Addressing A Calorie Deficit At Tournaments

Should you try to replace all the calories you burn over the course of a weekend of competition? Is it even possible?

Jonathan ‘Goose’ Helton is on the mark in the 2017 Club Championships semifinal. Photo: Brian Canniff —

A few days after Nationals, Jonathan “Goose” Helton tweeted that he burned 23,413 calories over four days of playing in Sarasota. It seemed a rather staggering total and one that generated some interesting conversation in response about how it compared to other tournaments and what it might mean in terms of required caloric intake.

Digging into the details a little deeper, according to Helton’s Whoop — a wearable fitness band that measures heart rate variability and, along with sleep data, supposedly predicts peak performance based off of recovery — he burned 6,365 calories on day one alone after playing in three pool play games. For reference, Goose, at 6’0” and 200 pounds, would burn roughly 2,000 calories just lying in bed all day; including daily activities and workouts, he likely burns an average of around 3,500 calories per day.1

I was also able to get data from a couple other players who wore a Whoop in Sarasota as additional reference points: Fury’s Kaela Jorgenson and Revolver’s Cassidy Rasmussen.

(3 games of pool play)
(pre-quarters vs Machine; quarters vs Dig)
(semis vs Revolver)
(3rd place game vs Truck Stop)
(quarters vs Traffic)
(semis vs Ozone)
(final vs Brute Squad)
(quarters vs Pony)
(semis vs Ring)
(final vs Doublewide)

This data may not provide a broadly applicable representative sample for a standard day of ultimate — it was 90 degrees in Sarasota; Goose weighs 200 pounds and likely has more metabolically active muscle than many ultimate players; also he has said he was sick and illness is stress on the body which increases caloric needs. Finally, both Goose and Kaela mentioned they still had their Whoop on throughout the day and night, so their Sunday data likely included several hours of dancing and other Daiquiri Deck shenanigans; Cassidy took his Whoop off before going out that evening.

Regardless, these daily and weekend totals still raise the question: should ultimate players be making an effort to replace all of the calories they burn each day of competition to avoid a calorie deficit that only builds on itself throughout the tournament? And at numbers as high as 6,365 calories, is that kind of consumption even possible?

Obstacles To The Ideal 

In an ideal world, yes, you should be eating enough calories throughout the day and after games to replace all of the calories you burned. This is especially true for events like Nationals that occur over several days: in addition to refueling to replace glycogen stores that you burned during the day and to rebuild muscle, you’re also fueling up for the next day’s activity. And once you fall behind, it can be difficult to catch up; when energy demand exceeds calorie intake, that’s when performance can start to drop. If you’re running on stacked days of calorie deficit by the time the Sunday final rolls around, you will undoubtedly not be at peak performance.

But there are obstacles to meeting this goal. For one, the size of your stomach and your personal ability to digest food during exercise may limit your ability to eat enough before and during a tournament. As the main source of fuel, carbohydrates are important for preventing fatigue; however, excess carbohydrate intake — either in volume or concentration — can result in incomplete absorption and GI distress (not to mention feeling heavy and weighed down). So throughout the day and weekend, you’re constantly trying to find the balance of optimal carbohydrate consumption — enough to fuel you but not enough that it causes nausea or stomachaches.

Another obstacle is simply time. On day one at Nationals, teams played for about seven straight hours, including warmups. As we all know, it’s pretty difficult to continue snacking while you’re playing — nevermind consume a full, balanced lunch. Given what time teams likely got to the fields, they probably went at least eight hours between breakfast and their next meal. Even after play is done, you may have only about a seven-hour window after games to get in a few thousand calories in addition to cooling down, stretching, showering, ice-bathing, and team strategizing. That timeline is further compressed if you’re in a showcased night game.

And finally, there’s simply understanding how many calories you burned during each day of competition. Most ultimate players don’t wear fitness trackers while they play (and even if they do, many aren’t very accurate); nor do many players track their calorie intake throughout a tournament. Accurately measuring both while you’re playing and trying to concentrate on your game would most definitely be a waste of mental focus, so finding that sweet spot where your calorie expenditure roughly equals your calorie intake is almost impossible.

