As cyclists, we’re driven by the desire to ride our bikes. And whether that be for commuting, recreation, amateur racing or even as a means to an end for fitness gains or weight loss in itself, our weight has a significant impact on our overall performance.
We know the more weight you carry around with you, the harder it is to move your bike from point A to point B in a given time. Often, riders look at their bike and wonder what upgrades could help them shave weight, but actually, more often than not it’s the rider that can really make the difference.
However, keen as we are to help you lose weight to achieve Strava PRs up your local climb or make everyday riding easier, we also know weight loss can be a controversial subject, and one that needs to be treated with care so that you can maximizs your riding performance healthily and sustainably.
To help us do this, we spoke to Nigel Mitchell, formerly of Team Sky and now head of nutrition at the Cannondale Drapac WorldTour team, and Gemma Sampson, a sports dietitian at Dietitian Without Borders, to discuss weight loss in cycling, the potential pitfalls, and discover how you can achieve a leaner cycling body that’s ready to perform.
Is losing weight the be-all-and-end-all of cycling performance?
Nigel Mitchell, through his work with the Cannondale Drapac team and OTE Sports, deals with pro riders on a daily basis who aim to keep their weight low while maintaining their power output.
“For serious riders, it’s all about the power-to-weight ratio," he says. “This is important for climbs, especially in climbs that register six per cent or above. As a general rule, every kilo lost is worth a 6-7 watt saving of power output."
At a high level then, or when a general cyclist has significant weight that can be lost without losing power, the savings this will result in are obvious. The problem, as Mitchell puts it, is that if you’re already ‘pretty serious’ about your cycling, it’s likely that you’re already going to be pretty lean.
“In general, if you’re already at a reasonably lean weight, yes you might be able to lose a few kilos – but you need to think about whether the work is worth the gains, or whether you’d be better off developing your power output."
In fact, Mitchell says that greater mass in a rider can be very beneficial in certain circumstances – for example, a Classics rider or time triallist, who can use the extra weight to their benefit.
Here, power output takes on more importance than power-to-weight, and Mitchell explains that it’s also a specific type of muscle architecture in cyclists that results in performance.
“In a bike rider specifically, we’re talking about the amount of mitochondria in the muscles that creates aerobic power. Of course, the bigger the cross section the greater the sprint ability, but that doesn’t mean aerobic power will be improved," he adds.
What are the key mistakes cyclists can make when trying to lose weight?
At the end of the day, we’re not all pros trying to meet a delicate balance of power-to-weight. In fact, we’re betting most readers of this feature will be interested in shifting a few spare kilos of fat so that they’re generally leaner, making those club run climbs a little easier, or in preparation for a sportive.
Gemma Sampson, a sports dietitian at Dietitian Without Borders, says it’s easy to underestimate calorie intake and overestimate calorie burn rate as riders look to hit a negative calorie count.
“Most people typically underestimate both portion sizes and forget bits and pieces of food that they eat mindlessly," she says. “These extra snacks and foods could add up to a few hundred calories here or there which hinder your progress."
Sampson says, while tools such as GPS devices and smartwatches are “brilliant at tracking training and estimating energy expenditure", it’s important to note these are seldom 100% accurate.
“I often see cyclists struggling with their weight focusing too heavily on the calories their Garmin said they ‘burnt’ during a training session and subsequently overeating for the rest of the day," she explains.
“I also find cyclists tend to eat the same amount of food every day, regardless of training. It’s also quite common for cyclists to under-eat on training days, then overeat on rest days resulting in no overall change in energy intake and subsequent weight loss across the week.
“Most athletes habitually eat the same amount of food day in, day out – regardless of what their training schedule looks like. Tracking your nutritional intake for a week or two can help identify trends like these to understand why progress isn’t occurring."
What is unhealthy weight loss, and how can we lose weight healthily?
