By Breanne Nalder, MS, RDN — It’s the topic that never gets old when talking about nutrition for cyclists, as a major goal for most of us is to optimize our power to weight ratio. We all want to be lean machines and go uphill like billygoats, right?! In 2016, I wrote an article titled “Weight Loss vs. Power Gain, The Struggle is Real” which tackled the subject by discussing methods to determining your ideal power:weight (P:W) taking into consideration male and female body types as well as personal goals. The next step is having realistic expectations of yourself and establishing healthy methods to reaching your goals.
For a quick recap of the math from the preceding article, P:W is determined by the simple formula power (watts) ÷ mass (kg). Feel free to contact me personally for help determining the realistic numbers for you, as the ideal range should be specific to your body type, fitness level and type of cyclist you are. There was a reference chart in the last article that gave P:W ranges for men and women at various fitness levels. I’d be happy to provide this information again to anyone who wants it. (See also: Determining Your Ideal Body Weight for Cycling: Weight Loss vs. Power Gain)
So now let’s talk about methods to decreasing body fat while maintaining or increasing lean muscle mass and strength. We want to do this without limiting our ability to train. What I mean by that is if we decrease caloric intake too much, we won’t have the energy to ride. You may lose weight at first, but it is unsustainable and can mess up your metabolism over time. Taking all of this into consideration, it can be helpful to think of your body as an engine that will perform best if you put the proper fuel in the tank.
The first thing you want to do is determine your body’s metabolic needs. This can be done by measuring your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) to learn how many calories you need to survive. From there we can figure out the ratios of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that are appropriate for you on a daily basis. Then the real fun starts: finding the exact amount of fuel you need for training and racing. It is crucial that you get the proper amount of carbs going into an effort, keep up on energy and hydration during workouts, and recovering properly with adequate carb replacement, electrolytes, and sufficient protein so that your body can be ready to do that all again tomorrow! (I can help you determine those exact numbers so use my contact info below for personal reccs and meal planning, etc. And yes, I do have a BMR machine that you can come get measured on.)
For those of you who want less detail and more simple answers, here is a list of ideas and methods you can use to safely “diet” while maintaining your training load:
- Think of your body having 2 different engines, one that needs regular fuel and one that needs sport food. All of your regular daily meals should be balanced with lean proteins, healthy fats, and moderate carbohydrates, with a big emphasis on lots of raw fruits and veggies. These are the times to limit sugar, chips, candy, treats, etc. That is your “diet.” The extra calories you need on top of your BMR are energy for exercise, so that is when it is ok to drink your calories and have gels or bars as your workout requires.
- Divide your meals and snacks up into smaller portions. You will find you are less hungry and more satisfied if you eat small meals more frequently.
- Don’t starve yourself! You will end up binging later on anyway so you’re better off to eat smaller meals more often. Keep your engine going rather that letting it run out of gas then need a huge meal. Your metabolism will thank you too.
- Eat your carbs early in the day and around exercise. Remind yourself that you need energy to get through your day, not to sleep!
- Have most of your salad greens, lean proteins, and other veggies at night. They will make you feel full because they take longer to digest. You can break down all that fiber while you sleep.
- If you’re a late night snacker, find light treats that satisfy a craving, have a bite or two, and then put it away! Or even better, make yourself a cup of relaxing tea (maybe with some honey for sweetness) and let yourself relax and get to sleep without empty calories right before bed.
- Give your body 12 hours of a fast every day. Instead of worrying about what time you have to stop eating, base the time that you finish food for the day to be 12 hours before when you’ll be eating breakfast. For example, if you’re an early bird that rides at 7am, it’s best to have dinner at 6pm then breakfast at 6am the next day pre-ride. If you ride after work, you likely eat dinner later. So maybe you are done eating at 9pm so you have breakfast around 9am the next day. The more regimented you are with timing of food, the easier it is to feel satiated and develop patterns that become habits.
- Use a tracking app or food journal to hold yourself accountable. Being honest with yourself is a big part of being successful. So be proud of what you put in to your body, as it will change and adapt to the healthy choices you make.
Time for the customary self-promotion! My job is to do all this math for you, then provide an individualized meal plan to help you reach your goals. I’d love to help you reach your optimal power:weight and feel great on your bike, all while enjoying your food and lifestyle.