Here’s how to lose weight without sacrificing your performance on the bike.
Whether preparing for a competition or if you want to get up those hills a little easier, the topic of weight loss can be confusing. And all too often, many cyclists approach weight loss wrong — they starve themselves and enter too big a calorie deficit while simultaneously increasing their training load.
Getting it wrong is not only a matter of losing weight too quickly, but you risk losing lean muscle, your performance may take a hit, you increase your risk of injury, and you may put your metabolic function at risk.
So how do you lose weight for cycling, the right way? In this article, we explore the basics of weight loss, including whether you should count calories, what the macronutrients and micronutrients are, and then explain how to use carbohydrate periodisation to achieve your weight loss goals without sacrificing performance on the bike.
How to lose weight cycling
Before we dive into the specifics, it’s essential to understand that you must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight. Macro and micronutrients aside for a moment, if you’re not consuming fewer calories than you burn, then it doesn’t matter what diet you follow or how many hours you spend on the bike; you will not lose weight.
When you think of weight loss, what you’re most likely referring to is fat loss. Chances are, you don’t want to voluntarily lose lean muscle mass. By increasing, or at least maintaining lean mass while decreasing body fat, you will maintain your performance on the bike, even if you lose several pounds of body weight.
To prevent muscle loss, you eat in a slight calorie deficit. One of the big mistakes many people make when losing weight is dieting too hard and entering too big a calorie deficit, depriving their body of essential nutrients. This is not healthy and will also lead to muscle loss!
Weight loss is roughly 30% exercise and 70% diet — so it’s crucial to get your nutrition right.
Should you count your calories?
You will more than likely enter a calorie deficit by reducing portion size, or eliminating unhealthy snacks and other foods. However, if you’re struggling to lose fat or want a more accurate approach to limit lean muscle loss, you can count your calories or keep a log of your food intake.
It’s important to note, however, that calorie counting apps can be inaccurate by as much as 30-50%. Moreover, tracking your calories can be draining and can take the fun out of eating. Despite this, it can be useful to keep a log of your food intake for a couple of weeks to make sure you’re eating the right foods in the right quantities. But you don’t need to count calories forever (or at all, if you don’t want to).
A lot of cyclists trying to lose weight will find that by counting their calories and macros, they either consume too much food or not enough protein (sometimes both). And if tracking, remember to count those calories from bars, gels, and other snacks you have on the bike.
While calorie counting is not for everyone, it can be a very useful tool to better understand what you’re putting in your body to fuel performance and recovery. But do whatever you feel most comfortable!
What are the macronutrients?
There are three macronutrients, known as carbohydrates, protein, and fats. We need all three to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Each macronutrient serves a role, from reducing inflammation to muscle repair and growth, and providing fuel for the muscles.
A lot of people don’t understand how the macronutrients work. This makes losing weight more difficult. Therefore, we’ve provided an explanation of each macronutrient in more detail below, including details on why you need them, and how each macronutrient plays a role in fat loss.
Getting enough protein is essential to maintain lean muscle mass while trying to lose body fat. Aim to consume 1.5-2g of protein per kg of body weight per day . For example, if you weigh 80kg, then you should try to eat 120-160g of protein per day.
The body can only really absorb approximately 30g of protein in a single sitting. So if possible, spread out your protein intake throughout the day, eating 3-5 meals or extra protein snacks; whatever works best for your lifestyle.
Protein will also help you feel more full — it’s very satiating and can help prevent snacking, making it easier to maintain your calorie deficit.
And while the convenience of protein shakes and bars is exactly that: convenient, when possible, try to consume the bulk of your protein and other nutrients through whole foods. That includes trying to eat high-quality protein sources such as eggs, fish, meat, cottage cheese, lentils, and other beans.
Whole foods contain essential nutrients, amino acids, and vitamins. We’re not saying a protein or recovery shake is bad — they can be very useful. But do your best to get the majority of your calories from whole food options.
Next up, we have everybody’s favourite: carbohydrates (or carbs). There are two main types of carbs:
- Refined carbohydrates (pizza, pastries, sweet treats)
- Non-refined carbohydrates (multi-grain bread, brown rice, oatmeal)
Try to eat fewer refined carbohydrates and replace these with non-refined alternatives. Refined carbs often contain lots of sugar and excess calories. Furthermore, several studies have shown a link between refined carbohydrates and a greater risk of type 2 diabetes and Ischemic heart disease .
