How To Improve Your Diet For Road Cycling

Welcome to the fourth in my series of posts, ‘Get Lean For Performance’.

Originally intended as a July series, I seem to have crept into stomped all over August. Whatevs. This is my final post on the topic for the time being. My next ‘thematic series’ will look at training (whoop!).

So far in this series, we’ve talked about the two key (eating-related) habits of successful fat losers and the 6 Key Steps To Enlightenment (er, weight loss). We’ve enjoyed the inspirational story of Sportive Cyclist reader Giles, who lost over 50kg through developing a cycling habit.

The final topic I wanted to talk about is what a healthy diet looks like. We all know what it smells like: [whispers] “…victory…”

(Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and buy something, I get a commission. You pay the same price.)

Once more I’m using as my guide the muy excelente book, Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance, by coach and sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, particularly if you are confused by fad diets and just want to get pragmatic, evidence-based advice.

A Food Diary Never Lies (And Why ‘My Fitness Pal’ Isn’t A Panacea)

One of the two key habits practised by successful fat shifters is keeping a record of what they eat (my previous post explains why that’s the case). Using the My Fitness Pal app (recommended by a number of Sportive Cyclist readers) is a convenient and effective way of doing that.

However, MFP is very ‘calorie focused’ – the overarching measure of success is consuming fewer calories than your targeted daily quota.

It does show a nutritional breakdown of your daily diet (carbohydrates, fats, protein, fibre, plus a range of vitamins and minerals) but you’d have to be pretty clued up to see, at a glance, whether that breakdown was a ‘healthy’ one.

Further, there are calories and there are calories. For a given amount of calories, some foods provide a huge nutritional benefit and make you feel fuller, faster (so you eat fewer calories overall). Other foods offer up little in the way of nutritional content and don’t fill you up (so you keep chomping).

It’s probably worth finding out which foods fall into the former camp (so you can eat them) and which reside in the latter (which you can fire from the family howitzer into a nearby field*).

(*Wait, you don’t own a howitzer? But that’s the first rule of diet club…)

Points Mean Prizes

Fitzgerald’s Racing Weight system contains a method for assessing, and improving, the quality of your diet.

Essentially it’s a simple points system, based on the foods you eat each day. Points are awarded for items taken from the good list and subtracted for transgressions into the bad. The higher your daily total, the better your diet and the higher your chances of achieving your ‘racing weight’.

By maintaining a food diary, and recording your daily scores, you get a sense of your current diet quality and the areas which could be improved in order to increase your daily score.

Whilst there is a theoretical maximum score available for a ‘perfect’ day, the aim of the system is to help you make informed improvements, little by little, so the whole exercise doesn’t feel like a massive imposition (with the risk that you give up in a huge, medieval food orgy… or something).

What Is The Good Stuff

Let’s not get too bogged down in detail. A healthy diet should contain foodstuffs mainly drawn from the following list:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Lean meats and fish
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains (yes, carbohydrates!)
  • Dairy

Also, let’s stop fooling ourselves. We know (even if we eat as if we don’t) that the following foods do not a good diet make:

  • Refined grains (e.g. ‘white’ things: rice, bread, pasta – essentially anything that isn’t a whole grain)
  • Sweets
  • Fried foods (i.e. deep fried rather than stir- or pan-fried)
  • Fatty proteins (fatty meats etc)

Clearly, some foods will have a mix of ingredients drawn from the good and the bad lists. Use your judgement. Look deep within your soul. Explore your heart of hearts. I’m sure you’ll be able to work out which camp most edible items fall into.

Natural Over Processed

It can’t have escaped your notice (as an intelligent, dare I say it, handsome/beautiful, Sportive Cyclist reader) that the foods on the first list are generally eaten in a form that is pretty close to how they come.

An apple grows on a tree, it’s picked, then you eat it. A cow is born, grows up, is chopped up, you apply heat and then you eat it. A crop of wheat is grown, it’s harvested and the ‘top part’ (here my knowledge fails) is turned into wholewheat flour and made into bread.

The foods on the second list are less natural. The same wheat crop undergoes a number of processes to make white flour, with nutritional benefit lost at each step. The number of calories in each bite does not reduce as foods are processed (generally the opposite happens).

As a general rule, trying to stay at the natural end of the food spectrum gives you a better chance of achieving a healthy diet, and thus your performance and weight loss aims.

Balance Of Power

Since variety is the spice of life (and also the basis for a healthy balanced diet), the Racing Weight system reduces, and then starts to deduct, the points awarded for even high quality foodstuffs. Hence, whilst your first portion of whole grains adds 2 points to your total, the fourth scores zero, the sixth knocks a point off your total.