Refueling For Peak Performance

So how can you make sure that you’re eating enough calories to promote optimal performance? I have several recommendations.

First, use the beginning part of the season to figure out your individual needs based off of how you feel before, during, and after workouts. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you constantly feel low on energy (before, during, or after workouts)?
  • Are you getting sick or injured more than you used to?
  • Do you tend to get hungry at night?
  • Do you dread working out and feel like you’re not getting stronger/faster/better?

If you’re answering yes to these questions, it may be time to bump up your calorie intake.

On the other hand: do you recover quickly after workouts? Is your performance improving? Do you feel light and energetic during your workouts? Are you rarely getting sick or injured? If you’re answering yes to these questions, it sounds like your calorie intake — along with other daily habits — is right on track.

If you prefer to go off of objective data more than subjective data, you can weigh yourself throughout the season as well as before and after tournaments. If your weight remains relatively stable, you can safely assume you’re getting adequate nutrition; however, be aware that hydration will play a role in your before and after weights. Pay attention to long-term patterns instead of day-to-day variations; if weight loss is a continuing trend throughout a season, and you’re not trying to lose weight, you may need to work on your fueling.

Second, make sure you’re eating both immediately after your last game as well as dinner later on. Neither on its own will be enough, and you definitely don’t want to wait the hour or more it takes to decleat, stretch, and find a restaurant for the team. Most teams by now have a team cooler; depending on how much you’ve eaten throughout the day, aim to eat a few hundred calories as soon as you’re done playing for the day, containing a mix of carbohydrates and protein. From what I’ve seen in most team coolers, that could include a few slices of turkey, jerky, cheese, berries, grapes, chips, pretzels, popcorn, and hummus. At dinner, try to eat a meal that contains a mix of carbohydrates, quality protein, and healthy fats.

Third, make sure those carbohydrates and protein you’re eating are nutrient-dense. I know an Olympic rower who finishes a whole can of whipped cream while he grocery shops; this is not the way to get in those extra calories. For one, processed foods generally aren’t going to offer the nutrients you need to refuel your body. Athletes excrete a higher amount of minerals (electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and calcium) and B vitamins than the general population, meaning that your needs are higher.2 These micronutrients are abundant in nutrient-dense foods like whole grains and vegetables, but lacking in processed foods like fast food, beer, and daiquiris. Processed foods just don’t offer the nutrients your body needs to repair itself and prepare for tomorrow.

6000 (or more) calories turns out to be a lot when you’re getting it from whole foods. Foods like bagels and pretzels can certainly help you get there, so I’m not saying you need to have a bowl of quinoa on the sideline. Snacks like trail mix and peanut butter are also great options, as they’re calorically dense but also nutrient-dense.

Finally, even though your season is over, you should still take care of your body in the few days after Nationals. In my experience, you’ll be ravenous after a long tournament anyway; listen to your body. But instead of going full #fatweek, feed it with those same high quality, nutrient-dense foods so you can maintain your muscle. After all, pre-season is just a few months away…

  1. These were calculated using the Mifflin St. Jeor equation, which takes into account gender, age, weight, height, and activity level to calculate daily caloric needs. 

  2. References:

    Woolf K, Manore M. B-Vitamins and exercise: does exercise alter requirements? Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006; 16(5):453-84.

    Kim YN, Choi JY, Cho YO. Regulate moderate exercise training can alter the urinary excretion of thiamin and riboflavin. Nutr Res Pract. 2015; 9(1):43-48. 

  1. Kate Schlag

    Kate is a Registered Dietitian and holds a Masters in Public Health with a concentration in nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley. As an RD, she is looking forward to a career in sports nutrition and nutrition communications. She started playing ultimate with USC’s Hellions of Troy and now plays for San Francisco Polar Bears.

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