Non-refined carbs, on the other hand, contain plenty of fibre, and vitamins, and minerals, providing you with energy on (and off) the bike. When trying to lose weight for cycling, it makes the most sense to tailor your carbohydrate intake around your training. This is because we need essential fats and proteins, but manipulating your carb intake around your training is easy to do — you’re providing your body the necessary energy when it needs it. This is called carbohydrate periodisation — but more on this shortly…
Finally, we have fats — these should make up the remaining number of calories for your daily intake. There are two types of fats:
- Saturated fats (cakes, biscuits, bacon)
- Unsaturated fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, fish)
Reduce your intake of saturated fats, and instead try to eat more unsaturated alternatives. Saturated fats contribute to inflammation. They are also high in calories and can easily take up a significant portion of your daily intake when consumed in high quantities. So do your best to avoid them!
As well as macronutrients, there are also micronutrients. These are your salads, leafy greens, vegetables, and fruits. Unfortunately, micronutrients don’t get the credit they deserve, perhaps because they’re so low in calories.
But micronutrients are absolutely essential to your health. And as a cyclist, depriving yourself of the micronutrients may compromise your health, increase inflammation in the body, and cause vitamin deficiencies such as B12, folate, or Iron, which can cause anaemia (this is where there are fewer red blood cells).
And if you’ve studied any human physiology, you’ll know that red blood cells are essential to endurance and athletic performance — they provide oxygen to the muscles and organs. So long story short, eat those leafy greens, and fruits and vegetables. Typically, the more colourful your plate, the better.
Further, foods such as salads will help fill you up without taking in too many calories. This makes it easier to stick to your calorie deficit without feeling hungry (also reducing the likelihood of you binge eating).
Carbohydrate periodisation to lose weight
Out of all of the macronutrients, the easiest and most suitable group to restrict to lose weight loss is carbohydrates, even though they contain the same calories per gram as protein (4 kcal), and more than half the calories per gram of fat (9 kcal).
Think of carbohydrates as your main energy source — it’s the fuel in your car. When you’re not training, you need fewer carbs as less energy expenditure is needed. But for those harder training sessions, you want to eat more carbs to fuel performance (you need more fuel to provide the necessary energy for training).
To achieve fat loss results, approach carb periodisation over several weeks, e.g. 12 weeks vs. 2-3 weeks. A longer-term approach is absolutely necessary for health and vital for fat loss success.
Steph Cronin, accredited nutritionist and sports dietitian explains how to lose weight using carbohydrate prioritisation in more detail in the video below.
A quick note on scale weight
When trying to lose weight for cycling, it’s easy to become obsessed with numbers… that includes counting calories and, of course, scale weight. But do your best not to become too obsessed with the scales.
For starters, scale weight is not the best indicator of fat loss. This is because as you lose fat, you might gain lean muscle, meaning your weight stays the same. Instead, we suggest a combination of scales, progress pictures, and, if you have access to it, some method of body fat measurement, whether skinfold callipers or a DEXA scan.
Losing weight for cycling is not complicated. You simply need to enter a calorie deficit to lose fat. Avoid reducing your daily calorie intake by too much to prevent lean muscle loss — if you were to count, a 300-500 calorie deficit would be a good place to start.
To achieve this deficit, you may find it useful to perdiose your carbohydrate intake, eating more carbohydrates the evening before a hard training session, and fewer carbohydrates on rest days and before easier rides.
- You must be in a calorie deficit to lose fat
- Prioritise protein intake to prevent lean muscle loss
- Periodise your carbohydrate intake around your training to effectively lose fat
Interested in Stronger Hill Climbing? Check out our free eBook written by PHD & Strength & Conditioning Coach, Aaron Turner.
Does bike riding help you lose weight?
Yes, riding a bike can help you lose weight. This is because you burn more calories, making it easier to enter a calorie deficit (this is required to lose weight).
Can I lose belly fat by cycling?
You cannot decide where to lose fat. But by entering a calorie deficit, you will likely lose belly fat (along with fat from other areas of your body).
How much indoor cycling to lose weight?
To lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. You may find it easier to do so by cycling 3-5 times a week.
- Hu, F.B., 2010. Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat?. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 91(6), pp.1541-1542.
- Wu, G., 2016. Dietary protein intake and human health. Food & function, 7(3), pp.1251-1265.