Banal truism alert! Pretty much everyone wants to lose a bit of weight.
Magazines and newspapers of all persuasions are obsessed by the topic. Millions of pounds are spent, lost and gained in the name of shedding weight.
If you’ve subscribed to my blog in the last couple of months, you may remember getting an email asking about your cycling struggles.
After lack of time, and maybe fear of hills, the subject of weight is frequently mentioned. My sense from your comments, though, is that you have a healthier attitude to weight-loss than other sectors of society. Rather than fixating on body image, you feel that losing a few pounds would simply help your performance, both on and off the bike.
And you’d be right.
So let’s do that. Me and you. Starting now.
PS. Read to the bottom if you’re
bothered eager to find out my body fat percentage and whether it’s falling…. (now there’s an offer).
Lean On Me
As you may already be aware (given I’ve mentioned it in the last 3 or 4 posts), our challenge (yes, our challenge) in July is to ‘get lean for performance’.
My guide in this exercise is Matt Fitzgerald, through his book, Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance, which I devoured recently (and ironically).
I’m going to be sharing what I’ve learnt from Matt’s book, as well as my own experiences (and results) from trying to follow its teachings.
It should hopefully go without saying that whilst I will cover the themes contained within the book, in order to get the full picture, you should really pick up a copy for yourself:
My favourite book on how to get lean (and look good-ish) *and* perform strongly on the bike. Full of clear, actionable advice.
Rethinking How We Think About Weight
Weight is a key factor that holds back performance, even for novice and intermediate cyclists. It’s most keenly felt when climbing (obviously – you’re having to cart more stuff up the hill than you need) but also has a bearing when riding over flatter terrain.
Being a larger athlete increases wind resistance due to a bigger frontal area. The insulating effect of fat (and the lower surface area:volume ratio) makes it more difficult for the body to keep cool and run at maximum efficiency.
Generally speaking, most people will improve their performance from losing weight.
Despite the presence of ‘weight’ in the title of Fitzgerald’s book, he suggests we should be less interested in weight (within reason) and more interested in body composition. There is no point in lowering weight if the weight lost was formerly muscle, reducing your power output. Your performance will improve if you can lose body fat whilst retaining muscle, thereby reducing the percentage of your body weight made up by fat.
Don’t Try To Lose Weight (Sort Of)
Counterintuitively, the guiding principle behind the Racing Weight system is not simply to reduce your fat percentage and/or weight. Instead, we are to focus on improving our athletic performance. If we do so, through effective training, sensible changes to our diet and careful monitoring, we will achieve our weight/body composition objectives as a secondary (and much-appreciated) benefit.
For me, this idea feels quite liberating. There is something very defensive about losing weight. It’s almost like a game you can only lose.
But like many sportive cyclists, improving my performance is central to my enjoyment of cycling and training. By aligning the diet/nutrition piece to one of my fundamental motivations for cycling, I feel I am much more likely to be successful in ‘getting lean for performance’.
Everything Comes Down To Performance
I admit it. I’m a big kid at heart. Whilst I don’t (yet) trundle around in full Team Sky kit, I harbour the secret fantasy that I am, in fact, an elite rider.
The Racing Weight mindset is how most successful endurance athletes tackle diet and nutrition. They fuel for success. They train for success. Their bodies adapt to both components and, for the most part, they get lean.
The ultimate arbiter of any measure you take to improve your diet is whether your performance on the bike improves. It doesn’t matter whether your optimal body fat percentage is 10% or 20% – is your body fitter for doing the job you want it to do?
Again, this is a liberating idea. There is no need to align yourself with a particular dietary tribe: the zero-carb Atkin-ites, the spear-wielding Paleo practitioners. All you care about is making a series of small improvements to your diet, little by little, slowly compounding. As long as your sporting performance continues to improve, you can be reasonably confident that you’re doing something right.
Wait, I Need Some Help Here!
Don’t panic, Matt doesn’t leave you to run through a series of personal scientific experiments to determine whether you run better on a 100% cabbage diet (rocket thrust!) or raw antelope meat plan (eat what you catch).
The book contains plenty of guiding principles to start from, based on the practices of successful endurance athletes. If the ultimate measuring stick is, ‘what leads to the greatest improvement in performance’, why not start with the methods of those that have attained the very highest levels of performance and work from there?
Don’t answer that (it’s rhetorical).
Anyhoo, I’ll cover some of the improvements you might like to make (and some of the ones I’ve already started to implement) in future posts. For now though I want to cover one final revelation in the book that surprised and encouraged me. Are you ready for this?
