With the Road Cycling season all wrapped up with a pink bow and the colder, short days of winter upon us in the Northern Hemisphere, many endurance athletes are now looking to “Get lean” as they head into their base period.
Again and again the most common advice to those who are looking to “lean out” is to “ride more…a lot more”, and “create a caloric deficit of 300-500 calories a day”. While this advice is essentially the foundations “common knowledge” of how to get leaner, there are actually a few more details that you MUST know, before you start your leaning out journey, especially if you want to get lean AND fast.
What I’m about to share with you may blow your mind, so make sure you have your brain strapped in, and on lock-down….
“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” -Yogi Berra
The research is in, and thanks in large part to Alan Aragon and his massive effort to spearhead a meta-analysis of all the weight-loss study data out there, we know a few truths:
1. Caloric Deficit is a must – While this is the current widely accepted view, I’m not so sold on it, and emerging research is suggesting that this may not be the way to go for healthy, fit individuals. And in fact, caloric deficit may put you at risk for lowering your Resting Metabolic Rate, and causing you to struggle more with your weight in the future! (but we’ll save that for another post)
2. High protein (1.6+g/kg) is a key to weight loss success, for numerous reasons
Endurance athletes have historically been on high carb, low protein and fat diets. This causes problems on a number of fronts. Especially for females in the Luteal Phase of their cycle, days 15-28, who need 1.8-2.0g/kg of protein to help maintain an anabolic state, and to be able to recover from their workouts- especially those which are strength workouts, or more muscularly challenging workouts (such as big-ring endurance, low cadence work, or sprint work).
3. High protein intake during caloric deficit periods serve to help preserve muscle mass
Lose fat + keep your POWER! This is where so many endurance athletes go awry and lose massive amounts of power when trying to “lean out” to boost their watts per kilogram. We live in (endurance) sports where for the past ump-teenth years we have been pushed carbs, carbs, carbs, in an unhealthy and unbalanced way….
4. The higher the % of Body Fat the individual starts with, the higher the caloric deficit may be imposed….. BUT…the vast majority of us are not in a high enough body fat % class to need or want a high calorie deficit! For those men over 18% Body fat, and women over 32% body fat, this (caloric deficit route) can make sense- for a little while, at the beginning of your fitness journey, but it must be changed as you get closer to a healthy body composition, and/or aim for more PERFORMANCE oriented goals!
5. Slower rates of fat loss better preserve lean muscle mass
If you try to lose a bunch of weight quickly, especially via caloric deficit, the body is going to shed fat mass AND Muscle, something we very much want to avoid as athletes seeking to boost our performances, not simply see the scale go down.
6. Using Weight Training to help balance out the body and increase your ability to produce power is key
Yes, If you are looking to “lean out” for the upcoming season, your best bet is to get a well designed strength training program, increase your protein intake, and be more laser focused with the riding you’re doing, allowing you to get the most out of your time riding…..so that you can increase the amount go sleep you get each night by 20-60 minutes, and to get in 3-4x a week 30-60 min strength training sessions.
Your pathway to being lighter, faster, leaner is:
Better Nutrition to support your training + recovery
Strength training appropriately for your goals, to include the FUNdamental 5+1 movements. (Push, Pull, Squat, Hinge, Press, + Rotary Stability)
For more points you can read the position statement here:(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28630601), but let’s stop there for todays post, and dive in on these 6.
How do we make this work in sports that are so highly carb reliant, and that we must consume carbohydrates immediately post 2- hour + longer bouts of exercise?
First, we must recognize the importance of protein in the average endurance athletes diet. In order to maintain lean muscle mass we must ensure we are consuming enough protein to match and EXCEED our demands. This is one area that many cyclists mess up, as they are SO focused on carbohydrates, they neglect to get even close to 1g of protein per kg of bodyweight in their daily diet.
This creates an environment which is incredibly frustrating for the athlete, as they see the number on the scale go down….but so do their power numbers. I should know, not only have I been there (twice) in my career, but I’ve had a number of athletes (cyclists and triathletes) seek me out to help them recover/bounce back from this very problem.
The number on the scale IS important, no doubt. Especially if you’re heading to an international 3 day stage race with tons of climbing, and including a hill-climb TT as the first stage, or a race that has brutal amounts of climbing, such as the famous Tour of Tucker County …. But outside of these super-hilly occasions (for amateur athletes), as long as we are supporting the muscle mass that is producing your power and strength on the bike, we are ok at a slightly heavier weight…. It all depends on where you are in your season, your strengths and weaknesses, and more, but that’s another post.
