With the Road Cycling season all wrapped up with a pink bow and the cooler, longer days of fall upon us in the Northern Hemisphere, many endurance athletes are now looking to “Get lean” as they head into their base period, or just longer, more competitive group rides.
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 of how to get leaner, there are actually a few more very important details that you MUST know before you start your leaning out journey. That is, 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….
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 (Duhhhhh!!!)
2. High protein (1.6+g/kg) is a key to weight loss success, for numerous reasons (on a side note, females in the Luteal Phase of their cycle, days 15-28, need 1.8-2.0g/kg of protein to help maintain an anabolic state Sports Nutrition: Protein Requirement Differences Between Men & Women )
3. High protein intake during caloric deficit periods serve to help preserve muscle mass Lose fat + keep your POWER, now THAT is a base period to emulate!
4. The higher the % of Body Fat the individual starts with, the higher the caloric deficit may be imposed..... BUT...
5. Slower rates of fat loss better preserve lean muscle mass
This one is REALLY important, as even those who aren’t looking to lean out right now (in September) often wait until March and shed as much weight as possible….and then wonder where all their power went and why they’re sick.
And we’ll add a 6th for our post today:
6. Using Weight Training to help balance out the body and increase your ability to produce power is key
For more you can read the position statement (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28630601), but let's stop there for this post, and dive in on these 6.
How do we make this work in sports that are so highly carb reliant?
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- 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 many more considerations, but we’ll save that for another post.
This doesn’t mean that we just accept your weight and ignore it. Rather, a few months before your peak race we take a look to figure out what your watts per kg needs will be in order for you to meet (and exceed) your peak races demands.
We’ll look at how your POWER PROFILE looks in comparison to those needs, and finally look to SLOWLY (See #5 on Alan’s list) decrease your fat mass, while improving, or at the very least, maintaining, your power output in the necessary areas.
From this point, we work together to come up with a nutrition game plan, 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 that goal you set 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. Hitting that 1.6g/kg mark 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 focus 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) about how we need carbs only when we’re in our sport, well…
It’s just not true.
While carbohydrates (sugars) are the PRIMARY fuel for humans during endurance activity with high intensity bouts within said event, we still need to ingest some fats and proteins on the bike (for cycling and triathlon). This is why so many Pro 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.
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 thinking that simply eating protein in large quantities means that we will become 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.
And I can, without a doubt say that:
IT’S HARD TO PUT ON LEAN MUSCLE MASS. EVEN WHEN YOU WANT TO!
The amount of strength training you have to do, PLUS the amount of cycling you can do is limited to less than 6 hours a week. 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 effort for under 4-5 hours TOTAL a week, that it ain’t gonna happen.
How much of a calorie deficit to we need for weight loss?
When it comes to caloric deficit, we are essentially seeking around 200-500 calorie/day deficit. But before you go jumping into the deep end of the 500 calorie/day, we need to first weigh a few things (Get it?):
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.
Being heavier during base and lugging that extra weight up the hills can help you get stronger, as you INTELLIGENTLY lean out.
2. How do you plan on losing weight
Do you plan on seeing some muscle mass loss as well as fat mass, due to your previous football playing/muscle beach years?
Or are you seeking to keep the lean muscle mass you have and simply lean out a bit more as the season progresses?
3. 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 larg 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”, especially hormones. The hormonal imbalances, along with behavior change, are big parts as to why slow weight loss/ body composition change are best.
As for endurance athletes, the roller-coaster hormonal status changes can be devastating to your athletic progression, as hormonal change is one of the 4 Pillars of Athletic Development:
If you’re missing one of these, your athletic progression will be slowed, if not halted completely, as one needs all 4 of these systems, as well as the psychological toolbox of skills and abilities, in order to progress in ANY athletic endeavor.
4. What are your performance goals?
If you’re simply looking to lean out and are ok with losing some power, a caloric deficit of 350-500 calories a day can possibly work for you, as long as you’re careful. (Note: Healthy fats are crucial to health and wellbeing. Consult a Dietician for guidance on this issue).
Usually those who elect to go the higher deficit route are those seeking to simply complete a long charity ride, such as the MS150, looking to just hang better with their group next year, are seeing the scale go up too much, or have put on excessive amounts of weight and MUST bring their weight down, even if it means losing some power.
Power loss, to this group, at this point in the year, doesn’t impede them on the way to their goals and has a far more powerfully positive effect on their health and wellbeing over-all.
But if you’re looking to get lean AND fast?
We will have to look at a longer time period for body composition change….Although, if we can include strength training appropriately within your training 3-4 days a week with moderate to heavy weights, and get in the appropriate amount of proteins a day, we CAN see faster fat loss.
But it’s an art and a science to do so.
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.
Ensure that you are fueling properly for your training AND Lifestyle needs
This may seem pretty obvious, but so many riders mess this up. They short themselves on calories, see their weight come up, assume that they aren’t eating enough, and so eat even less….leading down the slippery slope of overreaching and under fueling: a true recipe for frustration, fatigue, injury, illness, and a miserable season.
Be sure you’re meeting at LEAST your baseline needs to sustain your bodyweight (total calories + Macro goals), and supply the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy.
If you’re not sure about how much you need to eat, check out this video:
Experts Metabolic Equation: Figure out how much food you REALLY need to eat!
It shares with you the metabolic equation that is the most accurate. You’ll need a few minutes, as well as a scientific calculator, but this is the gold standard of energy equations.
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 finding that caloric deficit that works best for you.
However if you need dialed in micronutrients due to pre-existing conditions, or have severe dietary restrictions, stick with an RD/LD.
2. Nutrient Timing isn’t that important (for half the population, most of the time…)
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), EXCEPT for women in the second half of their menstrual cycle (days 14-28).
Women in the second half of their menstrual cycle DO need to eat a mixed protein meal, with 15-25g of mixed-source protein within 30-90 min of finishing their exercise bout. This helps to negate the catabolic state their body is in, due to hormonal changes.
There is a lot to consider when we one is looking to get leaner and faster at any point of the year.
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 in an attempt to get super-light, as I have 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 super lean and skimping on the things that will TRULY help you be better next year:
1. Recovery from this past season (mental and physical)
2. Riding to include time at intensities in target energy systems during base
3. Proper & sufficient nutrient intake through base and build
4. Strength & Weight Training for cyclists and triathletes, which are properly built for performance results, not merely mimicking sport movements.
More to come on Strength Training/ Weight Training for Cyclists and Triathletes, but for now you can learn more by watching the videos up on the @HVTraining YouTube Channel by clicking this button.
What did you find shocking or surprising?
Have you made any serious mistakes in your previous base periods?
Share below in the comments!