I had a long conversation with a coaching colleague who gained a significant amount of belly fat and is working to regain his fitness and fit back into his normal cycling gear. I can commiserate. About 15 years ago I went through the same process, and having a belly for a while completely changed how I work with supersized cyclists.
One of the biggest realizations I had was that it is crucial for coaches to understand the challenges cyclists face when they have a belly. Increased bodyweight was part of my problem, but where I gained weight was a bigger issue. Like many men, I gained belly fat, and that led to some unique challenges for cycling. Ever since I successfully trained and ate my way back into smaller cycling apparel I have made a point of teaching CTS Coaches to adapt training methodologies for overweight cyclists.
Coaching is not just about understanding sports science; it’s about communication and understanding people, their challenges, and their motivations. It’s the reason the CTS Coaching College goes beyond power file analysis and periodization to teach coaches how to adapt training to your personal or professional priorities, make adjustments for physical challenges, and inspire you to reach for goals you’re not confident you can achieve.
If you are an overweight cyclist and you’ve been struggling to achieve success on a training program, it’s not your fault. The program you’re on was probably designed by someone who never had a belly and love handles or who was never educated to work with athletes who do. They just don’t understand what you’re feeling and experiencing. Here are some of the challenges cyclists with belly fat face and ways you can adjust your training to take your weight and shape into account.
Your Old Cycling Position is Uncomfortable
Many cyclists who are now have significant belly fat did not when they originally purchased their bikes. The weight has come on gradually over a period of months or years, and now you are trying to ride a bike that was fit to a smaller version of yourself. It’s not that your leg length has changed, it’s that the volume of flesh above the saddle has increased. As you lean forward to reach for the bars – which are in the same place they’ve always been – you’re crunching your newfound belly into a space where there was no belly before. To alleviate the pressure on your belly, you rotate your hips back and open up your hip angle while bending your spine more.
Opening up the hip angle by sitting more upright is a smart way to adapt your cycling position after gaining weight. But to accommodate this change you also need to bring your handlebar position closer to you with a shorter stem or increased rise/additional spacers, or a combination of these.
Yes, shortening/raising the cockpit will change the handling characteristics of your bike. The steering will get quicker and potentially more “twitchy” because you are moving your center of mass further back than it was before. In my view this is a small price to pay because you’re only going to ride enough to lose the weight if you are comfortable enough pedaling the bike that you still want to do it.
You Can’t Breathe
When you’re overweight and out of shape it seems logical that you would get out of breath more easily, at lower intensity levels, compared to when you were leaner and more fit. But your detrained cardiovascular system is not entirely to blame. There’s a mechanical component as well. The forward-leaning cycling position puts pressure on your torso and makes it more difficult for the diaphragm to pull down and fully inflate your lungs. When lean cyclists are breathing hard during high-intensity efforts, their abdomens distend a bit. We often refer to it as “belly breathing”. But when there’s a lot of belly in the way it’s more difficult to make it even bigger as you inhale. You’re out of room! The result is faster, shallower breathing. You may also find yourself raising your shoulders toward your ears in an effort to create space for your rib cage to expand.
The position change mentioned above is crucial for fixing this breathing problem, and this is a critical problem to fix because you have to be able to breathe in order to do the work necessary to gain fitness and lose the weight. Shorten and/or raise the cockpit and spend more time pedaling with your hands on the tops of the bars. You may also consider a saddle with a recessed channel or cutout so you can roll your hips forward without putting excess pressure on your anatomy.
Hard Efforts Make You Nauseated
When I had my belly and committed to regaining my fitness and shape, I figured I’d just do hard intervals like I always had before. When I went out to do those intervals, however, I soon felt like I was going to lose my lunch. I didn’t understand it because I was using training ranges appropriate for my reduced level of fitness, meaning the intervals weren’t really that hard, but my vomit threshold had definitely decreased. Again some of this comes back to mechanics. When you go hard you tend to lean forward even more than when you are just cruising along, which crunches your larger-than-usual belly into your churning legs. On top of that, you’re breathing is shallower and more rapid, as mentioned above. It’s a very unpleasant combination.
The solution is two-fold. First, perform intervals in a more upright position than you normally would. You’re not going to be as aerodynamic, but what matters right now is generating power and maintaining the intensity level long enough to improve your fitness. The second component is to shorten your intervals. While you may still feel uncomfortable, breaking your time-at-intensity into smaller chunks gives you more frequent rest periods to sit up, catch your breath, and let the unpleasant feelings subside.
You Overheat Easily
Fat is great insulation, which is perfect if you’re an Eskimo but not so perfect if you’re slowly climbing a hill in the hot sun. Dissipating heat is a challenge for lean cyclists, but an even larger challenge for overweight athletes. Not only are you better insulated, but you’re also going slower and therefore reducing the airflow over your body that could help you cool off more effectively.
Again, the solution is relatively straightforward, but not necessarily self-evident. More than other, leaner cyclists, you will benefit from scheduling your training rides for cooler times of the day. You may also consider training on flatter routes for a while, especially on hot days, so you can move faster and achieve greater airflow over your body.
You Don’t Want to Eat or Drink
When you’re already nauseated and uncomfortable because of increased pressure on your belly, the last thing you feel like doing is putting anything more in your stomach. Many cyclists with high amounts of belly fat experience frequent burping and a feeling of fullness, even before they eat or drink. Coupled with the tendency to retain more heat and therefore sweat more profusely, this can put overweight cyclists at a greater risk for dehydration and bonking.
Good ways to deal with this include drinking on descents and/or stopping to eat or drink standing up rather than in your normal cycling position. The latter option will lead to more frequent stops than you’re accustomed to, but like other behavioral modification mentioned here, it’s a small price to pay so you can be more effective when you’re pedaling.
Very often our harshest critic is between our ears. When cycling is uncomfortable and you’re not performing at the level you know you’re capable of, it is easy for your inner monologue to turn very negative. For me that negativity manifested as anger for a while, and that anger fueled me to push harder. The problem is, pushing myself harder – essentially punishing myself for being in the condition I was in – only exacerbated every one of the problems mentioned above. It was only when I learned to focus on the positive aspects of being on the bike and working on the process of regaining my fitness and form that I was able to dial back my intensity, have patience, and hence have much more productive and enjoyable training sessions.
Cycling can and should be fun in any weight class or jersey size, and there’s no rule that says all cyclists have to look a certain way. Be nice to yourself. No matter what size you are, make sure you’re enjoying your time on the bike. And if you’ll enjoy riding more and therefore spend more time riding by making modifications to what your bike looks like, what you look like on it, and how you ride it, then make the changes! You’ll thank yourself the very next time head out on a ride.
CEO and Head Coach of CTS