How To Improve The Quality Of Your Diet

So that’s the theory. How, you ask, do we employ these lifestyle edicts in practice? Let me tell thee…

As you can imagine, I like to organise my life using the principles of military planning.

We have determined our strategic objective: to improve the quality of our diet. Time now to get tactical (and not a little operational).

According to Matt (and common sense), we have three tactics to deploy:

  1. remove low quality food from our diet;
  2. increase the amount of high quality stuff;
  3. substitute a low quality thing for a high quality equivalent.

Tactic 3 is the easiest to implement without feeling unduly pissed off. I’ve found it reasonably straightforward to replace white rice and ‘normal’ pasta (both refined grains) with brown rice and wholewheat pasta, respectively (both whole grains).

Requiring more willpower, but not too much, is the replacement of whatever late afternoon snack I might otherwise go for (cake, biscuit) for a portion of mixed nuts.

Tactic 2 (eat more high quality stuff) has also worked well for me. I make a large salad to accompany most evening meals, reducing the space on the plate and in the stomach for potentially low quality gear.

If you manage to implement tactics 3 and 2 effectively, you’ll find that number 1 is achieved by the back door (not a euphemism). You’ll drop certain low quality foods because you’re simply not hungry. That’s the theory anyway….

It’s Not All Work Work Work

The danger with dietary advice is that it often reads as a holier-than-thou exposition of the merits of an ascetic lifestyle, akin to that of a Carthusian monk.

Life is for living.

You certainly don’t have to go cold turkey on all that you enjoy. Little improvements, a food substitution here, an elimination there, can build up to a large-scale beneficial change over time.

In the meantime, here are some insights from Racing Weight that you might like to bear in mind as you continue on your get lean journey:

  • alcohol is allowed (whoop!), nay positively encouraged (double whoop!)…. in moderation (boo! hiss!). A couple of units a day is beneficial for cardiovascular health and won’t undermine your weight loss objectives
  • coffee and tea are fine – beware of what you have with them (sugar, syrups, milk beyond your daily dairy quota)
  • you can eat whatever you want during a training session (within reason)*

(* starving yourself whilst training, in order to lose more fat, is a false economy. You will be more successful at getting lean if you get fitter – training to do that requires adequate fueling.)

So, Does It Work (And Where Is the Before/After Photo)?

Let’s get this out of the way first: there will be no before/after photos (of me at least). I’m not sure my ‘results’ are entirely visible.

But I am pleased to report results:

weight and fat percentage chart 18 Aug 2014
Slow and steady loss of weight and fat. Boom!

Since embarking upon my weight/fat loss odyssey (28th June, so 51 days ago), I’ve lost 2.5kg in overall weight; 1.6kg of fat. My body fat percentage has dropped from 18.4% to 16.6%, a fall of 1.8%. I’m certainly happy with the reduction in body fat. I’m not exactly sure what to think about the loss of lean weight (ideally I don’t want to be losing muscle), but for now I’ll take it.

As the chart shows, my weight/fat percentage has enjoyed a steady progression downwards, which I’d like to think is in line with my sensible, rather than extreme, dietary changes (but then, who knows…).

Fin De Cycle

Whilst this is my final post on diet and weight loss for the time being, I’m going to stick with the plan (which isn’t much of a plan) and see whether I can shift a few more percentage points.

Now I’m going to redirect my focus to training. I want to demystify (for myself if no one else) what we should be doing to really step up our cycling performance. Like you, I have competing demands on my time: my research will be focused on getting maximum fitness gain ‘bang’ for my limited time ‘buck’. I will also share some exciting training-related news (ooooh!).

In the meantime, let me know in the comments how your own weight loss challenge has gone and, if you haven’t done so already, do pick up a copy of the Racing Weight book. For me, the money I spent is worth the almost 2 percentage points of fat reduction I’ve achieved since reading it.

Monty - Sportive Cyclist
Monty is an enthusiastic road cyclist with only moderate talent. He started Sportive Cyclist in 2013 to record the journey to his first 100 mile ride, the RideLondon 100. Over time the blog has expanded to include training advice, gear reviews and road cycling tales, all from the perspective of a not-very-fit MAMIL. Since you're here, Monty would also like you to check out his YouTube channel. Also, Monty really needs to stop referring to himself in the third person.

11 thoughts on “How To Improve Your Diet For Road Cycling”

  1. Well done Monty. Nice to see some good results.

    I wouldn’t worry about the loss in lean mass. I tend to get the same on my scales but I think it’s more to do with the low accuracy of home based body composition scales rather than actually loosing lean mass. On the graph to me it looks like your lean mass has basically stayed the same whilst fat percentage has gone down. I’d take that as a big positive. I’m sure that when your fat levels out the lean will go up.