If you’re a rider who wants to lose a few extra kilos, it can be tempting to throw yourself into a weight loss regime and try to drop weight as quickly as possible. However, Sampson explains this isn’t a healthy way to do so and can be indicative of a disparity between what a cyclist wants to achieve and the term ‘losing weight’.
“When athletes say they want to lose weight, typically what they mean is they want to be leaner and lighter with less fat mass [while maintaining muscle mass]," she says. “Rapid weight loss is more likely to reflect negative changes in muscle composition and size, glycogen stores and the water glycogen holds, than true change in body composition.
“All too often I see cyclists trying to lose weight rapidly in an effort to improve their power-to-weight ratio," says Sampson, linking to Mitchell’s power-to-weight targets with pro riders such as Giro d’Italia GC contender Davide Formolo.
As with pros, Sampson says amateurs need to bear in mind that, if weight loss isn’t achieved in a sustainable way and food intake is inadequate to support training, it can result in muscle loss which ultimately will impair your cycling ability.
“Similarly, underfuelling and being too restrictive with what you eat on heavy training days in an attempt to lose weight can compromise your immune system and increase your chances of getting ill," she warns. “Cutting back on carbs too much can reduce your glycogen stores, which if combined with inadequate fuelling during training can impair performance."
Sampson says the most effective way to lose weight is to periodise nutrition – and particularly carbohydrate intake – across the day and the week in relation to training duration and intensity. “It’s not a case of going high carb or low carb but going ‘smart carb’," she asserts.
“High intensity efforts and training sessions require high carbohydrate availability to get the most benefit, while endurance steady state sessions can be done with reduced carbohydrate to enhance fat burning. Getting the balance right can be tricky so I’d advise speaking with a sports dietitian to get specific advice relating to your goals and training."
How can I adjust my cycling nutrition to help lose weight?
Given Mitchell’s day job involves analysing and adjusting pro cyclists’ on- and off-bike nutrition to meet their race weight goals, he’s well placed to advise you on good practice when it comes to losing weight, and it all starts with an honest assessment.
“You need to assess how much fat you can lose comfortably, ideally through body composition assessments and subsequent monitoring," he says.
“I use tools like skinfold calipers to measure fat content in athletes for accuracy, but scales, while crude and imprecise, are useful in that they give you repeatability and a constant reference point.
“The data they log is likely to be consistent and in the ball park if you don’t have access to a full screening."
However, he repeats his warning on the limiting benefits of trying to shave weight if you’re already lean. “An athletic body fat percentage is around 10 per cent and below. If you have anything above this, fat loss could be beneficial. Below this, and you’re going to have diminishing returns on your effort," he reiterates.
The key for all cyclists, Mitchell says, is to fuel around work and recovery, ensuring your diet is nutritionally sound in general, but fuelling specifically around what you are doing on the bike. That means focusing your carbohydrate intake on when you're training at a high intensity, and ensuring a healthy intake of 'good fats' to stave off hunger, according to Mitchell.
“We used to be fat-phobic, but the goal [when trying to lost weight] is bringing the overall energy count down [not just fat]," he explains.
“This means periodising carb intake around your training following the ‘the more intensity, the more you use, therefore the more you need’ rule, while encouraging healthy fat intake from sources like avocados and eggs.
“Most people think they should only have carbs and protein but find themselves hungry all the time. However if you use pistachio nuts, for example, this will give 160 calories, 6g protein, good fats, antioxidants, and help to control your appetite so you’re not snacking at other times."
How can I structure my rides to help me lose weight?
It’s also worth considering the type of training that you do, and Mitchell points out that it’s easy to get training intensity wrong.
“A fundamental mistake that a lot of people make is they do their easy rides too hard and hard rides too easy, so that they’re engaging the wrong energy sources," he says. “Going out for a ride and trying to get your body to engage fat metabolism is the idea when focusing on weight loss, so you could simply have an omelette or yoghurt for breakfast, which are both high in protein and healthy fats, then start eating after 90 minutes when your stored glycogen levels are depleted.
