which means you need to consider different variables when calculating and recalculating it over months and years. 

What are Maintenance Calories? 

Maintenance calories are simply the amount of energy your body needs to function and to move around, to put it very simply. Sometimes people think that maintenance calories are the same as their resting metabolic rate (RMR) or basal metabolic rate (BMR), but that's only part of the equation. 

To find maintenance calories, you must add your activity level to the equation. When we say activity, we're referring to the activity that's a part of your lifestyle combined with activity from training or intentional exercise.

  • Lifestyle activity: How much or how little you move around at work or school, how much you walk around at home, take care of or are active with children, pets, housework, yardwork, etc. 
  • Training activity: How frequently do you exercise, how intense is your exercise, what type of exercise do you perform, do you run, go for walks, etc. 

Also, keep in mind, maintenance calories are estimated. Unless you have access to a lab where you can get calorimetry performed, you will be estimating how many calories are needed to maintain your weight, function, & activity. You can estimate this by tracking your intake and output and 1-2 objective self-monitoring metrics like body weight and measurements. 

  • Track calories (and macros) from food and beverages
  • Track resistance training, endurance training, and daily steps
    • We typically recommend tracking resistance training frequency per week and total minutes or hours of endurance training per week. You can also track resistance training minutes or hours if you would prefer. 

Maintenance Calories & TDEE

Now that you know what maintenance calories are, you might wonder, isn't that your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)? If so, you're right; maintenance calories and TDEE are interchangeable. However, for most athletes, when choosing a nutrition goal to work on, they will choose "maintenance" vs. "TDEE" as their goal if that makes sense. It can be easier to think about it this way too:

  • Maintenance phase: Not trying to lose fat or gain muscle & instead focusing on performance or overall health, however body recomposition (losing fat and gaining muscle) can be achieved at maintenance, especially for those new to resistance training)
  • Cutting/calorie deficit phase: Trying to lose fat
  • Reverse/restoration dieting phase: Increasing energy expenditure back up towards maintenance following a cutting/calorie deficit phase
  • Bulking/surplus phase: Trying to build muscle or improve performance

Some athletes have a misconception that they need to spend more time in non-maintenance phases to either try and improve their physique or improve their performance, but this is not true. It can be really helpful to eat at maintenance for more time than less to prioritize having adequate energy availability for the following:

  • Maintaining body weight & physique (ie: low risk of bone, tendon, or muscle loss from inadequate calorie availability)
  • Maintaining optimal body function (ie: nervous system, cardiovascular system, digestive system, immune system, etc.)
  • Maintaining an active life (ie: high energy for your lifestyle & training with better recovery potential)

How to Calculate Estimated Maintenance Calories 

Like most things, there are several different ways to calculate an athlete's estimated caloric needs; however, we will explain the 2 ways that work best, in our opinion, from a practical perspective. Sometimes you can have an athlete complete pretracking, meaning you have them track their intake without any goals to determine a baseline. Whereas, other times, you might be working with someone just looking for a rough estimate of where their intake should be. It might be helpful also to consider what the athlete's goals are. 

For example, if you're working with someone strictly for performance, you may choose to give them their estimated maintenance calorie calculation and not require them to complete pretracking. Whereas, if you're working with an athlete who also has a goal to reduce body fat, you might have them complete 7-10 days of pretracking to determine where their intake currently lies, just in case they're not eating enough to safely and effectively go into a cut quite yet. 

If an athlete isn't ready for a cut, due to inadequate intake, we would recommend encouraging them to slowly bring their intake up closer to maintenance for a period of time; this is also known as a reverse or restoration diet. If they were unintentionally undereating, their energy & recovery levels will likely be lacking, so further calorie restriction could exacerbate this. 

  • No Pretracking
    • To get a baseline of an athlete's estimated daily calorie needs, we recommend using the National Strength and Conditioning Association's (NSCA) recommendations from the chart below. If you have the NSCA Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 4th edition, you can find the table on page 217.
      • Remember, these are starting points; you'll want to combine this data with body weight and/or measurement based tracking & monitoring to determine the athlete's individual estimated maintenance calories. 
  • Pretracking
    • Have the athlete log their food & beverage intake for 7-10 days, being as accurate as possible by weighing their food and using barcode labels if possible
      • Using the instructions above in the No Pretracking section, compare their average pretracked amount of calories to their estimated maintenance calories
        • If their intake is below estimated maintenance, encourage reversing up towards maintenance
        • If their intake is near estimated maintenance, review their macros and make any necessary adjustments
        • If their intake is above estimated maintenance, consider encouraging them to bring their intake down closer to maintenance unless they want to go into a dedicated bulking/surplus phase to build muscle

When to Adjust Maintenance Calories

As we mentioned above, maintenance calories don't stay the same. Day to day, the amount of calories needed to maintain your weight, function, & activity varies. However, it's not practical to calculate maintenance calories every day. A better approach is to have a few key triggers you look for to determine if you or your athlete may need an updated maintenance calorie calculation. 

In general, here's a list of some times that you might want to recalculate estimated maintenance calories:

  • 2-3 months away from tracking intake (counting calories/macros)
  • 10lbs of body weight change (up or down) since the last maintenance calculation
  • Pregnancy or breastfeeding (typically 100-200 extra calories per day for 1st & 2nd trimesters and between 300-400 extra calories per day for 3rd trimester & breastfeeding)
  • Resistance training frequency changes by 1-2 days or more per week
  • Endurance training volume changes by 60 minutes or more per week
  • Daily step count changes by 3000-4000 steps daily on average per week

Hopefully, you feel more comfortable estimating your or your athlete's caloric needs now, having a better understanding of the purpose of maintenance calories and some ways you can troubleshoot intake related to maintenance calories when needed. 

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