Choice Of ‘Diet’ Has Very Little Correlation With Likelihood Of Dietary Success
There is little evidence to suggest that any one dietary system (Atkins, Paleo, Gurnard) is more effective than the others in leading to long-term weight loss success.
“Research has shown that self-monitoring practices and the behavioural modifications that surround them are the strongest predictors of successful long-term weight loss…”
In other words, the two most effective steps that you might take to promote long-term weight loss success (i.e. losing it and then not putting it back on) are:
1. Maintaining a food diary
2. Weighing yourself and measuring your body composition regularly (and doing the same for your performance on the bike)
The former works by heightening the awareness of what you’re eating. You’re more conscious and therefore more likely to make the odd ‘good choice’ that results in an improvement to your diet. You can’t lie to yourself (and others) about what you’ve been eating (unless you deliberately decide not to note down that cheeky donut with your mid-morning coffee).
The latter helps you avoid ‘dietary creep’ – the relaxation of standards that you don’t notice for a couple of weeks, when suddenly your belt feels tighter and you realise you’ve put on half a stone.
Self-measurement: A New Concept For Cyclists (Not)
Fervent non-Strava-novites can choose to disagree, but I hypothesise that most road cyclists like to measure at least some information about their riding: distance, time, height ascended, cadence, cows avoided.
We’re practised at recording stuff, so let’s use and extend the habit to our diet and see what happens.
1. MapMyPlate (I don’t know…)
To that end, I’ve been keeping a food diary. It’s a simple Google Docs… er… doc, that I keep on my phone. So far I’ve just been storing the data.
Racing Weight has a points system for scoring the value of each food item consumed. The aim is to make small improvements to your diet such that your daily score creeps upwards. My next job is to go through the diary, totting up the points, in order to spot the opportunities to ‘level up’ my diet.
Don’t worry, unlike for my 30 Days of Cycling Challenge, I’m not going to force you to read my food diary each day and give me ‘Kudos’ for a particularly well-chosen bowl of steamed spinach.
2. LardTracker (hmm…)
Secondly, I bought
the family myself a Fitbit Aria, which is a Wi-Fi connected ‘smart scale’ (it measures body fat percentage as well as weight). I thought the Wi-Fi element was perhaps a bit of a gimmick, but in fact turns out to be tremendously useful.
Having set up the scales, and registered with an account on the Fitbit website, all I have to do is stand on the scales for a couple of seconds, and the data gets sent automatically to the ‘cloud’ for Fitbit to
laugh at analyse and turn into pretty graphs.
Apparently the body composition figures on these sorts of scales can be inaccurate in absolute terms, so we’re more interested in the trend over time.
Here is a screen shot of my body composition chart for the past 10 days or so. Unhelpfully, there aren’t any labels and the scale is a little large. Whatever.
The headline result so far is that I started this month’s challenge at 69kg, with a body fat percentage of 18.2%, and as of this morning (8th July), I’m at 68.5kg, and a body fat percentage of 17.7%. That equates to the loss of around 500g of fat (the scale reckons my ‘lean mass’ has remained constant).
Which, now that I write it, is actually quite encouraging.
That’s All Folks
We’ll leave it there for this week’s sermon.
Check out the next post in this series where I’ll be looking at the key things to focus on if you want to lose weight by cycling. I’ll look in more detail at the six key steps within the Racing Weight System, and how I’m attempting to implement them
In the meantime, I’m keen to know how you’re getting on in your own ‘Get Lean For July/The Holidays/Good’ challenge. Or have you already used the Racing Weight System to good effect?
Let me know in the comments below.
Also, if you still need to pick up a copy of the book.
PS. If you like to read (in book format), why not check out my list of top road cycling books.
17 thoughts on “How To Achieve Your Cycling Racing Weight (Without Starving Yourself)”
I’m fixated on body image….;-) Best way to shave off a beer belly ever invented, low impact and you get to actually enjoy doing the exercise. Saving on gymn fees offsets the cost of the bike (I tell her)
Couldn’t agree more 🙂
No, no, not the picture…anything but the picture…I will lose weight soon, I will, honest guv!
But seriously, I have started exercising more and being more aware of what I cram down the throat – the food diary idea sounds good. Will have to start one…dare I say…sometime?
Look forward to the next post (but seriously, no photos, huh?)
..I’ll think about it…
Really good article! I started keeping a food diary early last year and along with cycling at least 5x a week. This helped me lose over 3 stone and get my body fat % down to 19%. Focusing on body fat % I believe is a healthier way of measuring success rather than actual body weight loss.
