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How To Set Up Your Diet: #4.2 Nutrient Timing & Meal Frequency, Calorie & Macro Cycling

Andy Morgan

By Andy Morgan

Andy Morgan is a top online nutrition coach and trainer. He has coached 1000+ clients from all over the world and is considered one of the most experienced and genuine guys in his field. Read more.

Please note, this article is the second part of this topic and covers the theories that MAY benefit your fat loss goals. For further information on what WILL benefit you, please read part 1 of this article: How To Set Up Your Diet: #4.1 Nutrient Timing & Meal Frequency, Calorie & Macro Cycling

Pyramid of nutrition priorities

Credit to coach Eric Helms for the idea of organising things as a pyramid

Calorie and Macro Cycling – Worth Considering?

We are now getting into the realms of the hypothetical – there is little solid evidence of the benefits to calorie and macro cycling, as there is very little research on this topic at all.

One clear benefit of calorie and macro cycling is that it can bring greater adherence by increasing variety in our diets. However, for some people this will be a distinct disadvantage, as the additional complication will threaten their diet adherence.

A stressed-out, overwhelmed beginner would do well to skip this part for now until the more important habits are established.

I do think that there are some benefits to calorie and macro cycling beyond just the adherence factors, but as this is another complication to sell people on, you’ll find the supposed benefits of macro cycling completely overblown in many articles on the internet.

Definitions

Calorie cycling’ is the purposeful increase and decrease of calorie intake relative to the days that you train, while maintaining the calorie balance for the week.

Macro cycling’ is the purposeful repositioning of certain macronutrients across your training week – with a goal to improve body composition, training effect or performance – while maintaining the macronutrient balance for the week.

Put another way, calorie cycling is eating more on your training days than your rest days, when your energy demands are higher.

Macro cycling has two common forms:

  • The first being eating more carbs and less fat on your training days, and less carbs and more fats on your rest days (as with Martin Berkhan’s Leangains).
  • The second being strategic carb refeeds, usually every 4-10 days, with general low carb dieting (the most famous/pure example being Lyle Mcdonald’s cyclical ketogenic diet CKD).

The idea is that by strategically increasing or decreasing the intake of certain macronutrients on certain days of the week relative to training, one can get nutrient partitioning benefits that will positively impact recovery and growth, as well as having favourable hormonal benefits that will aid in fat loss.

The difference is mainly in the extent of the carb refeeds. The Leangains style calls for a more controlled carb refeed every training day, Lyle’s for more of a splurge, with the tradeoff being heavier restrictions on carbs at other times.

We’re going to put aside Lyle's CKD aside for now and focus on the less restrictive style.

How to Implement Calorie and Macro Cycling

Calculating the Calorie Split

Pyramid of nutrition priorities

You want to give yourself more calories on your training days, less on your rest days. How much? Try anywhere from a 25% to a 50% difference between the two days. Don’t go over this or you’ll negatively impact recovery due to the especially low intake on the rest day.

Training 3-4 Days A Week? – Use This Easy Math Version

If you’re fine with not getting too hung up on the actual percentage, and follow Martin’s general guidelines of training three days a week, then here’s a simple way of going about this.

  • Step 1. Decide how much you’d like the calorie split to be.
    Let’s say we choose ~40%.

  • Step 2. Add calories to the daily energy intake for the training day and subtract for the rest day.
    If energy needs were calculated to be 2500kCal, then a good approximation is to take half of the 40%, (20%) and add that to get your training day calories, 3000kCal (2500×1.2), and subtract that to get your rest day calories, 2000kCal (2500×0.8).

  • Step 3. Adjust to maintain the calorie intake target for the week.
    With fewer training days than rest days, with the above simplified calculation you’re going to be a little under calories for the week. We must maintain the energy balance for the week so we need to adjust.

    Our target energy intake for the week is 17,500kCal (2500×7).

    With three training days we only consume 17,000kCal (3000×3 + 2000×4), which is short by 500kCal. So the easiest thing to do would be to add ~71kCal (500/7) to your training and rest day calorie targets and not worry about the slight gap in the percentage math.

    Therefore:
    Training Day Target Intake: 3071kCal, Rest Day Target Intake: 2071kCal

Pyramid of nutrition priorities

Training More Or Less Frequently?

In this case the math above isn’t going to work very well.

  • If you are training more than 4 days a week, see the next part in the box.
  • If you are training just once or twice a week it’s probably not worth bothering with calorie and macro cycling just yet. The most impactful thing you could do for your physique is to add another day of training into your schedule, when you have time to do so. Skip the next part for now.

