If you’re anything like me, you started exercising without giving much thought to nutrition. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and in some ways, it makes sense. Most initial gains from physical conditioning are neurological—basically, the brain gets more efficient at using muscle that is already available¹—and this doesn’t require any change to your diet. But as training goes on, nutrition begins to become more important. And if you’ve been training at my school for a while now (or by yourself for that matter), I highly recommend you take the next step forward by considering your diet.
To be clear here, I am not judging where you source your calories from, and I am not here to tell you how many calories you should eat, or recommend you stop eating cookies. You’re free to make whatever lifestyle choices you’d like (and in some circumstances, cookies could be the answer to your problems!). Instead, I’m here to advise you on the optimum intake of macronutrients to improve your performance as a martial artist and athlete (and if you are training with me regularly, you are, indeed, an athlete).
We aren’t magic. No matter how many pushups or squats we do, our bodies require nutrients to recover from the beatings we put them through to get stronger. Once your neurological gains start to level out beyond the early stages of training, you won’t see any additional benefit from your physical conditioning if you neglect your nutrition. You’ll be cheating yourself out of awesomeness!
The good news is, nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. Much like our training, you can improve by focusing on one thing at a time, mastering it, and then moving onto the next bit. Having said that, today we’re going to discuss macronutrients—specifically protein and carbohydrates. These two are the most important macronutrients for us as martial artists, because we require carbohydrates to power our muscles through our bouts of moderate to intense exercise, and protein to repair the muscle tissue we break down.
We will save any discussion of micronutrients and the two other macronutrients (fat and alcohol—yes, alcohol is its very own, special macronutrient) for another time.
The first thing you need to know is how much protein and carbohydrates you require for training purposes. Luckily, getting an estimate is as easy as following these two simple equations, and counting up the grams of carbs and proteins on the nutrition labels of the things you eat. (Don’t worry, once you’ve done this a few times you can start estimating—I don’t expect you to count grams for the rest of your life!).
For protein, it is recommended you consume 1.2-2g per kilogram of body mass¹. If you are significantly overweight, it is arguable that you may want to consider your lean body mass instead of your total weight, but the following equation should still get you in the ballpark of what you require. (If you’d like to know how to calculate your lean body mass, just let me know, and I’ll help you).
Minimum protein intake: 1.2 x (your weight in pounds/2.2) = grams of protein required for one day.
Maximum protein intake: 2 x (your weight in pounds/2.2) = grams of protein required for one day.
For carbohydrates, the equation is slightly more complicated, but not by much. You just need to factor in a number based on the equivalent energy required for your training. These numbers are as follows²:
For light intensity/skill-based training: 3-5g carbs per kilogram
For moderate exercise programs: (~1 hr/day): 5-7g carbs/kilogram
For endurance programs: (1-3 hr/day of moderate to high intensity exercise): 6-10g carbs/kg
For extreme exercise: (>5 hr/day of moderate to high-intensity exercise): 8-12 carbs/kg
If you are a student taking one of my 90-minute exercise classes, I’d estimate your carbohydrate requirement is about 6g carbs/kg per session (the low end of the endurance program). This is because we do approximately 30-45 mins of moderate to high intensity exercise and about 30-45 mins of skill-based training. Therefore, your recommended carbohydrate intake would be as follows:
(Your weight in pounds/2.2) x 6 = grams of carbohydrates required for training day.
While you should try and hit your protein marker every day, particularly if you are at the lower end, the carbohydrate marker is to optimize your performance for training days. Getting your carbs right is critical, because not only will you feel significantly better during training, it will also allow you to perform your best, and thereby reap greater gains from your conditioning.
Something important to remember when considering all of this too, is that these are recommended numbers based off an aggregate of individuals. Exercise Science is a particularly difficult field because there are a number of variables in play during every study, and every body is unique, meaning this science is limited to estimations and trends. It can never be as exacting as something like physics or chemistry, where a single variable can be isolated and tested while all other values are held constant.
Therefore, I recommend consuming the grams of protein and carbohydrates provided from the equations above, and see how it makes you feel. Afterwards, pare down or bulk up the number based on your experience. For example, if you still feel a little lethargic during training, you may need to increase your carbohydrate intake prior to your next session. If you reach a strength/endurance plateau or your muscles feel sore for long after training, you may need more protein. However, if your energy/recovery levels do not improve, and you find yourself gaining unwanted weight, you may want to ease back on one or the other.
You are your own, unique experiment! However, knowing these general equations and tracking your macronutrients will help you optimize your performance much faster than if you are simply guessing and checking on your own.
Again, I’ll emphasize that tracking macronutrients is not a permanent challenge. Once you’ve tracked the protein and carbs you consume for a few days, you’ll quickly pick up the ability to estimate intake values of your favorite foods. This makes it so that you don’t have to obsessively track your macronutrients everyday. However, going through the effort to do this at least once will help you assess where you currently stand and what kind of changes you might need to make to reap the performance and health rewards of your conditioning.
Don’t cheat yourself out of awesomeness!
Coburn JW, Malek M H. NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training 2nd Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2012.
Larson-Meyer E, Ruscigno M. Plant-Based Sports Nutrition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2020.