Thanks Glenn. Glad you enjoyed it. Congratulations on the weight (fat) loss and the fitness gain. That’s a great effort. Next stop 10% body fat… 🙂
Please no pictures. As food food diairy I use myfitnesspal app, free to download and set up and use. However it is marvellous it covers everything. (A friend said it wouldn’t have his protien stuff on it as it was produced independently but scan with the bar code and presto found it) it remembers you regular breakfasts and foods, and it can be linked straight through to map my ride ( sorry strava ). I have been using it for 5 months now.
Anyway worth a look ?
As a 92kg guy with 28% body fat, I’m equally fixated on body image and cycling/running performance. I’ve always found life too busy to keep a food diary – I measure body mass and fat %, and if it hasn’t improved I don’t need a diary to tell me why! As you mention, it’s always seemed like a battle i can’t win; an exercise in self-flagellation. Maybe I’ll give it a crack for July and see what happens…
I have used MyFitnessPal for over 600 straight days. I lost 20kg in a year and it was thanks to MFP.
Runkeeper and Strava sync with it to give you that extra incentive calories you have earnt.
Despite the weight loss I still way in each Sunday and use MFP to make sure I don’t start on that slippery slope back to 88kg!
Downloaded MFP this morning and started tracking. Hoping it makes a difference!
A very good way to avoid the birthday round of cakes in the office, barcode read (in MFP) the packaging and then you just won’t bother…
I’ve always been a slim kid and never needed to lose weight. But I will start gaining weight from now on and wont stop unless you post a picture!!!!
!!!This post need more pictures!!!
Great article! I couldn’t agree more that keeping a food or exercise diary will help you achieve any goal you set for yourself. In my opinion, seeing your goal in front of your face everyday should help anyone stay motivated and challenged. Thanks for sharing!
Great post! I’ve been one of the Atkin-ites, a spear-wielding Paleo practitioner, and more during my weight loss “career.” I don’t really identify specifically with any one group, though I learn from each one. I learned about low carb from Atkins, to not be afraid of fat from Paleo, and more recently, how to cycle on and off carbs from another expert. The point for me is small gains, taking the best (or what works for me) from each community. You have really embodied that principle here, Andrew. Thanks. And thanks for not posting the pics. You have saved the eyeballs of countless individuals.
I have a reasonable diet (thanks to my wife and being T2 diabetic) Over the latter part of the summer I decided to reduce the portion sizes I ate along with more regular outings on the bike (including a few sportives – off-road versions). I have only dropped 3.5kg but my body fat has reduced quite a bit, my beer belly has reduced (but not totally gone yet) and my blood/sugar levels have improved (to my GPs approval!). My average speed on rides has improved and I can certainly feel an improvement in the rides I do.
When I started training for an event and increasing my cycling I put on about 7lb which I’ve never been able to shift! The problem for me is that exercise increases my appetite especially for chips and cake. 🙁 I fine the pictures taken at sportives when there’s no where to hid the fat in tight fitting cycling gear is a good reminder to cut down on the treats!!
A good read, and one I found interesting as I’ve recently had a body “make over”.
In 2013 I lost four stone, dropping from 18st 5lb to 14st 3lb, and felt pretty good, especially on the mountain bike. This was done by following the Hairy Bikers diet system, for the most part. It worked, but I did steadily put weight back on over the next few years.
Since then I’ve done a lot more road riding as well, and struggled a little trying to keep up with my whippet friends 😂
In September last year, 2018, I started taking the advice of a friend who is a fitness instructor. At 15st 3lb I figured I needed to drop some weight over the winter, ready for some serious riding in 2019. She made me log everything I ate for two weeks, and the exercise I did. From that info I got back a 4 page “assessment” of what I was currently doing, and what I needed to do. Without going into too much detail, she advised changes to my diet, without actually going on a diet. My food intake actually increased, but the food quality was high, much healthier than the food I was previously consuming. She made me continue to log everything I ate, all the exercise I was doing, my weight on a weekly basis, and my body measurements on a monthly basis. All of this information to be kept in a shared document we both had access to.
From the original weight of 15st 3lb, I’m now down to 12st 11lb, losing approx 1lb per week.
I feel great, and my climbing is out of this world, at least in comparison to how I used to be 😂
The big thing for me was to definitely log everything. But also to share that data with someone – you can lie to yourself, but not to that other person helping you along. I’ve been lucky having Jane keeping an eye on me, and without her help and advice I don’t think I’d have got this far. With the weight loss being gradual, and the food intake not only healthy, but interesting as well, it should be relatively easy for me to keep up with this regime.
Anyways, just a few of my thoughts. Keep up the good work Monty 👍