When it comes to riding a bike, whether accelerating out of a corner or going up a hill, being leaner is generally better [1].  Losing weight isn’t rocket science.  Body mass goes down when energy demand outstrips supply.  If the energy equation is so simple, why is getting lean such a battle for many cyclists?

Self-Defense

When you begin to lose fat mass your body fights to maintain a set-point of fatness by increasing your appetite and reducing your resting metabolic rate [2] . While individuals respond differently [3], getting leaner can often be a battle against powerful physiological drivers more concerned with survival than a KOM.

Get Lean

While the performance objectives of cyclists are markedly different than obese individuals trying to lose weight, cyclists striving to get leaner can learn a lot from weight loss research.

In a landmark study highlighted in the book, Diet Cults [4], researchers established the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) to understand the components of successful weight loss [5].  What set participants in this study apart from most of their dieting peers was their ability to lose at least 30kg while keeping it off for 5 years.  Here’s a quick summary of what made the participants successful.

  • There was no “best” diet, but in general, participants followed a lower fat eating strategy [6].
  • Participants exercised a lot.
  • Participants weighed themselves regularly.
  • In general, participants ate the same foods across weekdays and weekends [6], cooking most of their meals at home [5].

Using the primary findings of the NWCR and the knowledge of how our body fights against weight loss, let’s outline a strategy for getting lean.

Strategy One

First off, you should weigh yourself at least twice a week, if not daily.  Regular weighing enables quick “course correction” when you run into a bad weekend or gluttonous vacation.  New wifi-enabled scales make this incredibly easy with your weight automatically uploading to the cloud.  Measure it, track it, no excuses.

Tracking your weight and body fat% is a powerful
Tracking your weight and body fat% is a powerful “course corrector”

Strategy Two

Second, you should anchor your diet with quality lean protein prepared at home.  While carbohydrate is crucial for providing fuel to working muscle during exercise, protein is your best asset when driving a caloric deficit to improve your W/kg.  Here’s why.

  1. Protein increases dietary thermogenesis and satiety.  That’s a fancy way of saying protein makes you feel fuller while requiring more energy to digest than fat or carbohydrate [7].
  2. Adequate protein intake helps to maintain lean muscle mass in a state of caloric deficit.  This is especially important for master’s athletes trying to get lean [8, 9].
  3. Protein increases bone mineral mass, a legitimate concern for most cyclists [9].
  4. Overeating protein results in less weight gain than overeating carbs or fat.  In other words, “get full” on protein and you’ll likely gain less weight than if you were to “get full” on carbs or fat [10].

How much protein?  Individual needs vary, but if you’re aiming to lose weight, shoot for 1.5-2.5 g/kg of body weight per day, while spacing your protein in 20-30g amounts with each meal/snack [11].

We’ve outlined a few strategies for getting lean, how about staying lean?

Stay Lean

A great challenge for cyclists can be the huge fluctuation in energy demand from day to day.  A big ride on Sunday might drive 5k calories for the day while an off day on Monday might require closer to 2k.  If you’re eating like a cyclist on days you’re not riding, getting leaner is going to be impossible.

As mentioned earlier, anchoring your diet with protein is the first step in controlling huge swings in caloric demand by blunting the metabolic drive to eat  more energy than you’ve expended [12, 13].  With our anchor in place, we can talk about periodizing carbohydrate.

Strategy Three

We’ve talked about fueling with carbs previously, but when it comes to staying lean, our focus shifts to finding a balance between optimal fueling and overfeeding.  The best way to do this is through periodization.

Carb periodization is about being flexible with the type and quantity of carbs.  Big ride days are best met with an increase in higher glycemic index (GI) carbs like whole grains, cereals, or breads, while off days are better served with a higher proportion of nutrient dense  fruits and vegetables.

Carb periodization guidelines can seem a bit complex, here are some of the basics [14].

  • Fruits and vegetables should comprise the majority of your carbohydrate intake.
  • Stack high GI carbs before, during, and immediately after rides.
  • Fluctuate your overall carb intake to match the demands of your rides.
  • Low (easy day or no riding), 3-5 g/kg carbs per body weight each day.
  • Moderate (about 1 hour of riding), 5-7 g/kg carbs per body weight each day.
  • High (1-3 hours of moderate-to-high intensity riding), 6-10 g/kg carbs per body weight each day.
  • Very high (>4-5 hours a day of moderate-to-high intensity riding), 8-12 g/kg carbs per body weight each day.

The graph below demonstrates how our guidelines would look over a typical training week.

The take-away: If you’ve failed to get lean in the past while still riding a ton, more strategic carb periodization might be your solution.

Summary

  1. Your body is masterful at compensating for an increase in training or decrease in body fat.  To beat this “fat defense” you need a strategy.  “Just winging it” likely won’t work.
  2. Weighing yourself regularly enables rapid course correction. You should record your weight at least 2 times a week, if not daily.
  3. Anchor your diet with lean protein.  Protein makes you feel fuller while increasing dietary thermogenesis.  It also helps to maintain muscle mass while in a state of caloric deficit.
  4. Match your carbohydrate intake with ride duration and intensity.  This periodized carbohydrate approach will insure you’re adequately fueling your training while staying lean.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete
@ddacoaching

References

1.  Nevill, A.M., et al., Optimal power-to-mass ratios when predicting flat and hill-climbing time-trial cycling. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2006. 97(4): p. 424-31.
2.  Sumithran, P. and J. Proietto, The defence of body weight: a physiological basis for weight regain after weight loss. Clin Sci (Lond), 2013. 124(4): p. 231-41.
3.  King, N.A., et al., Metabolic and behavioral compensatory responses to exercise interventions: barriers to weight loss. Obesity (Silver Spring), 2007. 15(6): p. 1373-83.
4.  Fitzgerald, M., Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of Us. First ed. 2014, New York, NY: Pegasus Books. 303.
5.  Klem, M.L., et al., A descriptive study of individuals successful at long-term maintenance of substantial weight loss. Am J Clin Nutr, 1997. 66(2): p. 239-46.
6.  Wing, R.R. and S. Phelan, Long-term weight loss maintenance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2005. 82(1): p. 222S-225S.
7.  Halton, T.L. and F.B. Hu, The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr, 2004. 23(5): p. 373-85.
8.  Kim, J.E., et al., Effects of dietary protein intake on body composition changes after weight loss in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Rev, 2016. 74(3): p. 210-24.
9.  Westerterp-Plantenga, M.S., et al., Dietary protein, weight loss, and weight maintenance. Annu Rev Nutr, 2009. 29: p. 21-41.
10.  Webb, P. and J.F. Annis, Adaptation to overeating in lean and overweight men and women. Hum Nutr Clin Nutr, 1983. 37(2): p. 117-31.
11.  Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, P., CSCS*D, CISSN Jose Antonio, PhD, FNSCA, FISSN, CSCS, Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements. 2013, Ronkonkoma, NY: Linus Learning. 404.
12.  King, N.A., et al., Exercise, appetite and weight management: understanding the compensatory responses in eating behaviour and how they contribute to variability in exercise-induced weight loss. Br J Sports Med, 2012. 46(5): p. 315-22.
13.  Knab, A.M., et al., A 45-minute vigorous exercise bout increases metabolic rate for 14 hours. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2011. 43(9): p. 1643-8.
14.  Burke, L.M., et al., Carbohydrates for training and competition. J Sports Sci, 2011. 29 Suppl 1: p. S17-27.

Written by Nate Dunn, M.S.

Nate’s entire career has been spent in education and coaching. As a former teacher and now full-time cycling coach, he is most excited about helping clients discover more about themselves as they achieve their goals on the bike.