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Most cyclists know that losing weight is a powerful lever acting on cycling performance. 

Being lighter on the bike is such an advantage that many of the best cyclists in the world devote enormous focus to being as light as possible [1], even at the expense of their overall health [2].

While getting lighter can make you faster, that doesn’t mean an emphasis on losing weight is the right call for your training. 

To start with, if you’ve struggled with weight loss or found that the process makes you anxious, skip this section altogether or talk with your doctor before trying any of the suggestions below.

Secondly, most cyclists lose weight by simply riding consistently. If you’re new to training, channel your focus toward the bike and save targeted weight loss for a later time. 

If you’re ready to get leaner, shift your focus from “weight loss” to improved body composition [3].

Body Composition, What It Is

A measure of your body composition considers two components: fat mass and fat-free mass. Fat mass is the percentage of total fat in your body, while fat-free mass comprises “bone, muscle, organs, and connective tissue” [3].

A “good” (as defined by the American College of Sports Medicine) body fat percentage is around 12-23% for men and 17-26% for women. This range covers an age spectrum between 20 to 79 years old [4].

The definition of “optimal” body composition (as defined by world-class performers) begins to narrow the higher your level of competition.

The optimal body fat range for world-class cyclists is around 5-11% for men and 8-15% for women [3].

While a low body fat percentage may be a significant lever in achieving elite cycling performance, it may also harm your overall health.

This point is especially relevant for female cyclists who may experience amenorrhea and other health consequences from having too low body fat [3].

In short, elite cycling performance is often bad for your health.

Here are a few suggestions if you’re in a healthy place to improve your body composition.

Step 1: Understand Your Body Fat %

Research suggests that regular weighing can offer critical “course-correcting” feedback after weekends or holidays during which many people struggle with weight gain [5].

No need for expensive measurements in a lab; measuring body fat percentage with absolute precision isn’t the goal. Instead, we’re looking to spot broader trends that point toward progress over time.

A household scale like the Garmin Index will offer up useful trend data that will give you an idea of the direction you’re headed [6].

Step 2: Know Thy Protein

If you’re hoping to maintain muscle mass while losing fat mass, the protein in your diet can play an integral role [7].

Increasing your overall protein intake is one the easiest ways to reduce the total amount of calories you consume on any given day [8].

Start by understanding how much protein you consume by tracking your food with an app, then see how you stack up against the athlete recommendation to consume about 1.4-2.0 grams per kilogram of bodyweight a day [9].

Step 3: Vary Your Carbohydrate Intake

Improving your body composition isn’t likely to happen if you’re eating like a ravenous cyclist every day of the week. A high carbohydrate availability approach involves adequately fueling on hard training days then scaling back your carb intake for days off the bike or with less training [10].

In short, only turn the screws on a caloric deficit on days it won’t negatively impact your training. 

Step 4: Change Your Home Food Environment (HFE)

Changing the way you eat is hard, especially if you’re surrounded by unlimited high-calorie food. 

Two strategies to reshape your HFE are to stick to a list when grocery shopping [11] and plan your meals in advance [12].

If you struggle with either of these options, you can always go nuclear by signing up for a home meal delivery service. 

Home meal delivery can be a powerful way to place constraints on what and how much you eat over the course of the week. The key is to restrict the types of foods you store in your house, naturally limiting yourself to the pre-prepared meals for the day. 

Step 5: Choose Sustainable Over Perfect

Embrace the fact that making tiny steps toward sustainable progress is better than going all-in on a pursuit of perfection. 

In a practical sense, don’t restrict your calories by more than 500-750 a day or try to lose more than about 1lb/week [13].

References

  1. Mujika, I. and S. Padilla, Physiological and Performance Characteristics of Male Professional Road Cyclists. Sports Medicine, 2001. 31(7): p. 479-487.
  2. Stellingwerff, T., et al., Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S): Shared Pathways, Symptoms and Complexities. Sports Med, 2021.
  3. Kenney, W.L., J.H. Wilmore, and D.L. Costill, Physiology of sport and exercise. 2020, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  4.  American College of Sports, M., ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. 2021, Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.
  5. Rosenbaum, D.L., et al., Daily self-weighing and weight gain prevention: a longitudinal study of college-aged women. J Behav Med, 2017. 40(5): p. 846-853.
  6. McLester, C.N., et al., An investigation of the accuracy and reliability of body composition assessed with a handheld electrical impedance myography device. Eur J Sport Sci, 2018: p. 1-9.
  7. Longland, T.M., et al., Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr, 2016. 103(3): p. 738-46.
  8. 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.
  9. Jager, R., et al., International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2017. 14: p. 20.
  10. Thomas, D.T., K.A. Erdman, and L.M. Burke, Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance.J Acad Nutr Diet, 2016. 116: p. 501-528.
  11. Dubowitz, T., et al., Using a Grocery List Is Associated With a Healthier Diet and Lower BMI Among Very High-Risk Adults. J Nutr Educ Behav, 2015. 47(3): p. 259-64.
  12. Ducrot, P., et al., Meal planning is associated with food variety, diet quality and body weight status in a large sample of French adults. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 2017. 14(1): p. 12.
  13. Jeukendrup, A.E. and M. Gleeson, Sport Nutrition. 2019.

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