The bike is a great fitness tool, and cycling for weight loss doesn’t have to be complicated. Combining cycling, structured training, and a healthy diet can pave the way for increased performance by dropping the pounds and increasing your fitness. Whether you have a little or a lot to lose, these tips will help you lose weight and be a faster cyclist.
For more information on weight loss and nutrition, check out Ask A Cycling Coach Ep 239
My weight loss started because I wanted something. It was simple; I wanted to hang with the fast group on my local drop ride. I wanted to be a faster cyclist. At the time, weight was my biggest limiter as I was tipping the scales at 345lbs. Over ten months, I lost 145 lbs, raised my FTP, and became a much faster cyclist.
Is Cycling Good For Weight Loss?
There are numerous benefits of cycling for weight loss. Riding can increase your activity level, burn calories, improve heart health, and grow your fitness. Aside from those benefits, riding a bike is fun! However, the key to losing weight isn’t just riding. Combining a healthy diet with cycling is vital for success.
An old adage says you can’t out-train a bad diet, and my experience lends proof to this idea. I had been cycling for years, and of course, would lose a bit of weight when I rode more. But I couldn’t lose the amount of weight that I wanted until there was a significant change in the food that I was eating. So the main point here is that cycling can help you lose weight when it’s combined with a healthy diet.
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Aside from weight loss, cycling is a great way to improve your cardiac fitness and overall health. Of course, the weight loss helped, but improving my general health through exercise has been a boon to other areas in my life, like family activities and work.
Can You Lose Belly Fat by Cycling?
The only way you can lose belly fat is by improving your overall body composition. The idea of losing fat in a specific area is called targeted fat loss or spot reduction, and it’s mostly a myth. When you lose or burn fat, it doesn’t necessarily come from the one specific place you want it to. So, can you lose belly fat by cycling? The answer is maybe. That said, I dropped over twenty-two inches from my waistline, but this was mostly due to losing so much weight.
Weight Loss for Cycling Performance
Cycling performance and weight seemingly go hand in hand, and for good reasons. Pure watts and aerodynamics reign supreme as long as the road is flat. However, as the road or trail begins pointing upward, weight’s importance intensifies.
A key cycling metric is your power-to-weight ratio and is expressed as watts at FTP divided by body weight in kilograms (w/kg). To get faster uphill, there are two ways to attack your power-to-weight ratio. You can increase your FTP or decrease weight. Ideally, you want to do both. Fat does a cyclist no favors when your power-to-weight ratio is concerned, but muscle certainly plays a vital role. Losing weight too quickly will often result in muscle loss.
How to Lose Weight Through Cycling
At face value, weight loss is a simple formula—eat less and move more. Dig a bit deeper, and it’s much more complicated than that. Not only do hormones play a significant role, but so does the mental aspect. It’s important to re-establish a healthy relationship with food. Here are just a few of the things that helped me on my journey.
Motivation and Weight Loss
Before embarking on a weight loss journey, you have to determine the reasons why. Is it for performance or body image? Too often, our body’s view revolves around a perception of should and the thought that “I don’t look like a certain type of athlete.” No doubt, I was concerned about a certain body image, but honestly, I just wanted be get healthy and be a faster cyclist. For this article, we’re going to focus on chasing performance instead of hitting a specific number on the scale.
Start with a Goal
My goal was to be fast enough to hang on my local drop ride, and I used that goal as my decision matrix. Will this make me faster? Having a central goal simplifies your decision making when you are trying to lose weight. If it helps you achieve your goal, do it; if not, avoid it.
When you develop your goal, tie it to an event. By connecting your goal to an event, your goal is measurable and timely. Often when shedding the pounds, the focus can become the number on the scale. Your body is unique. What is a healthy weight for someone else is not what is best for you. Instead, concentrate on living a healthy lifestyle that results in increased performance.
Aim for Consistency
Healthy weight loss takes time and change. Consistency is your greatest ally. A steady approach will help you analyze what is working and what isn’t so that you can develop positive new habits. My success in weight loss was the result of being consistent in my food choices and training over months. In other words, I wasn’t committed to losing weight; instead, I was dedicating myself to a new way of life for the long haul.
