Optimising your body composition to improve power-to-weight ratio is a common challenge faced by cyclists. Finding the balance is tricky. Lose weight too quickly or in an unsustainable manner and you could end up losing power. Here are some of my top weight loss tips for cyclists wanting to improve their body composition.
Here I discuss some of the common mistakes I see cyclists making when trying to lose weight and optimise their power-to-weight ratio, and some of the strategies I use with my athletes to optimise their body composition.
Underestimating energy intake and overestimating energy expenditure
Underestimating just how many calories they are consuming and overestimating the energy they have used in training. Most people typically underestimate both portion sizes and forget bits and pieces of food that they eat mindlessly. Extra snacks and foods that are consumed mindlessly could add up to a few hundred calories here or there which hinder your progress.
Over-relying on the Garmin says
GPS devices are brilliant to track training and estimate energy expenditure – but it’s important to realise that this is an estimate and isn’t 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 overeating the rest of the day.
Eating the same amount of food every day – regardless of training.
Eating the same amount of food every day, regardless of training. It is 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.
This is because when you average the numbers out across the week, they remain in a balanced state. Most athletes habitually eat the same amount of food day in and 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 for cyclists?
Unhealthy weight loss typically occurs when athletes are trying to lose weight too quickly. When athletes say they want to lose weight, typically what they mean is that they want to be leaner and lighter with less fat mass. Rapid weight loss is more likely to reflect changes in muscle, glycogen 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. If weight loss doesn’t happen in a sustainable way and food intake is inadequate to support training, it can result in muscle loss which ultimately will impair power and performance.
Similarly, underfuelling and being too restrictive with what you eat on heavy training days in an attempt to lose weight can increase your chances of getting ill and compromise your immune system. Cutting back on carbs too much can reduce your glycogen stores, which if combined with inadequate fuelling during training can impair performance.
How can cyclists lose weight healthily?
Periodise your nutrition to your training load
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 and fuelling for the work required.
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.
The most important point to remember when trying to lose weight and making changes to your diet is to be consistent. Build changes slowly, sticking to them regularly consistently, even when you don’t feel like it.
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. The results are always better and more sustainable when starting small and building up – just like with training.
For example if your goal was to ride a 100 mile time trial, you wouldn’t start the season with 100 mile rides as that could do more damage than good. Instead you would start with shorter training distances and build up as your fitness, endurance, strength and stamina improves.
Nutrition is just the same. Eating in a completely different way might be manageable for a day or two, but then you will quickly 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 and competition.
Preparation and planning
Preparation and planning is an important factor to enhancing your success when making changes to what, when and how you eat. 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. Unnecessary snacking can undermine your weight loss efforts. If you know you snack while preparing your dinner after training, try making your dinner before you go train so it’s ready to go the minute you walk back in the house.
Taking the time to plan what you will eat each week will help you avoid those emergency situations when you’re tired, hungry and grab any food you can find. Some people find meal prepping helps, others like using pre-delivered meal boxes to store in the fridge/freezer for emergencies, while others plan their weekly menu so they know what they’ll be making for dinner each night. Find what works for you, plan and prepare.
Track what you eat (temporarily)
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.
I use food records on a periodic basis to compare nutritional intake against energy expenditure, to help pick up any patterns to adjust. In my experience, cyclists are either under-eating on heavy training days, over-eating on rest and recovery days or getting their nutrient timing out throughout the week.
Check your portion sizes
Underestimating portion sizes is a common hindrance for any athlete wanting to change their body composition. Particularly with high energy dense foods like nut butters and avocado. Both 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 300-400kcal without even noticing. These small differences add up and could be the main reason why you aren’t seeing the results you expect to see.
Getting the balance right without losing power or strength can be tricky. Speaking with a sports dietitian to get specific advice tailored to your goals and training plan.