Yesterday with the day off I did nothing, in terms of training. No running, no strength work, nothing particularly strenuous. I actually drove to get coffee, since I had vehicle-related errands to run that day. I did a minimum of walking… not easy to do in Chicago when you live in Wrigleyville and you do most of your business on foot.
Okay, big deal, just a rest day, right? Well….
… it had been a while since I’ve taken stock of my working basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the rate at which you would burn calories in a day if you did nothing but lay or sit there. For men my size and age, this is somewhere around 1650-1700 calories.
You do more than sit around all day, so to find your baseline calorie burn you multiply that BMR by a standard multiplier.
- Sedentary people who drive everywhere and never exercise can use 1.2 as their multiplier. You multiply your basic BMR by 1.2 to get your actual basal metabolic rate.
- If you get any exercise once or twice a week, or you walk to get around everyday, your multiplier may be closer to 1.3.
- If you work out every day it may be as low as 1.5 or as high as 2.0, depending on what you do for workouts.
Of course, I can’t just set my baseline at 1700 calories multiplied by a standard multiplier. My daily activity can vary widely, as a Chicago local who gets around on foot and runs a lot. Even if I don’t run, I may walk anywhere from 20ish minutes a day to several miles, and there’s no rhyme or reason relative to my training as to how much walking I do. Plus, this completely ignores strength training and any other physical activity.
I’ve had days where, with identical training (or lack thereof), I’ve burned anywhere from 2100 calories to over 4000. So, plugging my estimated general activity into a BMR tool and spitting out a number isn’t necessarily going to help me.
I still want to get enough to eat, while not overeating. I still do have tracker data that shows an average weekly calorie burn, which is around 3000 calories per day during training. But there’s more to it than that:
I don’t want to just eat 3000 maintenance calories and call it good. I may have weeks where I pound out a lot more mileage and activity, and that won’t be close to enough. My body will break down.
I may have weeks where I don’t train much. I’ll just end up overeating and piling on fat when I want to maintain or reduce that fat, while maintaining my muscle mass.
And of course, if I want to burn fat, I don’t want to eat so little relative to a given week’s workload that I end up breaking down and getting injured… and to a lesser but still important extent end up hungry during the day or at bedtime.
I want to carb cycle and lower carb intake on recovery days, akin to the increasingly popular anabolic diet. But given the substantial variance of my physical activity, it’s not as easy to do as it is for a conventional gym-goer whose marginally added physical activity is basically the 30-60 minutes they spend in the gym.
I’m sure others fall into this boat, so the following may be of use:
The lot of nothing I did yesterday was what I call a Control Rest Day.
For active individuals whose daily activity can vary widely, you can find your basal metabolic rate by taking a day off where you reasonably minimize your physical activity. You keep walking to a minimum. You don’t do any physically involving chores or errands. And you certainly don’t train at all.
It’s a rest day in more than just the training sense. This is the Control Rest Day. You are figuring out how many calories you burn at minimum.
Yesterday I walked to my car a few blocks away and drove to get coffee. Then I drove all day. I parked my car when I returned home and walked back home (after a pit stop at Whole Foods along the way). I did not leave home or do anything else until bed.
On my Control Rest Day, I burned 2368 calories.
I thus know that my personal BMR baseline is in this neighborhood. I can round it down for simplicity (and as a precaution to avoid cheating on calorie counts) to a True Personal BMR of 2300 calories. I know I will burn at least this much in a day.
Now, having found my True Personal BMR with the Control Rest Day, I can do two things with this information:
- I can use this number to plan a diet with a maintenance calorie count.
- I can add anticipated activity and its estimated calorie burn to this total to figure out how many calories I may need in a day.
First, I want to figure out how many calories minimum for each macros I need for a baseline diet.
I want to maintain my muscle with sufficient protein. As a minimum, I want to consume 1 gram of protein for every pound of lean body mass (my weight minus body fat).
Right now I’m carrying 165 lbs at about 17% body fat, so that leaves a lean body mass of 137 lbs. I’ll round up since protein is important, and say I need 140g protein.
From there, I can decide to set carbs as low as desired. Hardcore low-carb dieters will go as low as 30-50g of carbohydrate a day. While do-able, I have glycogen stores to restore during rest days, I still am a bit active on even the easiest days, and many key nutrient-rich staple foods are carb-rich. I typically train 6-7 days a week, so if I even get a full rest day, I still need to rebuild.
So I give myself permission to eat at least potatoes, as I need the starchy carb rich food’s wealth of potassium (among other nutrients). This means at 16 oz of potatoes I’ll consume at least 70g of carbohydrate if I eat no other carbs.
But beyond that, I’m flexible about how much of the difference is fat vs carbohydrate, as long as the calorie total of the baseline diet is 2350 calories.
If I ate nothing but fat, that would total about 160g of fat… which, honestly, is a lot. I’d probably want the option to eat more carbs or protein instead before hitting that mark. Sure, I can comfortably drift into 120-130g of fat per day, but I’d let satiety, feasibility and clean choices be my guide as I get into that range.
Also, I can eat more than 140g protein. That number is just the minimum. In my experience, my best diet days take in about 150-160g protein.
A good sample diet for me on a total rest day can keep carbs to a minimum while ensuring all food sources, not to mention fat taken in, is from clean sources.
The following diet assumes a standard intermittent fast, where I skip breakfast and don’t eat my first food of the day until lunch.
