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Eat yourself fit: the best cycling nutrition for weight loss

Get in shape for your big rides or just to get up hills faster

Whatever type of cycling you're into, you'll go faster (if that's your thing) by improving your power-to-weight ratio. You can train like a demon and improve your power or you can drop some weight. Here's how...

What is power to weight ratio?

Zwift FTP Test - 1

Simply enough, it’s the relationships between your power output (measured in watts) and your bodyweight (in kilograms). For example if you weigh 70kg and your average power output for an hour is 300 watts then your power to weight ratio is 300/70, which equates to 4.3 watts per kg body weight. That's a very good FTP by the way, so don't worry if yours is nowhere near that! The average human who does a bit of leisure cycling averages 2w/kg, while for amateur cyclists 3w/kg is a good target.

Professional riders may be able to average 5.5 watts per kg for an hour, with those capable of winning a Grand Tour averaging 6.4 watts per kg for an hour.

It is thought that losing one kilogram of bodyweight is the equivalent to gaining 7 watts when climbing a significant gradient. Even if you do not train with a power meter or plan climbing Alpe d’Huez any time soon, the concept is still worth taking into account.

Tom Bell hill climb 2

Anyone who needs to lose weight can do so, it’s about putting your body in a state of negative energy balance – expending more energy than you consume. However, for those in training it is important you lose fat mass and maintain lean body mass; power to weight ratio is as much about muscle mass as it is about overall weight. Merely restricting calorie intake may end up in weight loss, but this can be skewed if your body is breaking down your muscles as an energy source, not the positive weight loss we are looking for.

Best practice for healthy weight loss is to reduce your daily calorie intake by 200-500 kcal at a time. It may take a little longer than adopting a weight loss diet but by doing it this way your body is not being shocked into starvation, weight loss can be controlled and it’s likely to be longer lasting. You could achieve this by simply cutting out a mid-afternoon snack or by reducing portion sizes at each meal. 

Carbohydrate cycling

Bottega (CC BY-SA 2.0 Mack Male via Flickr)

Bottega (CC BY-SA 2.0 Mack Male via Flickr)

Carbohydrates are often a hot topic when it comes to weight loss. Cutting carbohydrates out of your diet will help you lose weight as your body will use fat as an alternative energy source, but ultimately carbohydrates are needed to fuel exercise. Without them you will not be able to train to your highest ability or intensity and achieve the best training adaptations.

However, overconsuming carbohydrates will contribute to weight gain and with this is mind it is a good idea to ‘cycle carbohydrates’. This means only consuming high carbohydrate meals when your body is in a glycogen depleted state, typically at breakfast time or post training session. This way your body can reap the rewards of your training session as your muscles need carbohydrates to repair and grow. For the rest of your meals and snacks instead of carbohydrates taking up the majority of your plate, reduce servings and substitute with a slightly larger portion of protein.

This will also help with satiety; that fuller for longer feeling. Protein, particularly an amino acid called leucine, has been found to be pivotal in the maintenance of lean body mass during weight loss. Research by well renowned Performance Nutritionist for British Cycling Nigel Mitchell found that when protein, in combination with exercise, contributed to 35% of daily calorie intake, lean body mass loss was significantly reduced during periods of weight loss compared to when protein only contributed to 15% of daily calorie intake.

Fasted training

Ride past the hotdog stand (CC BY-SA 2.0 joiseyshowaa via Flickr)
(CC BY-SA 2.0 joiseyshowaa via Flickr)

Another technique that can be used to aid weight loss is the idea of fasted training. This is a complex subject that is often misconstrued but the premise is that you embark on exercise without any food beforehand. This may sound ludicrous and in some scenarios it would be, but when done alongside specific training sessions fasted training can have some real advantages.

The main benefit is the idea of teaching your body how to burn fat as it does not have carbohydrates to draw on for energy. This fat-burning adaptation can prove very advantageous when embarking on long endurance rides because your body learns to spare glycogen for when you need it the most using fat as the predominant energy fuel. Ultimately this means you should be able to ride for longer and help improve lean muscle mass.

However, it is important to pick and choose which training sessions you do fasted. Research suggests you should only do fasted training twice a week. Doing fasted training all the time is not advantageous for a couple of reasons:

1. Your body needs to be able to adapt to both carbohydrate and fat use for optimal performance. It is important to have a mixture of carbohydrate loaded and fasted training.

2. Training in a fasted state will limit the intensity of your exercise as low muscle and liver glycogen will make sessions feel extra hard. High intensity training rides should be saved for carbohydrate loaded and fuelling days to maximise gains.

How long you can sustain fasted training for will depend entirely on your training status and general cycling fitness. Many pro riders can sustain three hours on an espresso, but for those relatively new to the concept, ease yourself into it an hour at a time. The best time to do fasted training is before breakfast when your body is likely to be in a depleted state after sleep.

A great way to incorporate fasted training into your regime is on your commute to work, but remember to do it only twice a week. It is then important that after your session or commute you consume a recovery meal or shake straight away as this helps your body adapt to the training. Eating something that contains carbohydrate and protein is ideal – porridge, a low fat cream cheese bagel or recovery shake would be perfect. Just because you are not eating during training doesn’t mean you should neglect your hydration. Remember to keep drinking like every other training session.

If you struggle with the concept of training on an empty stomach (which is completely understandable) you could always have a protein only breakfast before your training session as the important element of fasted training is to eliminate carbohydrates. Eggs for breakfast with a good hit of caffeine should set you up nicely for your session.

Nutrition is individual to you

Cyclists at buffet (CC BY 2.0 Andrzej Felczak:ECF via Flickr)

Ultimately it is important to set out the aims and objectives of your training and tailor your nutrition to suit. If you are planning an intense block of training then do not use this period to restrict calories and lose weight. Focus on optimal nutrition for training adaptations which involves fuelling correctly on and off the bike. Periodise weight loss so as not to impact greatly on your training or lifestyle.

Remember, weight loss is very specific to an individual whether you are racing, commuting or cycling for fun and not all general advice given will work for everyone. 

With thanks to Annie and OTE Sports for the advice

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