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Dave Smith unleashes the fact burning zone

A couple of weeks ago I’d have worn out the batteries in my Face Palmer if I had one. Another online article that on face value appeared to make perfect sense, referencing a research paper no less, related to ‘fat-burning’ rides. The reality however was that the interpretation was erroneous, condemning numerous cyclists to riding along at 14 mph to ‘burn fat’.

The only thing that grates with me more than the use or even consideration of the use of the term ‘anaerobic threshold’, is the utter confusion that surrounds the term ‘fat-burning zone’. It’s understandable given the terms adoption by the fitness industry, but let me tell you a little secret. The fitness industry embraces the fat burning zones on their cardio equipment to help the unfit think they’ve done a valuable workout. I know this as a director of one of the world’s largest fitness equipment manufacturers said it to me. He conceded that ‘fat burning zones’ had little real value, but stated that “most people who go to a gym don’t want a strenuous workout”.

But back to bikes

The first issue with fat burning zone, is that it exists. There is certainly a level of intensity at which fat contributes a greater proportion of energy to fuel exercise. The level of intensity varies from one individual to another and also within one individual from day to day, based on training status and nutritional inputs.

For example, if you wake up and exercise in a fasted state, you’ll burn more fat and at higher intensities than after a carbohydrate breakfast.

So what’s my problem?

Quite simply, this fat burning zone is something you should pretty much ignore if you wish to lose body fat. That’s a prime example of those sneaky counterintuitive things. There are several reasons to eschew the slow plodding rides that will have you favouring fat over carbs as fuel.

The first is that you’ll burn very little body fat in the first place. One gram of fat is worth 9 calories. Since ‘fat-burning zone’ exercise burns roughly 140 to 180 calories in 30 minutes, with an estimate of 50 to 60 percent of those calories coming from fat it translates 8 to 12g of fat in 30 minutes - or two times that amount in an hour.

Good luck losing that stone. 

The second reason to avoid long slow training sessions is that they increase appetite, whilst high intensity intervals suppress appetite. So you may have done 3 hours and burned 60 grams of fat (whoop) but you’re more likely to reach for the tub of ice cream afterwards.

An interval session will have a greater calorie cost when recovery metabolism is included, and also suppresses hunger. Whilst losing body fat is not a simple case of ‘calories in calories out’, calories do play some part in waist management.

You don’t believe me, do you?

Boffins at Laval University in Quebec* had two groups participate in different exercise sessions. Seventeen subjects trained on an indoor bike four to five times per week for 20 weeks, with workouts lasting from 30 to 45 minutes and exercise intensity ranged from 60-85 per cent of maximal heart rate.



A second group of 10 subjects completed 30-minute workouts at an intensity comparable to that attained by the first group. However, the second group also conducted 19 short and 16 long interval sessions during their 15-week programme. The short-interval sessions consisted of 10 to 15 intervals lasting for 15-30 seconds, while the long-interval efforts were composed of four to five intervals with durations of 60-90 seconds.Total energy expenditure during training was twice as great in the first group as in the second group – they burned more calories. However, each group achieved about a 30% increase in maximal aerobic capacity. Most surprisingly however, the interval-trained athletes (who performed less total work remember) had a 9x greater loss of body fat than the first group.

This research was done more than 20 years ago, yet the misconception still exists that low intensity exercise in your ‘fat burning zone’ is best for losing body fat, hence my palming of the face last week.

Still not convinced? Try to recall the 100m final at the Olympics - men and women. What do the fastest men and women on earth look like? They’re not the fattest athletes on display are they? In fact, I suspect they have less body fat than marathon runners yet how much training time do you think they spend in their ‘fat-burning zones’?

So what should you do to lose body fat? Firstly, forget about your fat burning zone. And I hate to break it to you but ‘eat less, exercise more’ only has a 5% long-term success rate. It’s also not all about calories as we’re not a sealed unit where calories in and calories out have a great relevance – we have hormones and feedback loops and all kinds of bat-shit crazy things going under the skin.

The simple answer is to choose food and exercise that will control your appetite and hunger effectively, avoid switching on the sugar fuelled ovens in the body when you start the day, and focus on high intensity interval training. Choose foods that don’t encourage the storage of body fat, which in practical terms means that unless you’re exercising hard, set aside the sugar for the builder’s tea.

