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Effects of Weight Loss on Cycling Performance

By Linda Tarr Kent

Many cyclists believe that losing body weight will boost performance because it creates a higher power-to-weight ratio. This is particularly crucial when you are riding uphill. Those seeking to attain the proper power-to-weight ratio often follow this rule of thumb, per the Cycling Performance Tips website: The number of pounds you carry should be no more than twice your height in inches.


The theory behind shedding body fat is that the “excess baggage” makes you work harder to maintain cycling speed. Elite cyclists usually carry low percentages of body fat — between 5 and 8 percent, Asker E. Jeukendrup writes in his book “High-Performance Cycling.”


Shedding fat can boost cycling performance, and you may be able to diet without compromising your endurance, L.M. Ferguson and colleagues report in a study published in 2009 in the “Journal of Strength Conditioning Research.” After cutting calories by 40 percent for three weeks, the participating cyclists’ perception of how hard they were working during a two-hour ride was significantly lower, though their performance rate actually remained the same. However, inadequate calorie intake can diminish your performance, warns Ed Burke, author of “Serious Cycling.” Female racing cyclists usually require 3,000 to 7,000 calories each day, compared to the 1,400 to 2,000 calories consumed by normal-weight women.

Cycling to Shed Weight

If you are a cyclist looking to shed weight and body fat, exercising at 65 percent of your VO2 max is beneficial for long workouts in which you are “teaching” your muscles to get better at utilizing fat. However, exercising at 85 percent of your VO2 max will burn more calories overall even though the percentage of fat utilized during your workout goes down. There’s also an “afterburn” effect, in which your body continues to utilize fat following your 85 percent VO2 max workout. That means a 30-minute workout at the 85 percent level is better than a 30-minute workout at the 65 percent level if you want to drop weight, though a 75 to 80 percent VO2 max is more realistic for this time frame. If you are working out for a longer time, drop your intensity further, but you can throw in intervals of two to five minutes in which you pick up your intensity.

Endurance Issues

Though elite cyclists frequently maintain low amounts of body fat, many ingest fat during races in an attempt to spare muscle glycogen, which is stored energy from carbohydrates. Carbohydrate depletion can cause fatigue within one to two hours during endurance sports like cycling. That’s why athletes want to tap into their fat stores for energy and spare their carbohydrate stores. Fat and carb stores are actually used in tandem by your body, though the mix of which is being used more can change. Fat use increases along with exercise duration, and is also influenced by the availability of this fuel in the body, which is the basis for the theory on taking fat in prior to or during races. Fat stores have up to 50 times more energy than carbohydrate stores, Jeukendrup and Michael Gleeson explain in their book “Sport Nutrition.”

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