Consistency helps you avoid the crash diet cycle. You go crazy, lose weight, burn out, then put the weight back on. I’ve been there many times. The worst part is that not only do you gain more weight, but it can wreck your body composition. You end up with more fat and less muscle.
Once you are committed to a healthy lifestyle, start making changes. Start small. Little changes are easier to manage and will aid your consistency. As you progress, you can add more changes to your diet. Small changes lead to significant results when compounded over time.
Measure Your Cycling and Weight Loss Success
Recording data not only provides the means for measuring your success but also helps you celebrate progress. For me, that meant weighing in every morning and observing the weekly trend in both weight and body composition. Analyzing a weekly trend helps because weight fluctuates daily. While I used the scale as a data point, I didn’t obsess over that number. Instead, I used my performance on the bike as the most important metric.
Two easy ways to measure body composition are skinfold calipers or a body composition scale. I use a Tanita Body Fat Scale. Having one of these scales to step on every day was massively effective. Just make sure to measure under similar circumstances. For the best data, always measure under the same conditions. Make sure the time of day is similar, that you are not wearing any clothing, and that your nutrition and hydration leading up to the time of measurement are accounted for if not controlled.
Eating to Lose Weight
Losing weight happens primarily in the kitchen. Creating a calorie deficit is what leads to weight loss. The right food choices, coupled with riding, deliver a one-two punch. Generally, a 500 calorie deficit is a good place to start.
The goal is to lose fat and spare as much muscle as possible. If there is too much of a caloric deficit, you will lose muscle. You can use an online calculator or an app to figure out how many calories you need in a day and subtract whatever you feel is a sustainable, healthy amount for you.
Choosing a Diet
With so many different types of diets, it can be a bit confusing, but mostly they all create a calorie deficit. What worked for someone else might not work for you. My advice, pick what works for you and give your body what it needs to be healthy.
As with so many things, there are trade-offs to any dieting strategy. I choose a low-carb diet at first to help manage my biggest weakness—hunger. The compromise was the inability to complete high-intensity intervals consistently. Gradually, I transitioned my diet to include more carbohydrates to increase performance. While you don’t want to change your diet weekly, you do need to be flexible. Align your food choices with your goals.
Keep a Journal
A big help for me in limiting my calories was keeping a food journal. It can be cumbersome to record everything, but it assists in selecting the proper serving sizes, food choices, and finding all the hidden calories in a diet. For example, I found out that my coffee creamer had 35 calories in two tablespoons. My food journal showed me that I was consuming almost 100 calories a day just in coffee creamer! Even if you don’t record everything forever, do it for two weeks. You will reap valuable data that you can use to make better food choices.
Maximize What You Eat
When you have limited calories, you want to get the most bang for your buck. You can cut a significant portion of calories by avoiding empty calories like alcohol, soft drinks, junk food, and processed sugars. You will be amazed by how much food you can eat when it is nutrient-dense and low-calorie. These whole foods help when battling hunger.
Eating nutrient-dense was a massive change for my taste buds. I was a typical meat and potatoes person. Green foods rarely made it on my plate, but over time your taste will change. Remember to start small. For example, instead of just eating salads for a week, replace one meal with a salad. For me, it was slowly adding more vegetables to my plate, while removing empty calories.
When making your food choices, fruits and vegetables are great additions to your plate. Eat lots of vegetables as they are low in calories but high in nutrients. Include smaller amounts of healthy fats, like avocados, olive oil, and nuts. Finally, make sure you are getting enough protein. Turkey and chicken are great because they are low in saturated fats. Training and losing weight is hard work, so make sure you are getting the proper nutrients.
Cycling for Weight Loss Tips
- Weight loss primarily happens with healthy food choices.
- Start with small changes to aid consistency.
- Don’t be too restrictive with your diet.
- Add some high-intesity intervals to your training.
- Start strength training to preserve and increase muscle mass.
Optimal Macronutrient Breakdown for Cyclists
When optimizing your diet for cycling performance and weight loss, it’s helpful to think of your macronutrients as a lever. On one end, you have fats, and on the other, you have carbs. At the fulcrum rests proteins. So the first step is determining how much protein you need. Then prioritize carbohydrates because it’s the body’s preferred fuel source when performance matters. The fat content will be the calories you have leftover.
