When it comes to riding a bike, whether accelerating out of a corner or going up a hill, being leaner is generally better . 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?
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  . While individuals respond differently , getting leaner can often be a battle against powerful physiological drivers more concerned with survival than a KOM.
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 , researchers established the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) to understand the components of successful weight loss . 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 .
- Participants exercised a lot.
- Participants weighed themselves regularly.
- In general, participants ate the same foods across weekdays and weekends , cooking most of their meals at home .
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.
First off, you should weigh yourself at least twice a week, if not daily (new unpublished research might give the edge to daily weighing). 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.
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.
- 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 .
- 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, 15].
- Protein increases bone mineral mass, a legitimate concern for most cyclists .
- 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 .
How much protein? Individual needs vary, but if you’re aiming to lose weight, shoot for 1.6-2.4 g/kg of body weight per day, while spacing your protein in 20-30g amounts with each meal/snack [11,15].
We’ve outlined a few strategies for getting lean, how about staying 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 be more precise about providing adequate fuel (carbohydrate) for the work required during our rides .
We’ve talked about fueling with carbs previously, but when it comes to staying lean while also training with high quality, our focus shifts to finding a balance between optimal fueling and overfeeding. The best way to do this is by focusing on high carbohydrate availability for our training sessions .
A “high carb availability” approach starts with 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.
High carb availability guidelines can seem a bit complex, here are some of the basics .
- 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 availability planning might be your solution.
- 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.
- Weighing yourself regularly enables rapid course correction. You should record your weight at least 2 times a week, if not daily.
- 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.
- Match your carbohydrate intake with ride duration and intensity. This “high carb availability” approach will insure you’re adequately fueling your training while not overfeeding/staying lean.
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*12/5/17-Added new summary research on protein recommendations for weight loss in elite athletes 
*12/18/18-Added link to unpublished research on daily weighing for improved weight loss
*12/18/18-Added new terminology from “Fuel for the Work Required” theory 
*12/18/18-Clarified mistake in terminology from “Carb Periodization” to “High Carb Availability” 
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