Coaches Corner: A Look At Calories

Ed: Throughout the year we’d like to bring our readers a few training, riding and lifestyle tips from Varick Olson and Elmer Colyer. Both are U.S.A. Cycling coaches and allow us to tap into a wealth of knowledge within the team.

We hope to provide a series of short articles covering different aspects of cycling over the course of the year, most likely once a month. This is a bit of a work in progress so it may change a little as we go, but we can all take the ride together and see where it goes.

I will add a tag to each of these postings for “Tips and Training” and post them on their own page “Coaches Corner” on this blog after they run.

If you have ideas, or questions you would like Varick and Elmer to address please post them to this site in the “comment'” area under the post or contact us at

CALORIES – Do We Eat Too Many?

What are calories anyway?

 A calorie is a measure of energy. Specifically it is the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of 1 kg (1 liter/ 33oz.) of water 10 C. The Calorie (kilocalorie) is the measure of food energy.

For example, a Clif bar has 240 calories and contains the equivalent heat energy to increase the temperature of 240 liters of water 10 C. To use this energy we need to metabolize the Clif bar, which requires oxidation. The oxidation process results in the production of free radicals. This increases the potential for cellular damage (oxidative stress).

We are most likely familiar with the term free radical as a result of exercise. Any time an oxidative process occurs free radials are produced. Consequently the more calories we eat the more free radicals are produced. If the free radicals accumulate our cells under go oxidative stress and cellular damage results.

This is the basic concept which supports the notion of calorie restriction. Much has been published regarding the positive outcome of calorie restriction1,2,4,5,8,9,10. A review of the titles in these references points out the benefits of calorie restriction for the health of the arteries, heart, blood pressure and importantly for athletes mitochondria, the engines of the cells, and modulation of muscle loss associated with aging.

So how much calorie restriction is right? On the basis of current research the best diet to gain the benefits of caloric restriction is one low in saturated fats and high in whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.

That is, eat a diet rich in nutrient dense foods. Your body sees a calorie. It does not ask “is this a calorie from a snicker bar or an apple?”

ALL calories are just calories and count toward your daily caloric requirement.

As endurance athletes we need to eat as many calories as we use, maintain a calorie balance of zero. This is the principle of calorie restriction for the endurance athlete. This will maintain our weight and provide the energy needed to perform well without creating oxidative stress from overeating.

 If we need to loose weight we will need a negative calorie balance, which is eating fewer calories than we use. This should only be done when we are not training hard.

We need to balance our calorie need to perform optimally. A net calorie balance of zero will prevent the symptoms of “over training” such as a feeling of tiredness and immune system stress. In this case the “over training” is over nutrition training by having a negative or positive calorie imbalance.

In a nut shell we need to “nutrition train” by counting calories. An integrated training program includes the integration of nutrition, recovery and physical activity. The only way to train for a TT is to measure the time. The only way to “nutrition train” is to measure by calorie counting.

Read food labels and get to know the serving size and calorie content.

Where to begin

How many calories provide me with a zero calorie balance? First, determine your resting metabolic rate (RMR). This is most accurately done by measuring heat production through direct or indirect (oxygen consumption) calorimetry. Either of these techniques requires sophisticated laboratory equipment and of course associated cost.

To eliminate the need for calorimetry a set of equations have been calculated which estimate RMR. The most reliable are the Mifflin-St. Jeor equations6. These equations were developed from calorimetry data of 498 normal and obese male and female subjects’ ages 19-78 years.

MEN: RMR=9.99Xweight in kg+6.25Xheight in cm – 4.92Xage+5
WOMEN: RMR=9.99Xweight in kg+6.25Xheight in cm – 4.92X age – 161
1 kg = 2.2 lb. 1 inch = 2.54 cm.

For example a 40 year old man weight 150 lb (150/2.2= 68kg) and height 5’ 10” (70 inches x 2.54 = 179cm) has a RMR of 9.99X68+6.25X179 – 4.92X40+5= 1606 calories. This RMR estimate is the number of calories required for 24 hours at rest.

Of course we don’t rest all day, at least most days, so how is the 24 hour caloric requirement estimated for an active cyclist? Start by determining your RMR per hour. In the example, 1606/24 = 68 calories per hour. If you sleep 8 hours and watch TV for 2 hours you use 680 calories (10×68).

To determine an estimate for the remaining 14 hours the following activity factors3 can be multiplied times the RMR per hour times the number of hours the activity is performed.


Very light: Seated and standing such as driving, lab work, writing, typing, cooking, playing cards. 1.5

Light: Walking on level surface 2-3.0mph, house cleaning, golf, bowling. 2.5

Moderate: Walking 3.5-4.0mph, gardening, baseball, volleyball. 5.0

Heavy: Walking with load uphill, aerobic dance, cross country skiing, cycling at 16 to 18mph. 7.0

To complete a 24 hour day caloric estimate let’s say this person did very light activities for 6 hours resulting in (1.5 X 68 X 6) 612 calories, light activities for 6 hours resulting in (2.5 X 68 X 6) 1020 calories and heavy activities for 2 hours (7.0 X 68 X 2) 952 calories. This results in 680 + 612 + 1020 + 952 = 2346 calories for this 24 hour period. This gives an estimate for a zero calorie balance (calorie restriction) based on the person’s energy needs.

 The calculation of your daily estimated calorie needs may seem “putsi”, but the only way to know if we are improving is to measure, whether it be by a power meter, heart rate monitor, stop watch or distance. Nutrition training is measured by counting calories and knowing the best sources to obtain your calories.

The forgoing equations to estimate RMR are for adults. For children, 6-11 and teens equations adjusted for race should be used. The above activity factors and cycling calories burned chart can be used after the RMR is determined.

Males: RMR= 0.037 X weight(kg) – 4.67 X 1/height2(cm) – 0.159 X race – 6.792
Females: RMR= 0.046 X weight(kg) – 4.492 X 1/height2(cm) – 0.151 X race + 5.841
Race factor: Black = 1, White =0

References for this article can be found here

Varick Olson, PhD, PT, is a level 2 U.S.A Cycling coach and long-time member of the Big Ring Flyers.

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