This doesn’t mean that we just accept your weight, but rather that we take a look a few months before peak race time, to figure out what your watts/kg needs will be for your peak race’s demands are, how your POWER PROFILE looks in comparison to those needs, and look to SLOWLY (See #5 on Alan’s list) decrease your fat mass, while improving, or at the very least, maintaining your power output.
From here, here we work together to come up with a nutrition gameplan, seeking to break up your protein intake over 4-5 meals a day, depending on your lifestyle, training regimen, and time of year (Annual Training Plan). I prefer athletes aim for 20-30g of protein per meal, depending on sex, eating habits, and dietary preferences. While you may be doing the math and saying “Hey! That doesn’t hit my goal of 1.6g of protein per kg!” These meals simply serve as anchors for your nutrition, and will allow you to hit the mark via your mid-training nutrition, and snacks throughout the day. Which is actually far easier to do than you think. It just takes a little planning ahead.
Why are endurance athletes scared about eating protein as it is?
Much of this has to do with the sports supplementation business for cyclists and triathletes that has been built over the last 25 years. So much focused is on Carbs, carbs, carbs, that proteins get lost in the shuffle, as do fats.
This is NOT to say that you should be drinking a protein shake while out on the bike, but it is to say that much of what we have been fed (literally) is that we need carbs only when we’re in our sport.
While carbohydrates are the PRIMARY fuel for humans during endurance activity, we still need to ingest some fats and proteins on the bike (for cycling and triathlon). This is why so many teams give the riders REAL foods in those fancy musette bags out on the race course.:
From peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or tortilla rolls, to prosciutto, you can find a whole array of REAL foods in the Pro peloton.
YES, sports supplements like Gels and chews have their place, but they should be used at the RIGHT time, not ALL the time. (Of note, I RARELY use these in training, and the few kinds I do use or recommend, are NOT what you’d expect- They’ve got simple sugars like Glucose and Sucrose in them GASP!…. Yes in sport, during intensity this IS ok….PREFERABLE even!!!)
But what is it that scares endurance athletes about eating proteins?
It’s this asinine fear of turning into a bodybuilder, and the B.S. association we have with simply eating protein and instantly becoming bigger, more muscular athletes.
Let me share with you something: I’ve been on both sides of the coin- Trying to put on lean muscle mass for the Mr. Pittsburgh natural bodybuilding competition back in the early 2000’s, and then a few years later getting as light as possible so as to ride the bike faster/stronger.
IT’S HARD TO PUT ON LEAN MUSCLE MASS. EVEN WHEN YOU WANT TO!
The amount of strength training you have to do PLUS how much you have to limit the cycling you do (limited to less than 6 hours a week), and as an endurance athlete who is actually training the MINIMUM amount of time you need to get stronger/faster…. Oh, and the amounts of food you have to eat? You’re literally stuffed throughout every day?
So get it out of your head that eating 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight will make you massive. I can pretty much guarantee that unless you’re hitting the weights 3-4 days a week and only cycling at endurance for 4-5 hours a week, that it ain’t gonna happen.
What WILL happen is you’ll see better recovery times from your riding, as well as fewer crash-cravings throughout the day, thanks to the blood glucose stabilizing effects of protein.
If I am going to go the Caloric Deficit path, how much of a calorie deficit to we need?
OK, so if I’ve failed thus far in my post to get you to understand that going into a caloric deficit when you’re a strapping, fit cyclist or triathlete who is looking to get leaner and faster for next season is NOT the way to get where you need, then the least I can do is give you some training wheels so you don’t completely blow your season up…
When it comes to caloric deficit, we are essentially seeking around 200-500 calorie/day deficit to help drop off the extra fat mass. But before you go jumping into the deep end of the 500 calorie/day, we need to first weight a few things:
How long do you have to lose this weight.
As per item #5 on the list, we essentially are seeking slow, longer term weight loss, versus immediate or fast weight loss.
There are a number of reasons for this, which we’ll cover in brief/bullet points for the sake of brevity for today’s post.
