Drop The Weight, Not The Power

As much attention as professional and elite amateur athletes receive, the reality is that cyclists in the 30-50-year-old age group make up the majority of the athletes most coaches work with. As grown-up men and women with full-time jobs, families, and mortgages, your priorities and goals are likely to be significantly different than those of aspiring professionals and Olympians, but they’re just as important and valuable. Almost every cyclist wants to be a stronger rider and a faster climber, and as a result, a common combination of goals is to simultaneously increase sustainable power and reduce body weight.

When you’re reasonably new to the sport of cycling, and perhaps carrying more weight than you’d like, it’s pretty easy to achieve these two goals at the same time. Your fitness level has so much room for improvement that any amount of training, preferably structured, leads to improvement. Likewise, increasing your activity level above sedentary is enough to shed weight. What you’re not seeing, however, is that your fitness and your bodyweight goals are like two trains picking up speed and heading straight towards each other: when and if they collide, everything comes to an abrupt halt.

When Goals Collide

To improve your fitness, your training intensity has to be sufficient to overload your energy systems, and as you make progress, it takes more intensity or longer workouts to create that overload. Increasing the amount of work you do in training raises the number of calories you have to consume to fuel your workouts. At the same time, the process of losing weight requires that you consume fewer calories than you expend. As your progress towards your goals, and your training leads to both improved power and weight loss, the difference between the calories you need to support your training and the caloric restriction you need for weight loss gets smaller, and may eventually disappear.

This is the point at which many athletes stagnate: the quality of your training is suffering because you’re restricting your caloric intake in an effort to lose weight. Of course, the point of losing the weight was to improve your performance, but instead of being faster and stronger, you’re lean but losing power because you can’t sustain training at a level high enough to even maintain, let alone improve, your fitness.

Divide And Conquer

You’ll most likely encounter the scenario above when you’re trying to lose those last 10 pounds, and it’s frustrating because your progress slows to a crawl just as your goals come into sight. Getting past this point is a matter of focusing on one of your goals individually for a while, and letting the accomplishment of that goal provide the necessary tools for the achievement of the other. The fall and winter is a great time to do this because, for many cyclists, the lack of events or competitions allows for a more focused schedule of steady training.

Preserving the quality of your training takes precedence over restricting your caloric intake when it comes to losing those last few pounds. The process of building a stronger aerobic engine includes an increase in size and number of mitochondria in muscle cells. It’s within these cellular powerhouses that carbohydrate, protein, and fat are broken down and burned for energy aerobically. When you increase their size and number, you’re effectively increasing the amount of raw material your aerobic engine can process per minute. This is important for both your training and weight loss goals because the aerobic engine can burn fat, protein, and carbohydrate for fuel, while your anaerobic energy system relies primarily on limited stores of carbohydrate.

Training intensity is another key to reaching your fitness and weight loss goals. Many athletes who are balancing jobs, families, bills, and training have between one and two hours to devote to training, three to four days a week. Training time often becomes even more limited once the days get shorter in the fall and winter. When your training volume is restricted to six to eight hours per week, your individual workouts can be more intense than a person who’s putting in 20 hours per week on the bike. This doesn’t mean that every workout should be a flat-out time trial or maximum effort, but it does mean that you’re most likely getting enough recovery from the days you’re not riding that some harder workouts won’t put you at significant risk of overtraining.

If you have 60-90 minutes to train after work, three days a week, you should be including intervals into those rides. Even during the winter, when tradition dictates that cyclists stick to easy aerobic rides, a cyclist with very limited training time will benefit from breaking from the norm and including harder efforts.  Depending on your fitness level and goals, these intervals might be 10 to 20 minute efforts at a high, but sustainable power; or they might be two to three minute maximum intensity efforts. In any case, they should target an individual energy system so they lead to positive adaptations, and they will definitely increase the caloric expenditure and total workload for the session.

Feeding The Flames

Increasing training intensity leads to an increase in the percentage of your energy coming from carbohydrate. In order to make sure you have the energy necessary for quality training sessions, your carbohydrate intake needs to increase as the demands of your training go up. In the fall and winter, when your overall workload is relatively low (fewer workouts at a slightly higher intensity can still lead to a lower overall workload compared to your summer training), consuming 2.5-3.0 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight (about 65% of total calories) should suffice. As training intensity increases in the spring and early summer, carbohydrate intake rises to 3.0-3.5 grams/lb, and total caloric intake goes up by about 15%. During the most intense portion of the year, often the mid-summer at the height of the racing season, carbohydrate intake can reach as high as 4-5 grams/lb, and 70% of total calories.

Changing your nutrition program as your season progresses is one of the main tenets of the Carmichael Nutrition Program, and serves two purposes. First, it ensures that you’re getting enough of the right fuels to meet the demands of your training. Second, matching your nutrition to your training demands eliminates periods of the year when energy intake and expenditure are seriously mismatched. As a result, you minimize the weight fluctuations many athletes experience during the year.

Putting It All Together

So, having put aside the caloric restriction in favor of training and eating to support your workouts for 4-8 weeks, you’ve most likely made the training adaptations that increased your sustainable power and produced more and bigger mitochondria. In essence, you’ve given your body more furnaces to aerobically burn calories. Now, a combination of training and a slight reduction in daily caloric intake, about 350-500 calories lower than you have been eating, should get you the rest of the way to your fitness and bodyweight goals.

While the exact training and nutrition manipulations that will work best for you are highly individual, the concepts they’re based on are more universal. The types and amounts of food you eat affect your ability to train at your best and to maintain or change your body weight. Losing weight and gaining power can be contradictory goals because it takes more food to achieve fitness and less food to achieve weight loss. However, with a little patience and focus on improving your fitness, the achievement of one goal enables you to reach the other.