Bicycling Magazine Column: Cyclists Eat Too Much!

I’ve been a cyclist for a few years, and although I lost 15 pounds when I first started riding, I just can’t seem to lose the next 15 – despite riding about 10 hours a week. What gives?

-          Mark R. – Milwaukee, WI

I travel and participate in a lot of events, from charity rides to races and gran fondos, and over the past few years there's one observation that has been gathering steam: many cyclists eat way too much food. I know, I know, I’m one of the people who keeps telling you to consume carbohydrate during rides in order to maintain power output and avoid bonking. And that’s still the right thing to do; but many of you are just eating way more than you need.

I was on a century ride in California several months ago and I started late so I wasn’t riding with the faster groups up front. I met some incredible people and had a great day, but I was struck by how much food people were consuming. And when you do the math, over-consumption of food during rides can significantly hinder your ability to lose weight through exercise.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I think there are a few aspects of sports nutrition that are contributing to the problem some athletes have losing weight despite training regularly:

Kilojoule/Calorie monitors

More and more athletes exercise with some piece of technology that tells them – or tries to – how much energy they’re expending during a workout. Generally speaking, the number of kilojoules you produce during a ride (as displayed by a power meter) is about equal to the number of Calories you expended to produce them. The number is not exact, but it’s close, and much closer than the estimates made by the software in heart rate monitors. Kept in the correct perspective, these numbers can be useful training information.

People get into trouble when they forget that they started training with roughly 1600 calories (400 grams) of stored carbohydrate in their muscles. When cyclists see 600 Kj/hr on a power meter display, they mistakenly think they need to replenish fuel the same way they replenish fluid. To remain hydrated, you need to replenish at least 80% of the fluid you lose through sweat. But with the stored carbohydrate and fat you have on board, while you’re on the bike you only need to replenish 20-30% of the calories you burn. At an intensity of 600 Kj/hr, that means you’d only need 120-180 Calories an hour. That’s one gel and half a bottle of sports drink, but this year I frequently saw athletes who weren’t producing anywhere near 600 Kj/hr eating 300-400 calories an hour. It’s too much.

Try an experiment: eat less, but drink the same amount or more than you do now on the bike. When I’ve done this with athletes at training camps, as long as hydration and electrolyte levels stayed elevated, I’ve rarely seen any drop in power output when athletes consumed as much as half as many calories as they were consuming before.  

Intensity vs. Duration

The problem of “sticker shock” – the surprisingly high caloric expenditure number displayed on training devices – gets worse as rides get longer. I returned from a ride last weekend and my SRM said I accumulated 3850 kilojoules. It was a massive ride, but it wasn’t license to eat massive quantities of food. Number one, I started with full glycogen stores. Number two, I consumed about 120 Calories an hour during the ride. Number 3, it was a 6-hour ride so my average intensity level wasn’t very high. As rides get longer, power output declines, meaning you spend more time at aerobic intensity levels. That means I burned a lot of stored fat during the ride as well, and I have no desire to replenish that. I was definitely hungry when I got home, but my post-ride meal was about the same size it would have been if I’d done a two-hour ride. Not only did I feel satiated afterward, but my recovery for subsequent workouts wasn’t compromised.

Many riders have a different problem with intensity and duration; you’re rides are short but very difficult. You’re burning calories quickly and might even reach 800 calories/hr. But remember the stored glycogen and fat you started with. By the end of a 60-90 minute hard interval workout, you most likely haven’t even burned through all the glycogen in your muscles. You absolutely need to eat a good meal after a hard workout – I’m not suggesting starvation training – but you have to resist the temptation to base your appetite on your perception of how hard your workout was. Intensity shouldn’t automatically lead to gluttony.

The reason it’s taken me a long time to write about this idea is because there’s some danger involved. When a study came out that said marathon runners had an increased incidence of hyponatremia, runners stopped drinking and more people suffered from dehydration and heat stress than ever suffered from hyponatremia. I don’t want you to think you should start rides on an empty stomach, ride for hours with no food, or skip post-workout meals in order to lose weight. That’s not the point. The point is you have to be realistic about your sports nutrition needs and how they are affected by the intensity and duration of your rides. The simple message for most cyclists struggling to lose weight is: drink more and eat less on the bike, and you don’t need to gorge yourself before or after big or hard rides.

Chris Carmichael is founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier coaching, camps, and testing resource trusted by thousands of athletes since 2000. Call 866-355-0645 or visit www.trainright.com for info.

One Response to “Bicycling Magazine Column: Cyclists Eat Too Much!”

  1. judi on

    I agree- we think we must eat more and more for a reward and our perception is we have burned a ton of calories. Even a 1 hour spin class doesn’t burn that much, does it? What do you think of plain ol chocolate milk(non fat) ?
    Thanks for the info!

    Reply

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