– Hormonal balance, as fat helps with hormone production and balance in the body
– Immune system support, as fats help support the immune system with building blocks needed
– Recovery, fat is stored energy and allows the body to pull “resources” as needed in order to help the body recover from training…. This ties into the first two here, as hormones help with recovery/balance, and if we’re sick, we’re screwed.
How do you plan on losing weight
Do you plan on seeing some muscle mass loss as well due to your previous football playing/muscle beach years? Or are you seeking to keep your lean muscle mass and simply lean out a bit more as the season progresses?
Is this your first time losing a significant amount of bodyweight?
This is something I saw a lot when I was working as the Exercise Physiologist for the Bariatric Surgery group: many patients came to us because they had tried, and failed numerous times before. While a larger part of weight loss and body composition change has to do with lifestyle, another significant factor is how much weight you’re seeking to lose, and if you’ve been on the dieting yo-yo in the past.
Our body likes to try to keep things at a homeostasis, or balance, this means that rapid fluctuations in weight can throw the body into a bit of panic mode, as things are “out of sorts”. This, along with behaviour change, are big parts as to why slow weight loss/ body composition change are best.
What are your performance goals?
If you’re simply looking to lean out and are ok with losing some power, a caloric deficit of 200-350 calories a day can possibly work for you. Usually those who elect to go this route and whoa re happy with the results, are those seeking to simply complete a long charity ride, such as the MS150, over mountainous terrain.
But if that’s not the kind of rider/racer that you are, know that simply putting yourself into a caloric deficit can screw with your resting metabolic rate, which for active individuals seeking performance gains may NOT be the best thing (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6088538/).
While this is another post in and of itself, in short, decreasing your Resting Metabolic Rate (which can happen due to practicing caloric deficit over time) may negatively effect the bodies ability to perform, as the decrease in energy demands may come from a loss of fat free mass (muscle) which may be used to help the individual perform, or the metabolic (energy) precesses in the body going through significant changes- which may not be good.
Although, if we can include 2-3 days a week strength training appropriately within your training, with moderate to heavy weights, and get in the appropriate amount of proteins and fats along with carbs a day, we CAN see faster fat loss….AND BETTER ON BIKE PERFORMANCES!
How do we maximize this information?
(Strength Training in transition/base)
There are a few ways one can utilise this information to help lean out relatively fast, and to maintain your power.
1. Ensure that you are fueling enough for your training. This may seem pretty obvious, but so many riders mess this up.
While trying to hit daily calorie deficits they short themselves on calories, see their weight come up, assume that they are still eating too much and so eat even less….leading down the slippery slope of overreaching and under fueling: a true recipe for frustration, fatigue, burnout, and if you’re lucky enough to make it to the season- a miserable season.
If you’re not sure about how much you need to eat, check out this video. It shares with you the metabolic equation that is the most accurate, and take into account lifestyle, and daily activities beyond training- something many “quick BMR calculators” neglect.
You’ll need a few minutes, as well as a scientific calculator, but the extra time and attention to detail is WELL worth it!
If you’d rather not have to do the work yourself, you can simply find an RD/LD, or a Precision Nutrition Certified Coach to help you start to guide your macronutrient intakes to be on point with your needs and demands, as well as help you determine if caloric deficit will work best for you.
2. And finally, the timing of protein intake isn’t as paramount as had previously been believed, and isn’t as vital for endurance athletes immediately after cardiovascular training (again, duh).
BUT, there is an important exception to this rule!
Women in the second half of their menstrual cycle. They DO need to eat a mixed protein meal, with 15-25g of protein within 30 min of finishing their exercise bout, to help negate the catabolic state their body is in, due to hormonal changes. This is of paramount importance!
There is a lot to consider when we are looking to get leaner and faster at any point of the year. But in my 10+ years of coaching cyclists and triathletes from around the globe, I’ve seen almost as many seasons self-sabotaged in the base period due to shotty nutrition as they try desperately to “lose 2-4kg”, as I have seen athletes burn their best efforts “Just testing out my fitness” in the 7-10 days before their key event.
Don’t ruin your season trying to get leaner and skimping on the things that will TRULY help you be better next year:
1. Recovery from this past season
2. Learning and starting better stress management
3. Proper Nutrient Intake/balace
4. Strength Training for cycling and triathlon, which are properly built for performance results
Learn more about how to properly strength train for the sports of cycling and triathlon, with my online courses:
What did you find most shocking?
Have you made any serious mistakes in your previous base periods?
Share below in the comments.