Weight Loss for Cyclists

Nutrition and food choices are a key component of weight loss for all endurance athletes. When done correctly, weight loss can have a significant impact on cycling performance in two ways:

#1 Improved Power to Weight Ratio

#2 Improved Recovery 

There are some dietary changes we suggest before plunging into a caloric deficit (diet). Often times these simple lifestyle changes will result in a leaner, healthier, and faster athlete.

So here goes, these are 'go slow' foods:

  • Limit foods and beverages with added sugars (exception to this being immediately before, during and after training)

  • Processed foods with partially hydrogenated fats

  • Partially hydrogenated fats raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower your good cholesterol (HDL), making them not so great for heart health)

  • Low-fat foods (these are often high in added sugar)

  • Saturated fats found in red meat, cheese, butter, and fried foods

  • Alcohol 

For weight loss, athletes should also start paying attention to the back label of foods where ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated fats, and added sugars are displayed.

Here are some healthy 'go fast' food choices you can make: 

  • Complex carbohydrates: sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown or white rice

  • The post race/ride burrito! (with rice, veggies and a good source of protein)

  • Fruit like apples, oranges, mangoes, bananas (bananas can replace energy bars)

  • Rice cakes - to use on the bike

  • Snack on fruit or raw vegetables like carrots, broccoli, edamame, green and red pepper slices with some hummus 

  • Eat more vegetables

  • Have a salad for dinner with chicken or fish

  • Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach & arugula - antioxidant rich

Try switching to go fast food choices for a month and see what progress you make.

Eat 3 meals a day and 4 snacks. Aim for 1 ounce of water per pound of weight each day. This basically subscribes to Dr. Phil Goglia where 80% of weight loss occurs in the kitchen thru food choices and 20% occurs from exercise.

Also check out our Winning in the Kitchen Podcast and Training Tip. If you are already "winning in the kitchen" [the 80% part] with go fast foods try using these two tools to take a harder look at your diet and food consumption:

  1. MyFitnessPal: Complete a 3 day dietary recall . Download the app and start logging what you eat for 3 days. Not just what, but how much. Be detailed. Your coach can analyze your 'food diary' but often times in the exercise itself, the athlete will realize all the empty calories they are consuming on a daily basis.
  2. Your PowerMeter: 1 kiloJoule on the bike equals 1 calorie of food. Ride 1,000kJ's and that's equivalent to a burrito. Ride 2,000 kJ's and it's easy to see why you can lose some weight as long as you don't eat everything that isn't nailed down in the kitchen when you get home. 

Basically it all comes down to taking in fewer calories than your daily caloric requirements, otherwise known as a caloric deficit. Some athletes can successfully 'diet by math' to lose weight and if you want to try, we recommend a 250-500 calorie caloric deficit per day. Over 1 week that is 1 lb. 10 weeks = 10 lbs. Don't diet more than that because your power on the bike and recovery off the bike will decrease.

Before I go any further, there are points in an athlete's training schedule when it is OK and NOT OK to lose weight. After the season is over and during your base phase are great opportunities to lose some body fat. During your weight program or once you start your intensity training and begin racing are not. Instead back up and try modifying your diet with the go fast and go slow foods described above. If it's the right time of year to cut calories try some of these tips:

  1. Try eating 3 moderate-sized meal plus 2 to 3 small snacks over the course of the day

  2. Include more foods that are not calorically dense like salads and vegetables

  3. Include adequate amounts of protein (1.2 to 2g per kg of body weight)

  4. For snacks include a source of carbs and fat or a carbs and protein. Carbs and fats take longer to digest so this will help you feel fuller for longer. A great example is a banana and peanut butter or carrots and hummus. Try to avoid reaching for things like chips or baked goods.

  5. Veggies - include them with every meal!

  6. On the bike, teach your body to burn fat by riding in zones 1/2 so that it is using your body's fat stores as the primary source of energy (~70% HR MAX or FAT MAX). You can determine your "FAT MAX" with metabolic testing in the lab. By going slow and burning fat as fuel, you will be able to ride longer without tapping into your glycogen stores. When you deplete your glycogen, that is when you bonk!

  7. After you finish eating, give yourself 20 minutes before you go back for seconds. This will give time for your satiety hormones to reach your brain and tell you if you are truly full or not.   

Remember to consume plenty of carbohydrates once you start your intervals and begin racing. Dieting during the season is risky business and could hurt your cycling decreased power output by way of reduced recovery, muscle immunosuppression and a reduction in performance.

Disclaimer: if the recommendations above are not working for you, I suggest working with a dietitian: one that can look at your training plan, use metabolic laboratory data (FAT MAX) plus your powermeter data (kJ's = calories) AND design a meal plan for long term sustainability. Because after all, we are talking about lifestyle changes, not diets. Above all, congratulations on the commitment you made to your health and to your power to weight ratio! Chris Froome here you come.

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About Frank Overton

Frank founded FasCat Coaching in 2002 and has been a full time cycling coach since 2004. His educational background includes a Masters degree in Physiology from North Carolina State University, pre-med from Hampden-Sydney College. Frank raced at a professional level on the road and mountain bike and currently competes as a "masters" level gravel and cyclocrosser. Professionally Frank comes from medical school spinal cord research and molecular biotechnology. However, to this day it is a dream come true for Frank to be able to help cyclists as a coach.

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