If you’ve been cycling for any length of time, you’re aware of the many health benefits the sport offers including improved cardio & increased muscle strength.
As someone who has logged over 10,000 miles on his bike, I can attest to those benefits.
But, there was always one problem I couldn’t fix.
I’ve been riding and “racing” mostly Gran Fondos for the last several years and I could never make a dent in my extra belly fat I’d carry around.
I’m a disciplined eater. I sleep well. I cross train. But after three years, still almost no change.
After digging deeper, I realized that more time on the bike wasn’t the answer.
If you’ve had a similar experience, you know how frustrating it can be. You’re probably doing many of the “right” things but are struggling to lose weight and perform at your best.
So, off I went in search of answers. I started experimenting and taking action. Slowly, things started to improve and I finally feel I’m on the right track. I wanted to share what I learned throughout the process.
My goal is to help you save time and make informed choices so you can develop a game plan that works best for you.
But first a few tips….
It can be overwhelming to learn all that’s out there in hopes of finding a plan perfectly tailored to you. To feel and perform at your best on your bike, think about all the below advice and tips from a holistic perspective.
When making any change give yourself time to ramp up rather than feeling like you need to make a wholesale change. Give yourself a 30-to-60 day timeframe to ease into the change.
We’re all way too complex to find a one size fits all solution so use your personal experience to guide you.
Lastly, your optimal diet and nutrition strategy will evolve over time. There’s no need to focus on one specific plan. Be open and flexible to changing this over time.
Everyday nutrition for cyclists
The big picture view!
Figure out which eating habits are sustainable for you.
More than any specific nutrition advice, I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s way too easy to get confused and frustrated with conflicting health information swirling around.
Every new study disputes the previous one and if we’re being real, this confusion is exactly what food marketers want.
It allows them to cleverly guide you toward a new fad diet that unlocks a magical recipe for success.
So, find a few foundational eating habits that best fit you and build from there.
There are well-known and solid guidelines most of us can easily follow and an abundance of healthy food options that should empower you to make good choices.
Too often, we don’t consistently follow a plan that just works. It’s that endless battle between willpower and discipline!
To be fair, even pro riders struggle with what they feel like eating versus what they should be eating.
But, eating the right food doesn’t have to be punishment. It’s about finding and preparing foods in a way that will make you feel like you’re not making sacrifices.
What humans have eaten for the longest time
So, let’s do a little time traveling and think back to ancient times and what people ate then. For most of human history they ate what we now call the paleo diet which includes the following foods:
Wild meat, fish, and seafood
When planning your meals, there’s really no need to stray from the above foods. It’s simply about eating nutrient dense foods we’ve eaten for the longest time.
The short-term wins you’ll get by following the latest fad diet do far more long-term damage and should be avoided.
Macro & Micronutrients: a quick overview
There’s a lot of hype around macronutrients in the fitness world. The debate largely centers around the proper ratio of protein, carbs, and fats for optimal fitness.
If you simply follow a balanced diet of unprocessed foods, you’ll be way ahead of the game (see above)
Yes, this advice is boring but it will alleviate a lot of time and effort trying to sort out the right combinations of macronutrients you need.
But there is one area where you may want to experiment.
As a cyclist, carbohydrates have long been the fuel source of choice, but lately I’ve been experimenting with a fat-adapted diet. I did this because during Gran Fondo 100 mile races, I’d hit a wall around the 80-mile mark.
The idea is that a fat-focused diet helps you burn fuel more efficiently preventing you from having to eat as much during the ride to keep glycogen stores topped off and avoid the dreaded bonk.
Your body stores about 15 to 20 times more “fat calories” than “carb calories”, allowing you to put fat to work in a way that spares muscle glycogen.
Just remember: Fat-adapted diets aren’t meant to fully replace carbohydrate-based diets. Heavily restricting carbs can hinder athletic performance and prevent your body from accessing glucose energy.
Natural whole-carb foods like whole fruit, whole grains, and vegetables keep your blood sugar levels optimized.
My advice is to prepare a few snacks to take with you on rides or energy bars made with realwhole ingredients in place of gels and GU energy packs.
Micronutrients are needed in small amounts and are crucial for muscle repair and growth. They also strengthen your body’s auto-defense system and are vital for removing toxins from the body.
