Achieving optimal race weight and body composition is essential to cycling success. In fact, optimal body composition is almost as important as building aerobic capacity, improving lactate threshold and achieving cycling economy for the aspiring cyclist.
You’ve seen the guys in the Tour – the top performers boast power to weight ratios in excess of 6.0 and body fat levels in the 4-6% range. Whatever you call them - skinny or lean - these guys are built to go fast. And while you may not be able to achieve their power or weight, you can improve cycling performance by optimizing both weight and body composition.
According to Joe Friel, top cyclists have a body mass – defined as pounds per inch of body height – in the 1.8 to 2.0 ranges for male climbers and 1.6 to 1.8 for female climbers. That means that a top climber like Andy Schleck (2nd in the 2010 Tour de France) who is 73 inches tall likely has an optimal body weight between 135-140lbs come race time. Top time trial specialists, who are often the most powerful cyclists, have a slightly higher body mass in the 2.1 to 2.4 range for men and 1.9 to 2.2 for women. That suggests that Fabian Cancellera (also 73” tall) has an optimal body weight of 151-155lbs, while Kristin Armstrong (68” tall) has an optimal body weight of 129-133lbs.
While these metrics are great for top cyclists in the world, what does this mean for the recreational cyclist and their cycling coaches seeking to improve cycling performance?
Tips for Getting Lean
If you are serious about optimizing body composition, then these experientially proven tips will help you arrive at the start line with optimal race weight and improved chances of cycling success.
1. Set a goal to optimize race weight and body comp
Having the desire and commitment to reach a certain weight or body composition is absolutely essential to success. Begin with a realistic goal and take the necessary steps to achieve that goal. So, if you’re 72” tall and weigh 175 lbs (body mass = 2.43), a reasonable goal might be to achieve a body mass of 2.3 or 165lbs. Yes, achieving this goal will require diet, exercise and discipline, but it’s not as difficult as you might think.
2. Establish a reasonable time frame to reach your goal
Many diet books promise quick and sustainable weight loss. And while some of these methodologies (Atkins, for example) result in quick weight loss for those who are overweight, these diets and rarely sustainable, nor are they optimal for the aspiring cyclist or endurance athlete. If, your goal is to achieve a .13 reduction in body mass (10lbs in our example), then give yourself at least 3 months to achieve that goal and build sustainable dietary habits designed to keep you lean throughout the year.
3. Invest in the tools to measure your progress
To achieve your goal of optimizing body composition and reducing weight, you will need the tools to measure your progress along the way. Specifically, you will need a meal journal, an accurate scale that provides weight and body fat percentage (Tanita has a good one), and an accurate estimate of the number of calories burned per workout. TrainingPeaks.com offers a free training journal that includes a meal journal, estimates of resting metabolic rate and a good way to accurately track calories burned. TrainingPeaks.com software is highly recommended.
4. Choose nutrient rich foods
To lose weight, optimize body composition AND improve your overall health, you simply must emphasize nutrient-rich foods in your diet. That means choosing fruits, vegetables, nuts and lean protein over grains and especially sugary and starchy foods. This is much easier said than done. Our culture and our grocery stores are chock full of highly processed foods that are full of sugar and trans fats. These foods are not the fuel for performance you desire to build a lean, mean racing machine. So, skip the chips, the cookies and the bread, and shop the outer aisles of the grocery store. Avoid the processed foods and select fruits, vegetables, lean meats, beans and nuts.
5. Break yourself of the sugar habit
When an athlete consumes highly processed sugary and starchy foods (yes, that means white bread), the body responds by releasing insulin from the pancreas to absorb the sugar into the cells to convert it to energy. Sugary and starch-laden, low fiber foods are considered high glycemic index foods, according to a favorite sports medicine specialist practice. When consumed, these high carbohydrate, high-calorie foods cause a spike in insulin, followed by an equally drastic fall. The rapid fall in insulin causes the athlete to feel hungry again, even though a high calorie food source has just been consumed – a prescription for weight gain. Avoiding the consumption of these types of foods requires discipline and focus. Begin by substituting sweet tasting fruits (even dried fruits) for foods with added sugar. Substitute whole grain breads and granola for white breads and pastas. Experience shows that eliminating sugary and starchy foods from the diet results in a commensurate reduction in pounds from your waistline and/or buttocks, where fat is stored.
(Continued... Tips for Getting Lean Part 2 provides more tips ranging from eating healthy fats to tracking calorie consumption and expenditure)