Oh, and lift heavy things. Make your muscle work hard regularly.

Now the bit where I contradict myself - it’s not all a big downer on exercising to become more efficient at burning fat. It does have an important role to play for enhancing endurance performance in longer events, preserving glycogen and allowing you to plod on without pockets and bottles full of sugar.

To become better at fat burning, ride in a fasted state and ride long. Don’t fuel up on cereals and gels before a sportive - that will switch your fat burning off. Do all of this and keep riding when you feel empty to force your muscle to make powerful adaptations - turning you into an efficient fat burning machine that will drag your bike though the darkness of a 600km audax, or the last hour of the Dragon Ride.

Just don’t do it to lose weight**. Please.

* 'lmpact of Exercise Intensity on Body Fatness and Skeletal Muscle Metabolism, ' Metabolism, vol. 43(7), pp 814-818, 1994)

**Although you will lose some weight.

Dave Smith has been involved in coaching cyclists in all disciplines for more than 25 years. A former GB national and Olympic road coach, Dave has trained Tour stage winners and Olympic medallists, world champions and numerous national champions. In addition he has applied his quirky and counter intuitive thinking to help dozens of regular cyclists, polo players and F1 drivers. He rides 250 miles a week on and off-road in all weathers.

136 comments

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Mungecrundle [1662 posts] 8 months ago
4 likes

This article started 4 years ago.

Is it just me or is anyone else now older, wiser, fatter & slower?

 

Avatar
Jetmans Dad [215 posts] 8 months ago
1 like
Mungecrundle wrote:

This article started 4 years ago.

Is it just me or is anyone else now older, wiser, fatter & slower?

I am definitely older, fatter and slower. Not sure about the other one ...

Avatar
Rick_Rude [501 posts] 8 months ago
3 likes

Roadcc is a bit like hobbyist magazine, say, photography ones. You get into it, read all this advice and then 12 months later they just repeat it all again with new pictures. 

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janusz0 [343 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes
MariaMartinez wrote:

Somewhat contradicted by meta-analysis: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/obr.12536

From the linked aricle: "Of the 6,074 studies netted, 31 were included."  Ignoring the fact that meta-analysis is frowned on by real statisticians*, I'd say that they're being 'economical' with the data from over 6,000 studies.

Results from separate experiments should never be combined.  If you want to analyse a larger sample, you must complete another experiment with a larger sample.

*I am not a real statistician but, in a former life, I was a scientist taught experimental design and analysis by real statisticians. 

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BBB [515 posts] 8 months ago
2 likes

Apparently the best method of loosing fat is beating a dead horse...

Avatar
Htc [154 posts] 8 months ago
1 like
Dave Smith wrote:

"Sorry guys, there are no short cuts to losing weight. The only thing that works is: Eat less and exercise more." This has < 5% success rate Would you fly with an airline that only arrived at it's destination 5% of the time?

 

Total rubbish. Eat less and exercise more is exactly what is required. Being successful in real life is not because the base protocol is incorrect it’s because humans will tend the path of least resistance meaning that the fail to eat less or exercise more. 

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Michel15555 [6 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes
Yennings wrote:

Some good points here. People are generally too quick to accept the received wisdom and pseudoscience of the day, not to mention the marketing bullshit of the Big Pharma companies that increasingly control the commercial sports nutrition market. That said, is it not true that in broad terms, most people can only store around 90 mins worth of glycogen in their muscles/liver/bloodstream? So surely simple logic thus dictates that anyone riding steadily for more than 1h30 without topping up their glycogen supplies with drinks, gels or any of that goop, will inevitably start to burn a higher proportion of their fat supplies as the glycogen tank becomes emptier? Fire away as I'm quite interested in sports nutrition and would love to be proven wrong/re-educated here...

Don't forget the online and offline sports magazines sponsored by Big Pharma. it is through those that we are made to believe that we need gels, bars, electrolytes, etc.

Sidenote: after cycling for decades, only when I started reading cycling magazines did I realize that having the right socks would be the key to better performance...

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jollygoodvelo [1898 posts] 3 months ago
2 likes
Mungecrundle wrote:

This article started 4 years ago.

