Power, Weight and Cycling: A Balancing Act
I was initially planning on writing about weight loss for cycling and how, as in many sports, being leaner often helps to give you an extra edge or make you faster. But when I started writing, I reminded myself that the Empire State Ride isn’t a race and in fact, if you ride it too fast, you’ll miss all of the sights that New York State has to offer!
Instead, I want to talk about balancing your nutrition, biking and weight training so that you become the best rider you are able to be, without subsisting on celery and without spending 40 hours a week riding. You might lose a few pounds (if you want to) as an added bonus.
If you’ve ever watched one of the Grand Cycling Tours, you’ll notice that most professional cyclists are very lean. Even the “sprinters” who excel on flat stages have a very small percentage of body fat. However, what is more important is their power to weight ratio. In layman’s terms, professional cyclists generate more power per pound (or kilogram) of weight which allows them to go faster and climb better. Power on the bike is measured in watts, just like a light bulb. While endurance riders may average 250+ watts for hours at a time, sprinters often exceed 1,500 for short bursts. In general, sprinters have bigger muscles while endurance riders have longer, leaner muscles. Both body types in the professional peloton still have low body fat percentages.
To be able to create more power while remaining lean is a balancing act that requires you to pay attention to the calories you burn and the calories you eat, while continuing to weight train and gradually increase mileage.
The best way to accomplish this is the tried and true “slow and steady” method. During winter months, when you are often riding the indoor trainer, it is too easy to think that you are burning more calories than you actually are. The biggest mistake new and even experienced riders make is overeating in an effort to refuel.
The best way to keep from overindulging is to be sure to wear your heart rate monitor, even indoors. When your heart rate watch is programmed with your correct height and weight, the calorie count will be much more accurate than if you just use an online “guesstimate.” And because you are indoors, you don’t have the hills and headwinds that often push your heart a little harder increasing calorie burn.
Becoming the best rider you are able to be means balancing calories, weight training and ride time. There are no shortcuts to increasing power.
Second, unless you are riding for more than an hour, you won’t need an energy drink. All too often athletes of all types are seen chugging from large drink containers filled with colorful liquids. Most are basically sugar with a few electrolytes thrown in and do nothing more than add calories. The so-called “no-calories” drinks are flavored with artificial sweeteners, which are never good for anyone.
If you do have a few longer sessions, I suggest trying one of the more natural drinks available – Osmo and Skratch are my favorites. Both have a scientifically balanced measure of sodium, potassium, magnesium and other essentials without the artificial ingredients. You are also able to get adequate essentials from oranges and bananas if you prefer solid food. Be sure to keep hydrating with water if that is the case.
You should be refueling with a small snack right after your ride. Ideas on what the perfect snack is vary, depending whom you speak to. Some people prefer shakes as their first snack; others prefer a bagel with peanut butter and banana. Regardless, your initial snack should have a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrates to protein. Why? This ratio provides the right amount of each to help your muscles recover and rebuild after efforts.
After your snack, you then have the amount of time your ride took to eat another meal. If you rode for 3 hours, you then have a 3-hour window in which to refuel. Refueling doesn’t mean the all-you-can-eat buffet. It means a complete, but not over-indulgent meal. A salad with chicken or tuna, a veggie stir-fry and a light sandwich are great choices.
Without getting your metabolism tested (which is done by most college physiology departments as part of research if you are interested), counting calories perfectly is difficult. Guidelines say to multiply your weight in pounds by 15 if you are active, and while not exact it gives you a starting point. If your weight has been steady for a while, you can also count your own calories for a week and average them out to give you an idea of what your body needs on a daily basis.
To lose weight while training, do not try to cut out too many calories. Although it seems ideal to lose weight fast, the truth is that your training and performance will suffer. Instead, cut out a few hundred a day and keep up the riding. The pounds will shed slowly, but it is more likely to be a lasting change. Remember the phrase “calories in, calories out.” You have to burn a bit more than you take in to see weight loss.
Keep in mind that muscle is more dense than fat so the same volume will weigh more. If you are newer rider, do not be discouraged if the scale climbs a bit. Rely in the tried and true “do my jeans fit?” method to see if you are getting leaner. If your favorite pants or skirt is getting loose, but the scale is not budging, that means you are gaining muscle, which not only increases power — it increases your metabolism to assist with further fat loss.
To ensure that you are increasing strength while cutting calories, be sure to stick to your weight routine. If the sets are getting easy, then add a bit more weight. Do not fall into the trap of over-doing the weight. Bodybuilding will not help your cycling, as your mass will increase far beyond your body’s ability to generate power. Being big does not always equate to being strong. Additionally, you can add some intervals in a bigger gear into your trainer or road time. This is specific muscle building as it directly correlates to the pedaling motion.