I’d recommend experimenting with a combination of healthy fats to carbs and find the mix that works best for you. Pay attention to your performance on longer rides to gauge your energy levels and adjust as you see fit.
Just remember: Food isn’t just fuel! It also has anti-inflammatory properties that help speed up recovery and repair muscle tissue.
It can be hard to consistently get every nutrient we need from our food so adding supplements is fine. Just make sure they are ethically grown and cold-processed.
I’m a fan of incorporating superfoods into my diet as much as I can. There are many foods that offer a powerful boost of nutrients.
My advice is to find two to three super foods that you can incorporate into a variety of meals. I’ve experimented with several of them and these are my favorites:
Sleep better, ride faster!
Want to ride faster? Then you must make sleep a priority.
Sleep impacts just about every function of your mind and body, yet so many of us are sleep-deprived and are paying a huge price for it.
Sleep deprivation is linked to several ailments that can seriously impact your long term health.
Here’s just a sample of chronic issues:
It elevates your cortisol which influences spikes in insulin, impacts your metabolic levels, and turns your muscle into fat.
Glucose is your body’s main fuel source but it’s also your brain’s main fuel source and lack of sleep means less glucose to your brain.
This causes your brain to go into survival mode, and it sends you signals to quickly give it that “sugar hit”. This often happens late at night, so in your weakened state, you oblige.
It dramatically suppresses leptin which is a hormone that regulates your appetite. Poor or little sleep equals more cravings throughout the day which often leads to binge eating of all those foods you try so hard to stay away from.
Here’s one thing to keep in mind:
You probably spend a lot of time on your bike training each week. You’re not going to realize the full benefits of all your efforts if you’re not getting enough sleep.
Quality sleep allows your body to fully absorb the effects of all your training.
Quality sleep also helps the brain remove toxins and cellular waste. Think of it as a nightly car wash for your brain. Our brains are working all day long and expending a lot of calories and energy.
These regular “car washes” are essential to prevent long-term damage that may lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life.
Here are a few key things to focus on to improve your quality of sleep:
Develop an evening ritual as much as you can to get in the habit of winding down and preparing your body for sleep. It’s no different than preparing for your rides. You’re proactively preparing for sleep.
Curb your screen time and stay away from electronic devices an hour before bed.
Try to incorporate morning workouts or rides into your weekly routine. If you’re not a morning person, start slowly and try it just once a week. You should notice a big improvement in the quality of your sleep.
I struggled with this one but was amazed at how I felt later in the evening. It’s a game changer!
The topic of sleep is expansive and there’s a lot to learn. If you’re curious to know more, I’d recommend checking out the book Sleep Smarter. It provides detailed sleep strategies to improve your overall health.
The effects of hormones
Much of the talk about weight loss centers around altering our diet and ensuring we exercise regularly.
But hormones like insulin, cortisol, and leptin play a huge role in managing weight loss. They are the messengers that allow your body’s systems to function smoothly.
Having a baseline understanding of the impact of hormones goes a long way toward making lifestyle adjustments to improve your overall health.
Below is a quick overview of the most important hormones and how they impact you.
HGH – Human Growth Hormone
What you need to know:
There’s so much controversy surrounding the use of human growth hormone for performance enhancement. We’re all aware of the doping scandals that have wreaked havoc on the cycling world.
If you’re thinking of taking it as a supplement to increase your energy level and build muscle, etc.. save your money!
You can naturally increase HGH levels with a good night’s sleep. It will do all the necessary work of protecting your muscle tissue and keeping it intact.
What you need to know:
This hormone is the true fat-burning switch. When your sugar levels are low, insulin triggers enzymes that burn fat almost exclusively for energy.
From a fat-loss perspective, the key thing to remember with insulin is to be mindful of how certain foods stimulate this hormone throughout the day.
Each meal you have regardless of the food you eat, will stimulate the production of insulin. But certain foods will help regulate this on an ongoing basis.
Start incorporating whole-fat foods into your diet as they’re ideal for keeping insulin in check.
For example, high-quality bacon is good for you because it doesn’t activate insulin and suppresses hunger better than many other foods. It may not seem like the healthiest of options, but give it a try.