Is it just me or is anyone else now older, wiser, fatter & slower?

 

I definitely am.  4

As a result I can confirm that a 90% reduction in your annual cycling distance and eating more crisps is definitely not a way to lose weight.

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earth [448 posts] 3 months ago
1 like
Grizzerly wrote:

body SHAPE has little to do with body fat.

 

You weren't there to see the women at the cash point yesterday.  There was so much fat I thought that is not the shape of a human being.

 

 

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bozmandb9 [7 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes
Tintow wrote:
Dave Smith wrote:

"Sorry guys, there are no short cuts to losing weight. The only thing that works is: Eat less and exercise more." This has < 5% success rate Would you fly with an airline that only arrived at it's destination 5% of the time?

Sorry Dave but this has been supported by numerous medical surveys - not sure what this has got to do with airlines but would you care to point out your evidence that people eating less and exercising more lose weight less than 5% of the time.

 

Would you care to show evidence that the approach you are endorsing works Tintow?

It makes me laugh whenever I see people spouting 'it's simple arithmetic'.  If you really think that, try living off lard, with a 500 calorie a day deficit, and tell me how much weight you've lost after 3 months.

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IanEdward [389 posts] 3 months ago
1 like

Here's a question I keep wondering about, if you're doing your high quality interval workout, lets say 4x8 intervals on the turbo, and you come off with that slightly wobbly legged feeling of a really good workout, should you abstain from that delicious, cool recovery shake in the fridge if you're hoping to lose some weight?

I always feel this is replenishing the calories spent quicker than my body would otherwise by burning fat...

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Jimnm [325 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes

I do some cycling but not long distances 30 to 40 miles, the only thing I eat while I’m out is one banana and a bidon of water. That’s it. Depending on how windy, average speed around 16mph. My weight doesn’t seem to change much at all  5’ 8”  75kg   68 years old and still turning the cranks. in bad  weather I use my cross trainer every other day. Just do between 45mins to an hour  with the watts set at between 100 watts and 130 watts constant. I never stop trying.

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grOg [6 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes

oozaveared  'The really brilliant thing about cycling for unfit people is that it is load bearing unlike running where heavier people are impacting their joints etc and it can be included in lifestyle like commuting on the bike instead of in the car.'

 

Ah,no..running is load bearing whereas cycling is not load bearing.

 

 

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CygnusX1 [1209 posts] 3 months ago
1 like

I may be a little weird, but I do like wading through the comments section of zombie articles like this, it's worth it to find lost nuggets such as Dave's description of the eat less, exercise more mantra as the rhythm method of girth control.

Now just waiting for the L shaped cranks article to rise once more from the grave...

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mdavidford [123 posts] 3 months ago
1 like
bozmandb9 wrote:

It makes me laugh whenever I see people spouting 'it's simple arithmetic'.  If you really think that, try living off lard, with a 500 calorie a day deficit, and tell me how much weight you've lost after 3 months.

 

I would think if you tried living off lard you'd lose an awful lot of weight, due to hardly eating anything because your meals were all so unpalatable.

Avatar
Judge dreadful [447 posts] 3 months ago
1 like

It’s not really rocket science. If you are  cycling in a way which promotes the fast twitch muscles ( usually sufficient power at higher Cadence ) you will push the equilibrium towards carb feeding. The same power at lower cadence will promote the slow muscles, and you’ll push the feeding equilibrium towards fat. The key thing is to keep the power up, and change the cadence only. A lot of ‘plodders’ aren’t keeping their power up, they are just riding at low cadence and ( relatively) low power, which won’t promote one muscle type over the other. The power required, is very individual, and relies on lots of different parameters ( limb length, muscle fibre density, fitness etc etc etc) as a rough guide, 90 ( odd ) rpms at 150 Watts will cause the fast twitch muscles to be dominant, and push the fuelling towards carbs, whereas 60-70 rpms, at 150 Watts will cause the slow muscles to be dominant, and push the equilibrium towards fat fuelling. Those are rough guidelines though, but the theory holds, as long as you’re not dropping power too much, slower pedalling promotes fat burning, but too many ‘plodders’ aren’t making sufficient power for it to work.

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