Cycling FOR WEIGHTLOSS:
can YOU LOSE WEIGHT AND STILL PERFORM?
If you want to lose weight, you must be in a calorie deficit. If you want to perform, you must take in an ample number of calories to do so. So how do you balance calories in vs calories out when there is an element of still being able to perform on the bike?
This article will cover the importance of tracking calories and managing your nutrition so you are adequately fuelled for performance as well as weight loss.
Calories and performance:
Calories are one component of measuring what food we take in. They are essentially the basic number and the number I get everyone to track when they are starting out on a nutrition tracking journey. Tracking calories keeps things simple, and for weight loss. As long as you are in a deficit you will lose weight, regardless of what food you eat.
For performance though tracking calories can be a little vague. As nutrition is very individual and when you throw a sport like cycling into the equation, macros become double important.
Endurance athletes typically take in a high amount of carbohydrates to fuel them for their sport. It has for a long time been considered the primary source of fuel for endurance athletes and foods like rice, potato, oats and fruit have long been a regular in an endurance athletes’ diet. Carbohydrate, in short. Fills up our glycogen stores, which is the fuel used in endurance sports
However recent research also shows fat as an incredibly important performance fuel too with studies stating that “fat reserves can almost be inexhaustible” Now. I would not go as far as telling someone to completely reduce the amount of carbs in their diet as carbohydrates are an incredible source of fuel due to the glycogen in them. However, I would urge people to be less scared of fat and to not be fearful of cooking oils, avocado’s, nuts and other sources of good fats.
Fat is vital for brain function, organ function as well as lubricating joints amongst other benefits.
The third element of food is protein. Essentially our recovery food. Found in plant based and animal-based sources protein is essentially our building blocks and can dictate the speed and quality of our recovery as well as sleep, stretching and proper planning of your training.
These three elements make up our macronutrient intake that is essentially a breakdown of our calorie intake.
When you are riding being low in these macronutrients can trigger certain feelings. Bear in mind these are all individual and you may experience different feelings, but here are a few examples:
Low in carbohydrate: Signs of depleted glycogen (carbs) stores are a loss in strength and power, lack of recovery, feeling like you are flat and sluggish in nature.
Low in protein: Signs of being low in protein are poor recovery and performance, a bigger appetite, loss of muscle mass, skin problems.
*I also can tell if I am lacking in protein when I am on the bike as I crash after 5 miles, and have nothing in me. Bonking, as cyclists call it*
Low in fat: Signs of being low in fat can be dry eyes, always feeling hungry, concentration problems, loss of menstrual cycle (for women).
As mentioned above these signs are very individual but they do give you an idea of the things to look out for if you feel you are lacking in energy.
When tracking your food intake and keeping performance in mind macronutrients are incredibly important.
And once you have the hang of tracking calories I would 100% recommend taking the time to track these macro nutrients.
I would advise tracking calories first so you can build up a picture of how your body reacts to certain foods. You can have a handle on the type of foods you eat and get to know what foods effect your cycling performance for the better or worse.
220lbs to 170lbs: These pictures are taken from my first and most recent XC race:
Using myself as an example:
I have studied myself through 2019 and 2020 and have learned that my body performs significantly better if I have animal protein in my system during endurance exercise.
I also know that the perfect pre ride meal for me is oats and yogurt, with some honey mixed in to give me a mix of slow/fast release carbs as well as a protein top up in the yogurt.
I have learned alcohol severely effects my performance at work, and on the bike meaning I will religiously not drink on a workday, or the night before a ride.
I have learned that if I am low in protein I flatline on the bike after 5 miles, completely bomb and all energy is gone. Therefore, I have added animal protein into my diet again on limited numbers of days.
When it comes to nutrition you really have to look at your own situation and get to know how your body reacts to foods. Therefore calories should always be tracked solely for the first two-three months of any weight loss/performance journey.
After this is done changes above can be implemented.
