Weight loss in cycling is such an important topic that I don’t know where to start.
Because for the majority of cyclists losing weight is one of the most effective ways to improve performance – especially when climbing. This is because through weight loss you can improve your power-to-weight ratio.
However, even esthetical motivations are legitimate reasons to lose a few kilograms of body weight.
And we’ve all been there amid the most popular diet. It made you starve yourself throughout the day and never lose the feeling of hunger, only to realize that the weight you lost was just water. And as sluggish as you feel you return to your old diet to gain the weight back.
The only thing that you learn from it is that getting lean is only for the select few that have nerves of steel and can sustain the constant hunger with their sheer willpower. And that counting calories is a premise.
Frustrated you give up and return to Netflix binge-watching and overindulging in Ben and Jerry’s.
But that’s bullshit.
So, in this article, I’ll show you what the science has to say about an optimal diet for weight loss and cycling performance. We’ll look at what a proper cycling diet plan should look like and which strategies work to make you lose weight long-term.
At the end of the piece, I’ll leave you an example day of what a sustainable weight loss diet can look like in the real world.
But first, let’s examine how losing weight affects cycling performance.
Weight Loss for Improved Cycling Performance
Losing weight for cycling, in general, improves your power-to-weight ratio.
If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s a measure of how fast a climber you are and it’s expressed in watts per kg (w/kg).
For that reason, let’s look at an example of how losing weight makes you cycle faster: Rader A is 75 kg, and pulling up a climb for a 20-minute best at 320 watts, which equals 4.26 w/kg as 320w/75kg = 4.26w/kg. Rider B is 70 kg and only needs 298 watts to keep the wheel of Rider B up the climb. Because 70kgx4.26w/kg = 298 watts.
If you train with power you know that gaining 22 watts to your best 20 minutes takes months of dedicated training.
Of course, losing 5kg as a cyclist isn’t easy either.
But most of the time weight loss will increase your power-to-weight ratio and therefore your performance, though you may lose some power.
And most recreational cyclists know that losing weight makes you go faster uphill. Though, this is easier said than done.
To solve the trouble of how to lose weight as a cyclist, let’s look at proven tips you want to incorporate.
1. Manipulate Energy Density of Food to Lose Weight
Reducing the energy density of a diet may play an important role in a lasting weight loss strategy.
Energy density is the amount of energy or calories in a particular weight of food and is usually displayed as kcal/gram. For example, oil is very low in volume but very high in energy density. On the other hand, fruits and vegetables are very high in volume due to water and fiber content, and therefore very low in energy density.
The problem is that our eyes are not a reliable way to assess the amount of energy consumed. Several studies have shown that subjects eat the same amount of food in terms of weight, no matter the macronutrient composition. As a result, in a high-fat diet, likely more calories are consumed which results in greater weight gain, due to the high energy density of fatty foods.
Consequently, studies found that if you eat a diet low in energy density, fewer calories were consumed though the amount of food in terms of weight was higher.
This finding doesn’t change if we look at long-term weight management as a review did. Women were observed for 6 years and those with a diet low in energy density maintained weight best, while those with a high energy density diet even gained weight and had a higher BMI. However, people who consume more servings of fruits and vegetables have the lowest energy density in their diet.
This is no surprise as fruits and vegetables have the lowest energy density of all foods.
But how do we manipulate energy density for successful weight loss? Make the bulk of your plate of vegetables and snack fruit throughout the day to maintain satiety.
So, on the one hand, you want to increase the number of foods low in energy density. On the other hand, you want to decrease the number of foods high in energy density.
However, there’s more to proper weight loss than that.
2. Define a Clear Weight Loss Goal
If you want to lose weight as a cyclist or any other endurance athlete you need a clear goal to do so.
It’s not enough to simply say “I want to lose weight.” How much weight do you want to lose? Do you want to lose 1 kg, 5 kg, or 10 kg of body weight? That’s important because for sustainable weight loss you need a specific weight loss goal. After all, it takes a specific amount of time.
To be able to perform high-quality workouts and prevent muscle loss, losing 0.5 kg per week should be desired. That way, you would need two weeks to lose 1 kg of weight. You would need 10 weeks or 2,5 months to lose 5 kg and you would need 20 weeks or 5 months to lose 10 kg of body weight.
It may seem like a long time, but if you look at a whole year a weight loss of 10 kg doesn’t even require half a year. However, that way you’re able to maintain your training load and muscle mass and thereby maximize cycling performance.
Now, what are proper strategies to reduce energy intake successfully? Let’s talk about that now.
