The Skinny On Weight Loss For Cyclists

You can never be too rich, too tan, or too thin, right?  Um, wrong. 

Being too rich creates all kinds of problems.  Skeptical?  Just ask Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, or Bill Gates.  If you’re too tan, you always have to worry about skin cancer.  And, if you’re too thin and an athlete, you may be sacrificing performance just so you can fit into those Size Zero jeans.


If you are like most cyclists, you look in the mirror and say to yourself: “I could always be a little thinner, a little leaner.” Next to runway models, ultra-marathon runners, and zombies, cyclists are some of thinnest people around.   Look at the UCI Pro Tour riders competing in a grand tour like the Tour de France – the peleton is a herd of lycra-clad skeletons on bikes (Andre Griepel excluded).  But, aspiring to look like Chris Froome or Andy Schlek is not a healthy or productive goal to set for anyone outside of cycling’s top-tier professionals.  So, what is realistic when it comes to weight loss?

As with most athletic training efforts, weight loss for athletes is a process.  It is done carefully, thoughtfully, slowly.  You don’t just snap your fingers and those extra few pounds just instantly disappear.  Just like building muscle or developing aerobic conditioning, weight loss is best done with a plan. Weight loss requires a goal.  Weight loss takes time.  Weight loss needs focus.  Without these essential components, the cyclist striving to lose weight will fail.


Start with a realistic and achievable weight loss goal

It is important to start with a realistic and achievable weight loss goal.  Several weight loss studies suggest that an initial goal should be approximately 5%-7% of total body weight.  So, for a 190 pound male, a realistic initial weight loss goal would be 9-11 pounds. This may seem like a small amount, but it is important that the initial weight loss goal be achieved.  Success in reaching the goal will provide the psychological boost needed to help keep the weight from returning and possibly even setting a second weight loss goal.  Any initial weight loss beyond the recommended 7% maximum could adversely affect performance.  So, make sure to keep the first goal modest.

Set a weight loss timeline

Using the initial weight loss goal as a target, build a weight loss timeline.  To reduce the risk of adverse health and performance consequences, weight loss should not exceed 1%-2% of total body weight per week.  So, for a 190 pound male, safe weight loss should not be greater than three pounds per week.  Most experts agree that optimal weight loss is about one pound per week.  Using the 9-11 pounds intital weight loss goal, at this rate of loss, the timeline should be 9-11 weeks.  It is also important to understand that weight loss may occur more rapidly at the beginning of the program as the body sheds excess water.  Be aware of this and don’t be discouraged by slower weight loss towards the end of the program.


Focus on the weight loss program

Dr. Linda Houtkooper, chair of the Nutirional Sciences program at the University of Arizona, Tucson, advises that an effective long-term weight loss program is based on creating a deficit of 250-500 calories in an athlete’s daily intake of food. The successful weight loss program requires that an athlete maintains their sport-specific training and conditioning levels while decreasing their caloric intake.  Just as the athlete monitors his or her fitness and skills development by keeping a journal of training sessions, heart rate, power output, perceived exertion, competition results, etc., so too should they track their caloric intake.

Manage your consumption to lose weight

Weight loss is all about using more calories than you consume.  This is called caloric debt. Achieving a consistent state of moderate, or healthy, caloric debt is how you lose weight and maintain the weight loss. But, don’t go to extremes.  Significant caloric debt can trigger the body’s ‘starvation response’ — a state where the body reduces its caloric usage in response to a significant and sustained drop in caloric consumption.

With these guidelines in mind, use the following strategies to help you stay in the healthy caloric debt range of 250-500 calories per day:

Eat less (duh!) — Try having several smaller meals spread throughout the day. Eat protein, vegetables, and fruit. Stay away from processed foods, fast foods, fried foods, and protein or meal replacement shakes as these are much higher in calories and sugar than regular fruits, vegetables, and meats.


Drink more — Drink more water (not calorie-heavy sodas or sports drinks) during the day.  One to two liters of water consumed per day is ideal.

Train on an empty stomach — Try doing your morning workout on an empty stomach.  With very small amounts of carbohydrates remaining your system after eight hours of sleep, a light-to-moderate morning workout will force your body to burn fat. Eat breakfast after your workout to take advantage of the post-activity metabolic spike.

Cut your workout nutrition in half — If you usually consume two bottles of sports drink, two gels, and two bars during your workout, try only consuming one of each during your next workout. You might be surprised at how good you feel after having consumed half of what you scarfed-down previously.  Next step: further reduce caloric consumption during your workouts by training with water in your water bottle, one gel in your left side jersey pocket, and two electrolyte capsules in your right side jersey pocket. The electrolyte capsules contain all the benefits of a gel, chews, or bar without the calories.


Don’t binge after a workout — While it may be tempting to down three beers and eat the entire box of Twinkies after your five-hour epic ride, get control of your impulses!  Be strategic in what you eat after your workout.  Sports nutritionists recommended consuming protein within 30 minutes of ceasing aerobic activity to help the body begin to repair micro-tears in muscles that are caused by exercise.  The leaner the protein (a grilled chicken breast, Ahi tuna filet, etc.), the better.  Augment your protein intake by eating fresh vegetables and fruits.  Stay away from calorie-and-sugar-laden protein bars and recovery drinks.

Follow these simple guidelines and you will lose weight.  To keep the weight off (and possibly lose even more weight), slowly modify what and how you eat, before, during, and after your workouts.  But, remember that weight loss does not happen overnight.  This type of physiological and behavioral adaption takes time and conscious effort to achieve.


About The Author


Aaron Hanson (a.k.a The Cap’n) is manager of the Southern California Colavita Regional Amateur Team.  A 25-year veteran of the sport and lifestyle of cycling, Aaron has raced both road and mountain bikes, advocated for bicycle transportation funding and facilities at the city, county, state, and federal levels, planned and facilitated numerous bicycle events, and helped several municipalities and counties create viable bikeway master plans.

Aaron has been honored by IMBA, CORBA, Clif Bar, the City of Los Angeles, the County of Ventura, the City of Simi Valley, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate for his bicycle advocacy work.  He has even won a bike race or two.

Aaron can be contacted via e-mail at: bikinguy@sbcglobal.net

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