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Cycling for weight loss: What's the best way to lose weight?

Michael Donlevy
15 Nov 2020

You may think it’s just a matter of eating less and exercising more, but it's not quite that simple

Whisper it, but most of us would like to lose a few pounds. Especially after the Christmas break. It leads us to make New Year's resolutions like giving up bread, only drinking skimmed milk and riding our bikes more.

Cycling is great for weight loss because it burns lots of calories, ultimately shifting those pounds.

But on the other cake-filled hand, all that riding requires fuel in the form of food, energy gels and sugary sports drinks, something you could be wishing to knock on the head. Losing weight on a bike isn’t as easy as it seems.

First, here’s coach Ric Stern of RST Sport with the bad news: ‘It varies too much from person to person to give a prescriptive answer other than: you need to eat fewer calories than you expend, you need to be consistent with your food choices and you need to be consistent with your training.’

It is at least possible, then, even if it does involve making gargantuan lifestyle changes. Paul Butler of lost seven stone after quitting his job in the City to become a personal trainer and qualified cycling coach.

‘Your weight loss targets should be reviewable based on motivation, performance, mood and sustainability,’ he says. ‘Keeping a training diary and talking to a coach will help you through.’

Depending on how much you want to lose, you should aim to shed between 0.25kg and 1kg per week. For most people, 0.5kg is a sensible and achievable target, says Stern.

‘Half a kilogram of fat has around 3,500 calories of energy in it, so by reducing your daily intake by 500 calories, or upping your energy expenditure by 500 calories – or a combination of the two – you could lose 0.5kg a week.’

Don’t obsess about numbers, though. ‘Set aside a period in your training where you aim to lose weight, and when you reach the end of that period stop, whatever the scales say,’ advises British Cycling coach Will Newton.

‘Rather than say, “I’m going to get to 73.5kg no matter what,” you say, “What I weigh at the end of that time is what I weigh.”

‘It’s best to do this during an aerobic endurance phase because the intensity is low, so you allow your body to get used to losing weight. Be strict, lose weight and move on to the next phase.’

So you’ve set targets and made a plan. Now you have to actually do it, so how?

What to eat

Hold your saucepans – by this we do not mean gorging on a massive bowl of pasta and licking the remnants of your carbonara sauce off the plate.

‘Get rid of junk food and eat food that you cook,’ says Newton. ‘And focus on nutrients rather than calories. Find foods that are nutrient-rich rather than restrict calories.

‘So reduce carbs and sugar in favour of meat – liver, heart and kidneys are best – greens and colourful veg.

‘You won’t be able to eat as many calories because there’s too much volume.’

Human beings are worriers, though, which in this case may mean you’re concerned that as you lose weight you may also lose some of your hard-earned power, on the basis that you will produce less force on the pedals.

‘You need to lose weight slowly,’ says Stern. ‘If you start to have large energy drops your power will fall – you’ll blow up – or you’ll start using up muscle mass.’

If you do it right you won’t lose power at all. ‘In all cycling disciplines except maybe sprinting, power is reliant largely on your ability to provide oxygen to your muscles for a sustained period,’ says Butler.

‘People think it’s to do with having big or strong leg muscles. Chris Froome doesn’t have big leg muscles. I’m not sure if they’re even strong.’

Excess weight requires more power to accelerate or climb and, worse, excess body fat around your stomach can inhibit breathing because it presses against the diaphragm when you’re on the bike.

‘Fat and muscle have to share the oxygen you breathe in, so any excess fat cells compete with muscle cells, “stealing” their oxygen,’ adds Butler.

‘Therefore you can generate more power when you reduce your body fat, not less. And with the increased power-to-weight ratio and the reduction in frontal surface area – of the now smaller you – you can afford to lose a little outright power.’

He agrees the key is losing weight slowly: ‘I don’t mind how quickly my athletes lose weight as long as they eat the right foods.

‘You can’t “will” yourself lean but you can control whether you eat salmon and broccoli or pizza. Focus on the process, not the outcome.’

For information on cycling as a vegan, see here.

Dos and don’ts

Everyone is different and other ways of losing weight may or may not work for you – you’ll have to try them to find out.

‘For some people to lose weight, they may actually need to start eating more food, so they can complete more higher-intensity work, and expend more energy that way,’ says Stern.

Cold comfort

It gets worse. ‘Ice baths can be used for weight loss and there is some evidence that they work, but you have to be able to put up with the cold,’ says Newton. ‘I come from a triathlon background and even I hate cold water.’

There are some things you should definitely avoid, however. ‘You can take supplements to speed up your metabolism but they’re not worth the effort, cost or risk,’ Newton adds.

‘They can be dangerous. I’ve had clients say to me, “My heart’s going nuts and I don’t know why.” Well, what have you taken? Do you really want to mess with your health for a little bit of weight loss?’

‘There are a few pro cyclists with real issues such as anorexia,’ says Stern. ‘I’ve heard of riders doing really long fasted rides, which isn’t a great idea, or living on energy drinks to eliminate protein and fat from the diet and drastically reduce calorie intake.’

Then there’s Tyler Hamilton, says Butler, ‘who would follow a seven-hour ride by taking two sleeping pills so he wouldn’t eat.’

‘That’s the key: what’s healthy?’ Newton says. ‘Think about your long-term health rather than trying to look like Froome or Bardet, and eat sensibly. You’ll end up at the weight that’s right for you without starving yourself, and you’ll ride better as a result.’

This article first appeared on in August 2017

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