Training More Than 4 Days A Week?

I often get asked how people can adjust their intake based on more or less training. And though I don’t generally recommend this amount of training for anyone that is not an advanced-intermediate trainee, I want to make this guide accessible to anyone, so here we go.

The catch is that you’ll need to do a little math. But I spent a couple of hours reverse engineering these formulae for you from what jives with my experience.

  • We know: Number of training days a week (N),  average daily calories (A), target percentage difference expressed as a decimal (D).
  • We want to find: Training-day calories (y), Rest-day calories (x).

1- x/y = D Ny + (7-N)x = 7A

Example: Three days training a week, 2500kCal calculated energy requirement per day, 30% target split. (N = 3, A = 2500, D = 0.3)

1- x/y = 0.3, 0.7 = x/y, x = 0.7y 3y + 7-3x = 7(2500)

Resolving for y: 3y + 4*0.7y = 17500, 5.8y = 17500, y = 3017 Resolving for x: x = 0.7(3017) = 2112

So, Training day intake = 3017kCal, Rest day intake = 2112kCal

To use these calculations you will need to have decided your target average daily calorie intake macro intake accordingly to the guidelines in #1 Calories and #2 Macros, and I still suggest you read the guidelines in the next section anyway.

Calculating the Macro Split

In #2 Macros & Fibre you will have calculated/set your daily average protein and fat needs, and carbs will have been the balancing figure.

  • Significantly more carbs should be consumed on the training days than the rest days.
  • Significantly less fat should be consumed on the training days than the rest days.
  • Fat intake must not go below the calculated daily target on average for the week.

For the sake of simplicity we’ll keep protein intake the same for each day for now.

Continuing the example from the above:

  • Let’s round those calorie numbers to 3000 and 2100.
  • Let’s say the protein intake was calculated to be 160g each day – that’s 640kCal.
  • We’re left with 2360kCal on the training days and 1460kCal on rest days to fill with carbs or fat.

(1g of protein & carbohydrate = 4kCal, fat = 9kCal)

Let’s say that the minimum average fat intake is 60g, which is 540kCal. That leaves us with 455g of carbs for the training day, 230g for the rest day.

Pyramid of nutrition priorities

The problem with that is that food choices can get quite limiting with such a low fat intake. You can swap out a good portion of those carbs on the rest day for fats as fits your taste preferences. Some guidelines (not rules):

  • You can go a little lower with the fat intake on training days if you wish as long as the average fat intake across the week does not go below your calculated minimum.
  • You can go higher with protein intake if you wish.
  • You can drop the protein intake on the training day by around 10% if you wish.

So, taking preferences into account we may end up with the following:

Training Day Macros –  Protein 160g, Carbs 455g, Fat 60g Rest Day Macros – Protein 180g, Carbs 97.5g, Fat 110g

Note: It is normal in most instances to consume significantly fewer carbs when cutting due to the lower energy intake.

Putting That All Together – Remember Tom & Bob!

We’ll continue with our examples of Tom and Bob, whose calorie requirements and macros we calculated in the first and second parts of the guide.

Remember Tom

Timing

  • Tom chooses to train fasted @09:00. He trains 3 days a week.
  • He takes 10g of BCAAs @08:50, and again @11:00.
  • He eats 50% of his macros at lunch @12:00, 50% at dinner @19:30 on both training and rest days.

Remember Tom

Calorie Intake

  • Training day: 2152*1.2 = 2582kCal
  • Rest day: 2152*0.8 = 1722kCal

Macro Split

  • For simplicity, Tom chooses to eat 180g of protein each day. This leaves 1862kCal (2582-180*4) and 1002kCal (1722-180*4) to be split between carbs and fats for the training and rest days respectively.
  • Tom has decided to eat 80g of fat per day on average, he chooses to have 60g on the training days, 100g on the rest days. This leaves 1322kCal (1862-60*9) and 102kCal (1002-100*9) for carbs on the training and rest days respectively.
  • Tom therefore eats 330g (1322/4) of carbs on the training days, 25g (102/4) of carbs on the rest days.
  • Tom’s Training Day Macros: 180g Protein, 60g Fat, 330g Carbs Tom’s Rest Day Macros: 180g Protein, 100g Fat, 25g Carbs*

(*From starchy sources. Fibrous sources like the majority of vegetables are being purposefully ignored.)