If you’re worried that your cholesterol levels will rise by eating more fatty foods, don’t worry!
Your body is a wonderful self-regulating machine. Your liver is already producing cholesterol on its own.
The more of these fatty foods you eat, the less cholesterol your liver produces on its own, so your cholesterol levels often won’t change.
What you need to know:
The relationship between cortisol and belly fat is that cortisol releases glucose and turns protein into sugar, which activates insulin. Both cortisol and insulin contribute to weight gain.
Lowering your stress primarily through better sleep decreases the impact both these hormones will have on weight gain and helps turn muscle into fat.
But not all cortisol is bad. It’s responsible for keeping you alert and gets your adrenaline pumping.
Riding is a stressful activity. There’s no getting around that. Cars, other riders, potholes, and poor road conditions force you to stay hyper-alert on many roads.
That stress increases your cortisol level, and your body responds by storing rather than burning fat.
I’ve often wondered how much this contributes to cyclists having trouble losing weight.
Cycling is super stressful if you ride in an urban area.
What you need to know:
If there’s any hormone that most impacts the quality of your sleep, it’s melatonin. Think of it as the conductor of an orchestra aligning all the musical performers, preparing your body for optimal sleep.
This multifaceted hormone has neuroprotective benefits to ward off degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and certain forms of cancer. Interestingly, it also increases brown adipose tissue which helps to burn fat.
Again, like most things with our health, it circles back to sleep. Melatonin helps regulate sleep cycles and the best way to allow your body to produce this in ample supply each night is to minimize time in front of electronic devices.
What you need to know:
Leptin controls hunger by sending signals to your brain that your energy levels are set at the correct levels.
It’s essentially a fuel gauge that measures whether you have enough gas in the tank to burn energy at a normal level, engage in exercise, and eat food a normal amount of food.
Again, it’s important to recognize how sleep contributes to your ability to produce leptin and prevents you from feeling like you want to down a pint of ice cream at 10pm.
What foods activate fat-burning hormones?
What are some ways you can activate the fat-burning hormone leptin to help you lose weight?
Insulin stores foods you eat, particularly those high in sugar as fat. Leptin, on the other hand, uses that energy to burn fat.
But as you lose weight, leptin levels lower accordingly. Frustrating, but your body is simply trying to protect you over the long term.
The solution is fairly straightforward!
First, cut out as many sugars as you can. These simple carbs are an easy source of fuel for your body, preventing it from having to access fat stores.
Eat a lot of raw vegetables that are nutrient-dense. Since, they’re harder to digest, they causes the body to work harder and tap into fat stores for fuel.
As I mentioned earlier, refer to the insulin index which will list foods that are generally “fatty” but do not trigger as much insulin, and that allow your body to access your fat stores as an energy resource.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around it but I’d recommend doing some of your own research to understand how hormones play a vital role in fat lose.
Remember, fixing your hormones takes time, so be patient with yourself.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: You hop on your bike for a training ride or a race and the weather is cool and comfortable.
You’re 5-10 miles into your ride and your legs feel fresh. You’re not sweating. You’ve taken a few sips of water but you don’t feel thirsty.
This happens to me far too often and I pay for it later in the ride.
Hydration is tricky that way. If you’re not thirsty, you don’t have the urge to drink. During cycling, your body temperature increases and causes excess sweating that reduces your energy level.
Hydration is the foundation for all-around wellness and performing at your best. Water helps transport nutrients to give you energy. It increases blood volume so you can generate more power.
When we’re on our bikes, it’s too easy to forget to drink often enough.
Dehydration causes all sorts of problems like fatigue, lack of blood flow to your muscles, slowing of metabolism and your body’s ability to burn fat, dizziness, etc…
Good hydration starts before you get on your bike. Get into the habit of drinking at least 10-12 glasses of water each day to ensure you’re always fully hydrated.
Be sure to add electrolytes to ensure you replace the sodium and vital minerals you lose while sweting.
My personal favorites:
If you want a deeper understanding of your hydration levels and how much you need to drink before and during exercise, check out the Osmo whizz wand.
In the next few days, I’ll publish a follow up post detailing pre and post ride fueling strategies along with more peak performance strategies and tips.