    • Thanks Giles. I’d thought the same about the accuracy of the scales. One thing I didn’t mention is that I have to weigh/”analyse” myself at the same time (or rather after the same daily… er… action) every day in order to avoid hugely erratic results…

  2. Hi Monty

    Read the series with interest, being muchly overweight and essentially greedy (and idle).

    Have now managed to shift three kilos in three weeks using two rules (bendable, admittedly):

    1 No carbs after 3pm, and
    2 Drink smoothies.

    Whenever I get peckish, or simply need to eat (rather than actually needing food) I drink a home made smoothy with nothing in it but water, fruit and sometimes some no-fat yoghurt

    That appears to satisfy the desire to stuff food into my face.

    Simple things, like me, but they seem to work.


    PS Have got to delay buying the new bike having spent all my money on smoothy-making gadgets. C’est la vie!

    • That’s good going Mike. Keep up the excellent work.

      I’m assuming you’re mixing that up with exercise? (what with you commenting on a cycling blog and all…)

      • Currently using the gym, where I can improve my fitness/stamina levels without having to contend with the local 15-20% gradients, but hugely looking forward to the day when I feel capable of taking them on.
        Keep up the good work on the blog – one of the two best cycling reads online today!

          • Andreas Kambanis’ LondonCyclist – starting reading it a few years ago when I used to train for long distance events while staying with my daughter up in the Smoke. Still follow it for general interest and kit/gadget reviews.

  3. Nice post, Monty, and congratulations on your fat-reduction results. (I’m in agreement with Giles that your lean mass appears to have stayed basically the same. It does seem odd though, that the shapes of the lean and total mass curves are so similar, rather than being inverse or phase-shifted. But it’s always hard to know how closely to look at short-term results.)

    I gave “Racing Weight” a cursory reading some months ago, and was put off by his method of using points to evaluate food. But you’ve now convinced me to go back and take another look at it!

    (BTW, the description of the third tactic — “substitute a low quality thing for a high quality equivalent” seems backwards. At least in American English it means to eat a low quality thing rather than a high quality equivalent, which I doubt is the intended meaning. 🙂

    Keep up the good work; I’m really looking forward to hearing what you have to say on training…


    • Hi James – thanks for your comment. Glad you’re going to give Racing Weight another look. Even if you don’t gel with the points approach, there is still a lot in there that’s worth bearing in mind.

      I looked at the substitute thing – it’s maybe another case of two peoples separated by a common language… 🙂 (or it could just be lazy writing that’s not particularly clear)

  4. Great blog! Just subscribed and starting to work through the great blogs and information.

    Fantastic tips and based on your blog and comments I bought the book (as did some gym buds of mine). I lost 3 stone a few years back and for the last year or so I’ve done the 5:2 – mainly for health reasons but it also shifted half a stone which was great. I’m in a good place health and weight wise so now it’s about improving leanness – I’m dropping 5:2 to start this plan.

    A couple of questions:
    (1) what scales do people recommend? I can use the Inbody machine at the gym but plan to do that every 3 months (they are very detailed) and need some weekly ones. I know you use the FitBit Aria but I’m moving away from FitBit having recently lost my One (boo) and already having a Basis watch so not needed the new products. I can see them going on the Christmas list…

    (2) I use my FitnessPal and have done for years and like you say, it’s helpful – does anyone recommend a Racing Weight App just to get me on the straight and narrow? I use a free one called “DietQuality” but it’s not terrific (although I could live with it) and I’ve seen some negative reviews – it’s not free so I don’t want to test it!

    (3) 3 days in I’m and really struggling to eat the recommended daily carbs – any tips on the most carb heavy healthy point scoring carbs would be great!


    • Hi Louise,

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog. I’m afraid I’ve only tried the Fitbit Aria, but I’ve been very happy with them (insofar as you can be happy with something that measures fat % when you have no way of checking its accuracy…). It’s certainly a breeze to use and sync with the Fitbit website. On food tracking, I’d stick with My Fitness Pal. If you follow the Racing Weight approach and log the foods, it will naturally translate into a calorie deficit within MFP.

      Struggling to eat carbs is not something I struggle with to be honest! As per the book though, whole grain carbs are generally recommended over processed ones: I eat a lot of wholegrain pasta and rice. Pasta probably has the highest carb concentration per 100g (based on a quick play with Google).

      Keep up the good work,



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