So, with calories explained. Let’s look into how you can manage your calorie and macro intake to dictate, whether you can lose weight, and eat for performance:
Weight loss and performance, can you have both?
This is a debate that has been ongoing for generations. And the short answer is yes. Where it get’s a little more complicated however, is when you talk about how far you want to go with weight loss.
Obviously to maintain a “stage” physique and still be able to perform day in, day out on the bike is impossible. But, to have a healthy physique that is far away from the “dad bod” it is perfectly possible to keep energy levels high and weight loss/maintenance at a manageable level. The problem here arises with the modern definition of what is being in shape. But that’s a debate for another topic.
Ultimately one goal has to take place over the other.
Using myself as an example again, I would 100% rather have the energy to ride the bike, and be less lean but still in healthy shape than be lean, look great on photo’s on the beach but lack any physical ability to ride the bike.
However, for most people you can link these two goals hand in hand. The benefit here is that cycling is a very calorie rich sport. You burn a lot, you need to take in a lot and it is very easy to do both and stay in a deficit if you eat the right foods.
90% of the time this boils down to food awareness and being in control of the foods you eat.
Using road cycling as an example, café stops are popular here mid ride. And it is very easy to overindulge in calories when you are at one. Your hungry, and that brownie looks a lot more tempting than the energy gel in your jersey, so does that sandwich, and that coffee/hot chocolate. But when you look into these things you need to be really careful.
To put it into perspective, there are over 400 calories in a COSTA hot chocolate, combine this with a brownie at about 466 calories you are talking 866 calories. A road ride for me would usually see me burn 2000 calories every 30 miles. So, on the face of it this seems fine.
But when you factor in your daily calories it is very easy to go over.
I have about 2800-3000 calories a day to lose about 2lbs of weight a week. And then when I hit my prime riding weight of 170lbs I maintain that weight.
If I have already eaten 3000 calories that day that means I have 2000 left, almost 1000 of those have been taken up by brownies and hot chocolate. And you can be sure I will eat more as the day goes on as road cycling leaves me starving.
When you look at information like this it is very easy to see why people cycle a lot and don’t lose weight.
If you only burn 700 calories on a ride (that’s about 12 miles on the mtb for me) then the coffee stop above would have already ruled that ride out from a weight loss perspective.
Essentially when you want to lose weight and maintain your cycling performance you have to be careful and thoughtful about the foods you eat. You need to take into account calories burnt, your daily calorie intake vs output, your recovery and muscle breakdown and your goal of losing weight.
A lot of people use food as a reward after a big ride, and it is something that is nice to do but also something that can hinder performance.
So, what should you eat before, during and after a big ride?
Once again bear in mind this is all down to what your body responds to with regards to food. However, there are a number of general rules to follow when it comes to proper fuel for cycling.
Before the morning of a ride, oats and some form of protein are great fuels, protein can come either in the form of yogurt, milk or water and protein powder. My personal choice is yogurt, honey and oats as mentioned above.
Caffeine can also be beneficial before a ride but remember these can also be calorific depending on what you have. My advice would be to have a black coffee before a ride, and limit your caffeine intake through the week so you get the desired effects (increased alertness and cognitive function) of it when you want it.
It should also be said here that hydration is also incredibly important, and I would always recommend drinking at least 2 pints of water before you go riding in the morning. If you ride later, you should be well hydrated anyway.
During the ride:
The general advice regarding sports nutrition and nutrition in cycling is that you should take in 17-30g of carbohydrates per hour of riding.
This can come in the form of sports nutrition bars, energy gels, fruit (bananas are a favourite) or fruit loaf.
Most cycling based products have an amount of carbohydrates in them the reflect this amount of carbs, as do the soreen bars that are individually wrapped are also on this number at 17.3g of carbohydrate and 90 calories.
Energy gels typically have around 25-30g of carbs in them at about 100-110 calories per gel.