Remember Bob


Timing

  • Bob chooses to train in the evening @19:00. He trains 4 days a week.
  • He struggles to get all his food in two meals, especially on training days, and prefers to eat mid-morning.
  • He eats 25% of his macros in a mid-morning snack @10:00, 35% of his macros for a late lunch @15:00, and ~40% of his macros for dinner after training @20:00.
Remember Bob

Calorie Intake

  • Training day: 3141*1.2 = 3769kCal
  • Rest day: 3141*0.8 = 2512kCal

Macro Split

  • For simplicity, Bob chooses to eat 150g of protein each day. This leaves 3169kCal (3769-150*4) and 1912kCal (2512-150*4) to be split between carbs and fats for the training and rest days respectively.
  • Bob has decided to eat 87.5g of fat per day on average, he chooses to have 65g on the training days, 110g on the rest days. This leaves 2584kCal (3169-65*9) and 922kCal (1912-110*9) for carbs on the training and rest days respectively.
  • Bob therefore eats ~645g (2584/4) of carbs on the training days, 230g (922/4) of carbs on the rest days.
  • Bob’s Training Day Macros: 150g Protein, 65g Fat, 645g Carbs Bob’s Rest Day Macros: 150g Protein, 110g Fat, 230g Carbs*

    • Bob struggles to eat so many carbs on his training days, and he also finds it difficult to keep fat intake that low. He increases fat intake to 75g, increases protein intake to 200g, and reduces the carb allotment to maintain the same energy balance.

      This is a good decision, ease of implementation beats out any small difference this will bring to results. (Which will be minimal, if any.)

    Bob’s Modified Training Day Macros: 200g Protein, 75g Fat, 575g Carbs Bob’s Modified Rest Day Macros: 150g Protein, 110g Fat, 230g Carb

    Nutrient timing FAQ

    So you don’t think that IF and calorie/macro cycling is important then?

    That is not what I am saying. Importance comes with context, there is no blanket black and white statement that can be made. Please go back and re-read both 4.1 and 4.2.

    Researcher and nutrient timing specialist Alan Aragon in his monthly Research Review suggested a minimum of 3 meals a day as optimal. Why do you say two is fine?

    2 meal and 3 meal split This recommendation ignores the option of fasted training with BCAAs. It was based on a meal being eaten sometime before working out, sometime within a couple of hours after, and one more meal either earlier or later in the day as being the minimum optimal nutrition & protein spacing/frequency.

    Recently (14th January 2015) Alan Aragon, Brad Schoenfeld, and James Krieger’s, ‘Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis’  was published. I’d encourage you to read it all, but here are the concluding comments, the bolding is mine:

    Although the initial results of the present meta-analysis suggest a potential benefit of increased feeding frequencies for enhancing body composition, these findings need to be interpreted with circumspection.


    The positive relationship between the number of meals consumed and improvements in body composition were largely attributed to the results of a single study, calling into question the veracity of results.


    Moreover, the small difference in magnitude of effect between frequencies suggests that any potential benefits, if they exist at all, have limited practical significance. Given that adherence is of primary concern with respect to nutritional prescription, the number of daily meals consumed should come down to personal choice if one’s goal is to improve body composition.


    There is emerging evidence that an irregular eating pattern can have negative metabolic effects, at least in the absence of formal exercise. This gives credence to the hypothesis that it may be beneficial to stay consistent with a given meal frequency throughout the week.

     

    You’ve given a range of figures for the calorie split between training and rest days. Is there an optimal figure?

    Optimal FigureFrom reading through old forum posts on Bodyrecomposition.com (probably the best nutrition information website in the world) we know that Martin Berkhan experimented with very large differences in his rest and training day energy intake initially when forming his Leangains system.

    I don’t know if he actually formulated specific guidelines, I’d imagine they’d depend on body fat percentage, calorie deficit/surplus relative to maintenance, diet history, carb tolerance, preference and recovery.

    Regarding that last point on recovery, it is easy to imagine that having too large a difference in your training day and rest day intake would not be optimal.


    It’s quite geeky topic that isn’t worth worrying about to most, but I’d find a roundtable with thoughts from Alan, Lyle, and Martin fascinating, particularly for the latter’s extensive client experience with such narrowly controlled variables.

    As for fasted training with BCAAs, is this more or less optimal than fed training?

    For the same reasons as with the morning fasts it can help get through to stubborn fat for sure, this time by increasing blood flow to those stubborn fat areas.

    Alan tends to constrain his thoughts by what has been proven/shown in the research, which when it comes to fasted training there is little and frankly, more is needed. I would guess this why Alan made no direct recommendation or condemnation of fasted training.