16 oz maximum of black coffee. I’m intermittent fasting!
0 calories. 0g fat, 0g carb, 0g protein
5 oz can of wild caught tuna in olive oil
10 oz Steamfresh bag of mixed vegetables
400 calories, 8g fat, 42g carb, 40g protein
Herbal tea, with up to 2 tbsp coconut oil
250 calories, 28g fat, 0g carb, 0g protein
Sunset food (6pm-7pm):
4 large poached eggs
605 calories, 47g fat, 17g carb, 29g protein
8 oz lean beef, whichever suitable form
16 oz gold potatoes
1 tbsp coconut oil
845 calories, 34g fat, 64g carb, 71g protein
1 glass 2% chocolate milk
210 calories, 6g fat, 20g carb, 20g protein
2310 calories, 123g fat, 143g carb, 160g protein
If I didn’t run at all, just walked, and maybe went to the gym a few times a week, the above would be more than enough to serve as an effective fat burning plan.
My body would slowly re-compose by burning fat and adding muscle. Carbs would be at a suitable middle ground to promote fat burning while also restoring lost glycogen stores from any exercise.
Satiety would only be a problem during the morning, where coffee can make it manageable until lunch. And if the lunch turned out to be too small, I could just eat the avocado then. I only paired the avocado with the poached eggs out of convenience.
If I wanted to lose weight on this plan, it would be best to add in activity rather than to subtract from this minimum diet plan. Doing the latter would lead to excess hunger and possibly long term muscle wasting. It would not be sustainable.
From this 2300 calorie baseline… I can now add in needed training calories.
To add in running, I need to do the following:
- Factor in 123 calories (my burn rate) for every mile I plan to run.
- Consider the glycogen usage rate of the running I plan to do. The less intense the running, the more of those calories will come from fat.
- Add in the requisite amount of calories to my 2300 calorie baseline.
First, add in carbs according to how much glycogen I plan to burn in exercise while building the net difference with fat.
For example, let’s say I plan to go on a 11 mile run that according to my effort should burn a 50/50 mix of glycogen and fat.
To meet my needs at my current weight, I need to add 1353 calories, and 677 of those should come from carbs.
Let’s also presume that, due to the extra wear and tear, I make sure to get a little extra protein. Not too much (though it can be argued I can go well overboard without risking kidney damage), but enough to help with the extra post-workout rebuilding… about 10-20g at least. I would avoid going higher than 225-250g just in case of kidney risk.
I won’t post a specific food breakdown for this example, since there’s countless healthy ways to add in extra food. But the totals would look like this:
3353 calories, 154g fat, 312g carb, 170g protein
I’m not as worried about the extra fat content, as my body will be burning a substantial amount of fat during the workout. It’ll balance out. Though, again, that seems like a lot of fat. If I don’t want to eat that much fat, I can let it ride on a few extra carbs, or even take in some extra protein. I have a variety of options.
My key concern is making sure those glycogen stores are at least restored after the workout. While in the short term it’s not the end of the world if they’re a little tapped… if I’m training at a high volume, they can deplete quickly and pose a risk of excess muscle damage and depleted hormone/energy levels. That’s a recipe for burnout and injury.
The more glycogen you can re-supplement before and after workouts, the less long term muscle damage you will sustain, and the easier it will be for your protein intake and hormones to rebuild.
… now, if I was trying to burn fat and lose weight, I would want to run a calorie deficit.
I don’t want to go too low and risk the aforementioned damage, so let’s say on regular workouts I’ll go 500 calories max below my baseline, and on long runs or brutal speedwork session days I’ll go no farther than 250 calories below. Again, replenishment and recovery are my top priorities, with weight/fat loss being a secondary goal.
For this example, I’ll only cut 250 calories from my daily training total calories.
Again glycogen and protein are important, so I won’t want to cut those.
That leaves the fat, and TBH 154g was a lot of fat to take in. So cutting from that should be easy, while still maintaining a high, satisfying total.
3103 calories, 126g fat, 312g carb, 170g protein
Of course, that’s for a long run day. To give us a normal training example, let’s say on my regular days I run 5 miles at a 50/50 glycogen/fat effort.
That requires 615 extra calories, and 308 of those will require glycogen. And while I want to eat a bit more protein, this is an easier workout so I’ll just go with 150g protein.
2925 calories, 156g fat, 220g carb, 160g protein
If I want to lose weight… since this is a normal workout for me I can go 500 calories short. Again, glycogen and protein remain important, so we’re going to maintain those while focusing on cutting fat. And again, that’s a lot of fat, so if hitting 156g doesn’t seem possible, I can just eat more carbs or protein instead.
2425 calories, 100g fat, 220g carb, 160g protein
Notice that even after cutting all that fat, I’m still taking in what most would consider quite a bit of dietary fat. This diet would be quite satisfying, especially given I’m comfortable with intermittent fasting and can eat all my food between lunch and bedtime.
Now, I’m just beginning to tap into this dietary approach’s potential. If I had been doing this for a while, I’d be a shredded 150 pounds right now.
But I’ve developed this knowledge over a long period of trial and error, and now I believe I have found a carb cycling dietary approach that’s not only sustainable and satisfying, but can allow you to build muscle and maintain great energy and hormonal function while losing fat.
There’s more to this, and I’ll come back to this topic. But there’s a lot of potential here.