3. Reduce Energy Intake
Reducing energy intake successfully only requires subtle changes to your diet. That can be adding lots of vegetables to your pizza and reducing the amount of cheese. Or adding lots of fruits or low-fat dairy products to deserts.
That way, you won’t sacrifice the taste or palatability of your meals and you will develop healthier eating patterns aligned with official diet guidelines.
Another example comes from a study where subjects consumed a salad low in energy density before their main meal. On average subjects ate 7-12% less during their main meal with the low-energy-dense salad before, though they could eat as much as desired.
Here are the most important things to look at to reduce energy intake:
- Incorporate large amounts of fruits and vegetables into your meals. Whole plant foods are the lowest in energy density and add the most to your health.
- Don’t change eating behaviors completely. Make subtle changes to your diet like adding a bunch of vegetables to your pasta or eating a big mixed salad low in energy density before your main meal.
- Use broth-based soups as a starter as well. They add flavor and are filling without adding calories.
- Round out meals by adding lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats.
- Drink plenty of water and other low-energy-density beverages like tea or black coffee to quench your thirst.
Reducing energy intake by manipulating the energy density of your diet should be your preferred way to achieve weight loss because if you sacrifice carbs you may end up in disaster.
4. Design Your Diet Plan Around Your Workouts
Forget about macronutrients. Forget about counting calories. All these things are ineffective for long-term weight loss. It’s not about food restrictions.
To date, not a single study has demonstrated performance benefits of the ketogenic or a low carb diet.
You don’t want to sacrifice too much and live a restricting diet. If you suffer throughout the day by starvation you won’t make it far. With a low energy density diet, you can have your piece of chocolate, some ice cream, or your piece of cake. And that’s very important as well. Everyone loves to enjoy a good treat from time to time.
A low-carb diet may get you exciting at first because you lose weight fast by depleting your glycogen stores. Because every gram of carbs is stored with 2.7 grams of water in your muscles. Weight loss is a logical consequence and you can lose up to 2 kg of body weight (4 pounds) within two days.
However, carb restriction should be avoided for us cyclists in any case. Without carbs, you will feel sluggish and your exercise performance will suffer. More so, your training adaptation will be limited.
Because the evidence that carbs improve performance is overwhelming. A meta-analysis that looked at 88 randomized cross-over studies on carb consumption on endurance performance concluded that carbohydrates have a large benefit in endurance performance.
To perform your best in cycling you need large amounts of energy even though you’re on a diet. Don’t forget about that.
You still want to eat quality carbs like oats, bread, rice, pasta, or potatoes. And by eating lots of fruits and vegetables you can do so without worrying about weight.
Don’t fall into the trap of riding your bike on water. On long rides, you want to consume 30 grams of carbs per hour and on high-intensity days 60 grams of carbs per hour. Thereby, you stay fuelled, you’re able to execute the sessions as high-quality as possible, and you maximize performance through better training adaptation.
Enough said, let’s look at what a typical day of a cycling diet plan for weight loss and performance, can look like.
Cycling Diet Plan Example
Breakfast: Whole-grain bread with almond butter, and banana. Yogurt with fresh or frozen berries, and chia seeds. Eat more slices of bread or additional bananas for long rides or high-intensity days to get more carbs in.
Lunch: 2-3 eggs omelet. Rosemary, olive oil oven potatoes, and broccoli. Mixed salad with leafy greens, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and seasoning as desired. Eat the salad as a starter.
Workout fuel: 30-60 grams of carbs, on bike fuelling is individual, find what works for you.
Dinner: Rice bowl Asian style with broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, carrots, sesame oil, and lean chicken
Snack: Eat fruit throughout the day as a snack. I like to eat apples, plums, grapes, and pears. As a treat go for a chocolate bar, some ice cream, or a piece of cake.
The more whole plant foods we eat the easier it is to lose weight.
However, we should never forget about what is most important for sustainable weight loss and that is eating to our preferences. You need to eat the food that tastes best otherwise you’ll still feel hungry. For example, if you prefer fruits and vegetables over low-fat greek yogurt then stick with fruits and veggies.
And when losing body weight there’s always the risk of losing some muscle mass. However, this can be partly prevented with high amounts of carbohydrates and by increasing protein intake a little combined with strength training.
So, weight loss for cycling doesn’t need to be complicated. Base your diet around fruits and vegetables. Eat adequate amounts of carbohydrates to maximize cycling performance. Eat quality protein and do some strength training to prevent muscle loss.
That way you’re primed for proper weight loss and fat loss as a cyclist.
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