The quickest way to make substantial gains in cycling is to reduce weight. You can spend over ten grand on a light weight road bike and save barely a couple of kilograms but you can probably cut multiples of this by cutting your body weight. Take me, I used to be 75 kilograms with body fat of just above 10%. This means that I have over 7.5 kg’s of fat clinging to my body. Experts generally agree that you need to have at least 5% body fat to survive (if you’re a man or just under 10% for a women) so in reality I have about 3.75 kg’s that is slowing me down, or a bit over half the weight of my complete road bike, a lot!
But what can I do about it. Well it’s easy to say lose it but the problem lies in ensuring you are dropping weight without dropping performance. You don’t want to lose any muscle mass that provides your power, nor do you want to under-feed your rides or races. Conventional wisdom supports the fact that if you eat right and exercise your weight will drop but that really isn’t the case for everyone. Factors like your body type, your lifestyle, and medication you might be on, or even how fat you were as a teenager comes into it – the theory goes that the fat cells you “grow” as a child will stay with you until you demise, the best you can do is empty them.
But all is not lost… Even pros have to watch their weight. It’s not impossible but it requires determination and commitment. It certainly is a marathon and not a sprint. First you will want to track the food you eat, get an app that does this easily, and work out where you should be in terms of calories you need per day then add calories burnt via training. If you read up on losing weight most experts agree that 500 calories eaten less per day than what you need is the safest way to drop weight. In my experience this is far too much to drop if you are training, you will tire very quickly, your muscles will not replenish their glycogen stores quickly enough for you to be able to train and race effectively. Your cycling will suffer.
Sadly, unless you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a professional nutritionist you’ll struggle with this. You need to work out what diet works best for your body. Do you go with a low fat diet, low carb, and gluten free and so on. I have recently turned to a higher fat diet from previously restricting my fat intake, I also avoid gluten wherever possible. I am faster and stronger in cycling. It is a learning curve, we will make mistakes but the important thing is to learn from them.
There’s no great way to ensure you don’t drop power as well as weight. You need to track your body fat percentage, this will allow you to work out how much of the weight you are losing is lean mass – you will need to limit this loss to maintain performance. Depending on what time of the year you are attempting to lose weight, you will need to track your performance and in particular your power to weight ratio. You can do this via weekly time trials at your local club, you can use a particular route or hill climb to monitor, or you can have regular cycling performance testing. If you start to drop off on power dramatically you are losing too much lean mass versus fat. However, you should expect to lose some lean mass. But as long as your power to weight ratio rises your performance should increase.
So my advice to anyone in this situation is eat clean, exercise and track performance. Don’t drop too much too quickly as you will likely be losing lean mass. You should expect to lose some lean mass in the weight dropping process but more fat mass. If you have muscles that don’t usually come into cycling, upper body mass for example, you can expect to shed this, this can then make tracking lean mass loss difficult – something I am struggling with.
You can give yourself the best chance by choosing the time of year you drop weight well. If you use the start of the off season to lose weight you won’t have the worry about race performance as there aren’t any. You will also be able to restore any loss in power before the start of the next season. Some riders’ take the period between the typical time trial and hill climb season to lose as much weight as possible. Again this is a good tactic as the weight loss will dramatically improve your climbing ability and if you’re training for hill climbing you’ll be able to judge your performance changes by your speed up hills.
Time of day will come into it too. Eat your main meals around your training sessions, restrict large meals to the morning when it’ll more likely be burnt off as fuel. Feeding on the bike plays a role, reduce the amounts you feed on the bike to get your body to burn fat as a fuel, eating more healthy fats can have this affect also. But again there’s no one size fits all cure to this problem. I’ve provided some tips but the hard work really does come down to you…