“You can also set your training up into training blocks," Mitchell adds. “Consider a two or three day training block. For the first two days you ride at a higher intensity, so that on the third day your stored glycogen levels are more depleted, and can do the lower intensity fat-metabolising ride. Weekends are well set up for this, in that you could do a high-intensity chaingang on the Saturday, then a steadier, longer metabolic club ride on the Sunday."
Seven key tips for healthy and effective weight loss
Now we've covered some of the science behind weight loss, here are seven key tips to help you get lean on the bike.
Fuel for your training
“You need to eat appropriately for the demands of the training session at hand," says Mitchell. This means increasing carbohydrate intake for high intensity sessions so you’re able to complete your session effectively, while not starving yourself of glycogen to the point that your body chooses to metabolise your muscle tissue for energy.
Before bed, Mitchell also suggests having a spoon of honey in yoghurt or camomile tea before bed so that vital glycogen stores are maintained.
“If the training session you have planned features quality work, do that quality at the start of the session when you’re fresh and able to perform it to your best," Mitchell says, hinting that while losing weight is a target, you also need to make sure your power output potential and fitness is trained too.
Don’t skip your post-training meal
“Eating post-ride is very important for muscle glycogen recovery, and you should aim for about 1g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight," Mitchell says. “For example, a 70kg rider would want approximately 250g of cooked rice."
While the ultimate goal of losing weight is to burn more calories than you consume (what OTE themselves describe as a 'negative energy balance', your muscles still need enough energy to ensure that they can recover properly, saving them from being scavenged for the energy that your body needs to recover.
Eat a well-balanced diet
“Fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals all need to be included in your diet," says Mitchell. “It may be worth taking a multivitamin and multi mineral such as the ones produced by HealthSpan Elite to ensure all bases are covered."
However, remember that a multivitamin is a supplement to your normal diet, so should not be relied upon to help you meet your goals – instead aim to eat a diet that should have your nutritional needs covered without supplementation.
As we've already covered, this also means including 'good fats', from sources like avocados and pistachio nuts, to stave off hunger, and limiting carbohydrate intake away from hard training.
Make changes gradually
“Small, consistent changes in food portion sizes, the types and timings of foods eaten will have a much bigger impact on your end result than making huge changes that aren’t sustainable," says Sampson. “The results are always better and more sustainable when starting small and building up - just like with training."
“Eating completely differently than your norm might be manageable for a day or two, but then you’ll likely slide back into your usual habits. Start with one change and habit at a time, become consistent at that and then build on a new change to improve your eating habits during training."
“Preparation and planning is an important factor to enhancing your success when making changes to what, when and how you eat," says Sampson. "After a long hard training session, it can be all too easy to reach for whatever is convenient and snack on any food you find, while unnecessary snacking can undermine your weight loss efforts.
“Try making your dinner before you train so it’s ready to go the minute you walk back in the house. Some people find meal prepping helps, others like using pre-delivered meal boxes to store for emergencies, while others plan their weekly menu so they know what they’ll be making for dinner each night."
Know your portion sizes
“While I don’t endorse calorie counting, tracking or measuring on an everyday basis, it can be an extremely valuable tool to identify areas where you are going astray," Sampson says.
“Energy and nutrient-dense foods like nut butters and avocados are highly nutritious foods, but can be easily overeaten and add extra calories to your diet that hinder your success while trying to lose weight.
“Spoon out your typical portion of peanut butter, weigh it, then accurately measure and weigh a level tablespoon. Notice the difference in both the portion size and the calories they provide. Depending on how generous your freehand serving is, you could be adding an extra 300-400 calories without even noticing."
Nigel Mitchell is head of nutrition at the Cannondale Drapac. Gemma Sampson is a sports dietitian at Dietitian Without Borders who specialises in performance nutrition for cyclists and triathletes. A keen time trial rider, when not working to improve her athletes’ nutritional habits you’ll find her outside on the bike.