    If there is anything to the added “anabolic sensitivity” of fasting, the IF strategy may well be taking advantage of it. It’s really too soon to say if the IF approach to eating is really superior or just a convenient way of dieting, but it does get results.


    December 2009 issue of the AARR, guest analysis of the study ‘Increased p70s6k phosphorylation during intake of a protein-carbohydrate drink following resistance exercise in the fasted state’

     

    Why do you say keep an even split of macros across the meals?

    At the moment I don’t feel that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that there are any benefits significant enough to make the additional complication worth it.  Exceptions are covered in the ‘Special Considerations for Nutrient Timing’ section.

     

    Why the recommendation to eat a meal within two hours of ending your workout?

     

    There is a definite window of opportunity for nutrient partitioning in the post workout window.

    This is not merely an hour as once thought (see “The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis,” Brad Schoenfeld, Alan Aragon and James Krieger).  And while there may be an effect lasting 48 hours that you have read about, this is likely going to be on a sliding scale rather than any set cut off point.

    The recommendation of two hours is a precautionary one. It can be a full meal or a snack.  Early-morning fasted training is the exception, where you can delay eating with BCAAs post workout.

    Layne Norton’s talks about advantages of more frequent meals/BCAA supplementation between meals. What are your thoughts?

     

    Firstly, let me just say that Layne Norton seems to me to be one of the good guys in the industry, highly knowledgeable, and with a very good track record with clients.

    It’s important to note that Layne works with competitive bodybuilders as his recommendations should be taken in that context.

    Someone pointed out that he has said that 1-3 meals are not optimal. Of course, it depends on how one defines ‘optimal’. I would define it as getting a balance between simplicity and complication so that the non-competitor can stick to their nutrition plan long-term, but still reap >95% of the benefits without going fully anal about things.

    Layne has also invested a lot of time and effort researching into the effect of BCAAs so it’s natural for him to be a little biased towards their use. The results of the research he has done so far, in the end, showed that the effect of BCAA dosing between meals was small/negligible.

    Are you claiming the timing of carbs post-workout or pre-workout doesn’t make a difference?

     

    It’s not quite as blanket a statement as that, but in general I don’t believe it matters a great deal for recreational trainees.  The exceptions being in the “Special Considerations for Macro Timing” part, and by definition, athletes, which I have spoken about briefly above also.

    There will be some individual response of course, some people will find that they perform better in their workouts with more or less carbs pre workout. There is not a one size fits all answer.

    When I train fasted in the morning I don’t feel as strong/powerful. Is this a sign that I should eat something before I train?

    I’m going to assume here that you have come to this conclusion based on observation of your energy in multiple, successive training sessions, under the same conditions (time, sleep, diet, stress) with sufficient sleep and no extra-stressful events recently.

    I mention this because some people have a single bad session and jump to the conclusion that it’s the training time rather then something else.

    I'm also assuming you are a recreational trainee, not an athlete, are not having multiple training sessions a day, are not heavily restricting carbs (relatively speaking), and are not in a highly active job (hence the word relative).

    Average Person



    Your muscle’s fuel stores (glycogen stores) are like a gas tank in your car – you fill them up and if you come back even a day later, the energy is still there. Assuming you’re not on a highly carb restricted diet and you’re not highly active outside of your gym work (job or otherwise), then training fasted shouldn’t be a problem.

    Some people find that they feel stronger when they have had something to eat before they train; some find exactly the opposite, likely due to the increase in catecholamines – epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and dopamine – in the system when training fasted.

    In some of these cases, it’s going to come down to the placebo effect, i.e. “I worry that I can’t, therefore, I can’t.” The placebo effect is very real and needs to be taken into account.

    To have any non-placebo, real physiological effect we’re talking a carby meal at least 2 hours before the training, or a sugary drink ~1 hour before. Adjust the rest of your macros throughout the day accordingly.

    Some people just can’t do well with fasted training however. So try it out, see how you feel!

     

    If you missed part 1 of this article, you can read it here.  If you have any other questions or need some further clarification, hit me up in the comments – Andy

    Andy Morgan

    About Andy

    Andy Morgan is a top online nutrition coach and trainer. He has coached 1000+ clients from all over the world and is considered one of the most experienced and genuine guys in his field.

    Andy is from Birmingham, but is now based in Osaka, Japan. He cuts through the industry nonsense to show people how to transform their physiques with the minimal effective dose. Andy's guides are founded in the teachings of some of the best science-based guys in the industry, then refined and developed through his personal experiences working with clients. These guides are all available for free on his website, RippedBody.jp where you can find out more about his online coaching also.

    Here's his Twitter and Facebook page.

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