Let’s take a look at an example of a cyclist that weighs 220 pounds (99.7 kg), with a daily caloric intake of 2,000 calories. First, they will determine how much protein they are going to need. Using 2g/kg of body weight (recommend when training and losing weight) comes out to almost 200g of protein (or 800 calories.) The remaining 1,200 calories should focus on healthy carbohydrates. What about fats? Typically those will take care of themselves with the other foods you eat.
But what about when you workout and burn 1,000 Kjs on a ride? This is where finding out the percentages are helpful since that scale-up. Even though you are working out, you still want to keep a sensible calorie deficit. In the example above, the percentages generally work out to about 44% protein, 48% carbs, and 8% fats. This is just a general guideline, so you’ll want to adjust based on what works for you.
Cycling Training Plan for Weight Loss
It’s important to remember that chasing performance is the goal. Creating a calorie deficit is mostly about your nutritional choices and off-the-bike activity. Your training can help you burn fat, but losing weight is only half of the w/kg metric. Let’s talk about how to balance training and weight loss.
When I started my weight loss journey, I was not a new cyclist, but I was new to interval training. TrainerRoad helped me take my fitness to an entirely new level and added almost 100w to my FTP. Structured training is an efficient way to create a calorie deficit and raise your fitness. Raising your FTP will allow you to burn even more calories because you are producing more power. A higher FTP means that you will complete workouts with a higher average power. More power equals more calories. It’s a win-win.
If you are new to interval training, you can use Plan Builder to create a custom training plan aligned with your goal event. It’s best to start with a low-volume plan and work your way up over time. This will give you the flexibility to add low-intensity fasted rides to drive fat-burning adaptations. You can go one step further and include strength training too. Strength training will help you maintain muscle mass, improve muscle fiber recruitment, and improve overall health.
The best training plans will include the intensity you need to meet the demands of your event. High-intensity workouts have an additional benefit. They increase your post-exercise oxygen consumption, which can last 24-36 hours post-workout. After VO2 Max, anaerobic, and, sprint workouts your body works to replenish fuel stores, metabolize lactate, and reduce body temperature. All of this activity boosts your overall metabolism—burning more calories.
Fasted Rides and Two-A-Days
Riding in a fasted or glycogen-depleted state can be another way to train your body to burn fat. These rides are limited in that they need to be short or very slow. Fasted rides are good at burning fat, but won’t elicit a large training stimulus. Just be careful not to overdo it. Extend or high-intensity fasted rides tend to catabolize muscle—something you want to avoid. One word of caution is that the research indicates that fasted training has different effects on men and women.
Adding a second ride with a fat-burning focus is another great tool for weight loss. You can do these either earlier or later within the same day. I used fasted and two-a-day rides continually during my weight loss. Typically I would wake up early, drink some black coffee, then complete an endurance workout, like Carter or Dans. Then I was off to work and would eat a lunch that fueled my evening, high-intensity workout. Once I got home, I’d train before a healthy dinner.
Tips to Lose Fat, Not Muscle
When you are cycling for weight loss, you want to preserve as much lean muscle mass as possible. Since lean muscle requires a lot of energy to maintain, it plays a massive role in your basal metabolic rate.
There are three key things that you can do to preserve lean muscle mass while you are combining cycling and weight loss. First, create a sensible calorie deficit. Being too restrictive with your calories will do little to help you retain muscle.
Additionally, you are going to want to eat plenty of protein. The general recommendation for protein for endurance training and weight loss is around 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight. Eating lean proteins will help keep the calories lower while ensuring you are getting enough. If you are following a plant-based diet, you’ll likely need more than 2g/kg.
Finally, add in some strength training to help your weight loss. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym to reap some benefits. Compound lifts that work multiple muscle groups, like squats, deadlifts, and bench press, are excellent for this.
Eat Smart, Train Hard, Get Faster.
Since my weight loss, many people have asked how I did it. But I think that’s the wrong question. The how is important, but it’s the why that truly matters. Although hard at times, the methods are simple—make smart food choices and increase your activity level. The means were not my driving force. It was the end goal—I wanted to be a faster cyclist.
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.
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