Have you been told that tracking your macros is the key to better athletic performance? What has your experience with tracking been like? If you did not find it helpful to your athletic performance, you are not alone.
Hi there – I’m Angie, Registered Dietitian and sports nutrition expert. I help athletes get the most out of their athletic training and competitions by helping them optimize their fueling with food they enjoy!
In this blog post, I’ll walk you through an introduction to macros, why tracking them leads to problems, and what to focus on instead so that you crush your goals without obsessing.
Let’s dive in!
Macros is an abbreviation for macronutrients, or the primary nutrients in all of our food: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. The art of tracking macros relies on the belief that if we estimate and consume a very specific range of each macronutrient it will result in optimal body composition, health, and subsequently, your performance as an athlete.
Pitfalls of Tracking Macros
While athletes might think that tracking macros is the key to better performance, there are many pitfalls to tracking…pitfalls that may actually make your performance suffer (yikes!).
Most of my clients report that macro tracking takes 30 minutes to an hour of their day – that’s a lot!
As a dietitian, I can think of so many better ways for a busy athlete to spend an extra 30-60 minutes. Top of the list would be: getting an extra bit of sleep, prioritizing a stretching session, or searching for a delicious new recipe.
There are inaccuracies in both tracking and logging (1). Clients are guessing at portion sizes when adding a food to a tracking log…is it a 4-ounce piece of salmon or is it 5?
On top of that, food preparation can affect the macronutrient content. Is it grilled? Fried in oil? Steamed? All affect the numbers.
One other issue is that there can be confusing inconsistencies from one database to another and even within one macro tracking app, which can really influence how accurate the tracking is at all.
Whew, are you overwhelmed yet?
In addition to these pitfalls, I hear many complaints from clients who have previously tracked macros.
Here is what they tell me.
- They experienced more food worry than ever before when trying to “hit” certain macros.
- They skipped social events if they thought they wouldn’t find foods to fit their macros.
- They didn’t eat or participate in family meals to better match macros.
- They experienced less pleasure with eating.
- They had a decrease in the variety of food eaten, often consuming the same foods or meals over and over again because it matched their macro targets.
- And in the very worst scenarios, I’ve had clients whose disordered eating and poor relationship with food began with using a food tracking app.
Being hyper-focused on macros carries real risk; my clients’ experiences above are not rare. In fact, a 2017 study of young adults found similar results and concluded that the use of calorie and nutrient trackers promoted disordered eating in those with a history (2).
Even more alarming was the finding that young adults with no history of disordered eating behavior are more likely to develop those behaviors when using a tracking tool.
As you can see, tracking macros is not a fool-proof path to your next PR; In fact, it carries risk. Let’s talk about what I recommend instead, as a sports dietitian.
Nutrition Needs for Better Performance
While tracking macros every day may not be the key to performance, I don’t recommend you just wing it when it comes to meals and snacks. Even though I don’t recommend daily macro tracking, there is certainly a benefit to understanding optimal timing and composition of foods that will help you feel and perform your best.
As a sports dietitian, here are my top five tips for better performance, without tracking macros.
Tip 1: Eat enough carbohydrate
Eating adequate sources of carbohydrates before, after, and sometimes during your workouts is crucial to your athletic performance. Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for exercising muscles and the brain. Skimping on carbs is a common problem I see when working with athletes.
There are many misconceptions about the amount and type of carbohydrates that athletes should include, and helping you sort fact from fiction is a top priority. Looking at the type, duration and frequency of your training can help with a range of carbohydrate foods to include. Instead of asking you to track these things, I suggest thinking about some of your favorite carbohydrate foods and together, we can create fueling options that will be easy and enjoyable to include for pre-, post- and intra-workout, when needed.
Tip 2: Repair with protein
Most athletes are aware that protein is important for muscle recovery and repair, however some athletes prioritize protein at the expense of consuming enough carbohydrate. Protein can’t do its job without its BFFs: adequate energy and carbohydrates. We can work on including a variety of protein that you enjoy consuming, and implement strategies to eat consistently throughout the day to help protein do its magic.
Tip 3: Hydrate
Training in a hydrated body is essential to athletic and cognitive performance. However, you do not need to tote around a recycled milk jug of water and persistently stress your bladder to optimize hydration. A beloved water bottle will do, and we can work on reasonable, achievable goals to help you stay on top of fluid needs each day.
Hydration needs can be highly variable depending on sweat rate, temperature at which you are training, and clothing choice, to name a few influencing factors. I can help with when and where electrolytes and carbohydrates in your bottle will help keep you optimally hydrated for best performance.
Tip 4: Master your timing
Perhaps more important than the total quantity of carbohydrate, protein or fluids is the timing. Are you consuming adequate carbohydrates within a window that will promote digestion and available energy for your workouts? Are you prioritizing a recovery meal with carbs and protein after key workout sessions to promote recovery? Struggling for suggestions on what to choose for any of these situations? I can help.
Tip 5: Make it intuitive
Carbohydrates, protein, fats and fluids are all important for athletes, but don’t you think you should enjoy the foods you choose on a daily basis? Enter Intuitive Eating, a mind-body self-care eating framework with 10 principles that have been shown to improve health in over 200 studies. When you ditch the macro tracker, you are more able to tune into your body’s needs and use Intuitive Eating principles to support your training and performance as an athlete.
Personalization Is the Key to Success
Although there are well-established sports nutrition guidelines, such as ranges of protein per day to promote muscle growth or targets for carbohydrate consumption during endurance efforts, those estimates might not be accurate for you and your needs. Sometimes optimizing your nutritional needs takes the help of a sports nutrition expert.
Your individual needs and fueling strategies can vary a great deal based on many factors:
- Duration, intensity, and the type of athletic training and competition
- Height, weight, gender
- Individual food preferences or intolerances
- Any medical history affecting nutrition (for example diabetes, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome)
- History of disordered eating or under fueling
- History of injury
That’s a Wrap
Have you found your performance has suffered with macro tracking in the past? Are you ready to experience something different this year?
I believe that athletes can benefit from utilizing the principles of intuitive eating, in addition to understanding their nutritional needs for sport. All athletes deserve nourishing and delicious food that does not require daily tracking to enhance athletic performance. Instead, I help athletes tune into hunger and fullness cues and make peace with food so they can fuel for sport and life in an enjoyable and satisfying way.
As an athlete, food should be a supportive tool that enhances your life, not something you need to track. See what it’s like to free up the mental energy you spend on food worry and channel it into something more productive for your health and well-being. Contact me to set up an appointment so we can work together toward your best performance this year!
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Angie Dye is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She is also a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor.
Angie holds a Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Prior to starting her private practice, Angie worked as a Clinical Dietitian at the University of Chicago Hospitals. She also served as adjunct faculty at Loyola University in Chicago.
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