Again, within the limits of the amount of carbs you should eat per hour.
My advice here would be to use a combination of solid foods and energy gels.
Solid foods first as the further into your rides you go, the less effective your body will be at absorbing energy, foods like gels and jam are much quicker to absorb than foods like whole fruits and flapjacks. Hence why you see road cyclists eating rice cakes stuffed with jam or honey in the later stages in the race.
You can also combine a carbohydrate drink with your water too to regularly top up your carb levels.
However, in my experience these often leave me feeling dry, making me go through my water too fast, running out before the end of a ride.
Essentially, nutrition during the ride boils down to researching and learning what works best for you. When you find your niche keep to it, even if it becomes boring.
Remember you are not riding bikes so you can have a mars bar without feeling guilty. You are riding bikes so you can drop weight and increase your performance.
Post ride is where people start to make mistakes. This is where the reward element comes into play. And here, I want you to remember one very important phrase:
“You reward a dog with food, you are not a dog”
This is key when thinking about what food to eat after a ride especially when you want to increase your performance or drop your body weight.
Remember: High calorie foods and fast food can not only lead to weight gain. They also don’t contain the essential nutrients that influence how well you repair the damaged muscle tissue that occurred during the ride. While they may contain protein and carbs, and a hell of a lot of fat they do not contain the vitamins and minerals that can bolster your immune system that is weaker post exercise, support brain and muscle recovery and also help maintain a healthy digestive system. Especially important if your calories are high.
Fortunately for cyclists, it is a sport that demands a high calorie output during the duration of it. And as such, requires a high calorie output to repair the body. An output where you can just as easily lose weight and still allow your body to recover and perform.
I would recommend home cooked “cheat meals” after cycling, foods that contain everything you need to gain the benefits, but also taste great.
Homemade curries, lasagne and other pasta dishes, home cooked potato-based meals, amongst other things are all brilliant ways to enjoy your post ride nutrition while getting the nutrition you need.
One other tip I have for you: If you are driving home from a trail centre, or a ride and you have a craving for the fast-food places you see on the way home. Take a square of dark chocolate with you to eat after you ride. This has been proven to curb sweet cravings and help with fat loss and is something I do every night to keep my cravings for desert down.
Essentially post ride nutrition should be three key things:
Enjoyable, so you don’t crave fast food, this will ensure you get a combination of food satiety and effectiveness.
Nutritious, so you take in all the macronutrients, vitamins and minerals that you need post ride.
Calorific, so you take in enough calories to repair your body.
Summary: Can you lose weight, and still maintain cycling performance?
The performance vs aesthetics argument has existed for a long time. And while it is debated there will always be contrasting research. Personally, I believe that to some extent, it is possible to lose weight and maintain the energy to perform on the bike during the calorific needs of cycling, self-discipline and proper planning of nutrition and training around cycling.
While there are some limitations to this, mainly maintaining severely low levels of body fat and physiques that are essentially “stage ready”. These diets are so restricted and extreme that cycling would not be possible while maintaining this look. It is perfectly possible to achieve and maintain a healthy looking, athletic physique while also being able to perform on the bike.
Calories and macronutrients play a huge role in this, macronutrients being the key here when looking at cycling performance and weight loss. However, remember, it is also important to focus on yourself first of all and learn about your body, and the food that you can process/perform on better than others.
Intolerances, allergies, likes and dislikes as well as ethical beliefs surrounding foods should always be considered when looking into planning a nutrition plan for a client or yourself.
This article has aimed to breakdown calories and macronutrients, provide a brief insight into sports nutrition and the demands of cycling, and provide examples of foods that will benefit weight loss and performance on a ride day. It has also aimed to answer the question and provide information as to whether you can lose weight and maintain a high level of performance. Providing research from external sources, as well as my own knowledge.
I hope you can use this article to gain a better understanding of nutrition in cycling and weight loss and that it has proven to be useful, and helpful to your goals.