People use cycling to achieve various goals, including health, fitness, competition, fun and adventure. Weight loss often occurs naturally as a consequence of increased hours and miles on the bike. CTS typically approaches weight management from the perspective of improving endurance sport performance, like increasing power-to-weight ratio. However, we recognize weight loss is a primary motivation to exercise for lots of people. So, is cycling good for weight loss, compared to other strategies?
Is cycling good for weight loss?
Cycling can be an effective component of a weight loss strategy, but like everything else, there are pros and cons.
Why cycling is good for weight loss
Cycling burns calories and builds aerobic fitness, both of which contribute to weight loss goals. Of course, the same can be said for virtually any physical activity, so what makes cycling a better choice?
Cycling is a sustainable activity
Particularly for beginners and/or people carrying a lot of excess weight, cycling is a more sustainable activity than running, cross-training, and even walking. Cycling is a low-impact sport because most of a person’s weight is supported by the bicycle. This means less stress on a person’s joints. As a result, people can often ride longer than they can sustain weight bearing exercise. That becomes important for increasing cumulative energy expenditure, as well as creating training stimulus for improving fitness.
Cycling improves aerobic endurance
Although not unique to cycling, improving aerobic endurance is important for short term weight loss and long-term weight management. How quickly you can break down fuel to usable energy limits the amount of work you can perform per minute and per hour – and hence your energy expenditure.
Endurance training – including cycling – increases the amount of fat and carbohydrate you can burn per hour. This is why we prioritize training for fitness over exercising for energy expenditure. When you only exercise to burn calories, you don’t develop the capacity to burn even more down the road.
Cycling is a highly repeatable activity
Rest and recovery are critical components of any exercise program. However, the exercise stress applied by training determines the recovery time necessary between exercise sessions. As a result, exercises that are harder on the body require longer recovery periods, which limits weekly training volume. Because it is a low-impact, non-weight bearing sport, cycling accommodates relatively high training volumes with relatively low injury risk.
Why cycling is not good for weight loss
Even though cycling is a great way to improve aerobic fitness and cardiovascular health, and burn a ton of calories, there are some drawbacks to cycling for weight loss.
Cycling for weight loss doesn’t address energy consumption
There’s a lot of truth the well-worn statement, “You can’t outrun a bad diet.” From the standpoint of energy balance, you can consume calories much faster than you could possibly burn them. At a moderate endurance pace, cyclists typically burn about 500-600 calories per hour. At race pace or during a high-intensity workout, that may increase to around 1,000 calories per hour.
In contrast, you can easily consume a 1,500-calorie burrito in less than 10 minutes. Without addressing energy expenditure, no amount of cycling – or other exercise – will lead to weigh loss or sustainable weight management.
Cycling efficiency improves with fitness and experience
Improved fitness increases the work you could perform per hour but lowers the oxygen cost of sustaining a given intensity. In other words, if you continue to ride at the same pace on the same routes, you will gradually burn fewer calories per ride.
This often happens for people who focus on exercise for energy expenditure rather than training for fitness. They do the same 60-minute cycling class or ride loop day after day. Initially, they gain fitness and lose weight. Over time they adapt to the workload. The average heart rate (a proxy for oxygen consumption) associated with a given power output decreases. In TrainingPeaks, this is referred to as Efficiency Factor.
From a performance standpoint, lowering the oxygen cost of producing a given power output is a good thing. It means you can go faster at a lower percentage of your VO2 max. If your primary goal is weight loss, however, you have to make sure you use that additional exercise capacity to burn more calories per hour.
Cycling is primarily a lower body exercise
Exercises with the highest energy expenditure per minute are weight bearing and utilize muscles throughout the body. Cross-country skiing, for instance, is weight bearing and stresses the upper body, lower body, and core. As a result, energy expenditure for cross country is extremely high.
Running and hiking are weight bearing and engage the upper body more than cycling does. Swimming is not weight bearing but is absolutely a full-body exercise. Cycling is not weight bearing and is primarily a lower body exercise. But again, that is only important if you are exercising purely to burn calories, which isn’t the best strategy for performance or weight loss.
Weight loss and cycling performance
While some people are motivated to ride bikes to lose weight, cyclists often pursue weight loss to improve performance. Larger cyclists often produce more power than smaller riders because they have more mass they can use to generate force. On the other hand, lighter riders have less inertia to overcome when trying to get their smaller mass moving. This is often expressed as a cyclist’s Power-to-Weight Ratio. Although power-to-weight ratio matters on all terrain, it is particularly important when going uphill. At a given power output, a lighter cyclist can ride uphill faster. However, lighter is not always better. This article discusses risks associated with focusing too heavily on the weight loss side of power-to-weight ratio.
How to lose weight through cycling
If you decide cycling is the exercise you’re going to focus on for weight loss, or you’re already a cyclist and want to lose some weight, use the following guidelines to lose weight safely and effectively.
Avoid severe energy restriction
Some athletes are tempted to dramatically reduce energy intake in an effort to lose weight quickly. This is one of the most destructive methods of weight loss for athletes because it results in a greater loss of lean muscle mass compared to a less extreme energy deficit. (Manore 2015) Severe energy restriction also reduces muscle glycogen stores (which diminishes workout quality), disrupts sleep, increases irritability, and reduces motivation. If your weight has been stable for a while and you want to start losing weight, aim for a 500-700 calorie reduction in average daily energy intake from your current baseline.
Maintain or Increase Protein Intake
For athletes who are actively training (compared to our sedentary counterparts), aim to increase the proportion of total daily calories coming from protein. In other words, reduce your caloric intake by eating less carbohydrate and fat while eating the same amount, or in some cases more, protein. (Aragon 2017) The rationale for this is that you need a constant supply of amino acids for muscle protein synthesis (whether for repair or hypertrophy), and you can use some of that protein to create glycogen through gluconeogenesis. Aim for 1.5-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. Athletes older than 50 should aim for the high end of the range.
Spread protein intake across entire day, including pre-sleep
Muscle protein synthesis happens 24 hours a day, and exercise stimulates an increase in the drive for and rate of muscle protein synthesis, but you don’t have a way of storing amino acids for later use. This is why current literature recommends consuming protein throughout the day, with individual portions being at least 20-40 grams. (Arent 2020) Despite the mass-media declaration that nighttime feeding leads to increased fat mass, recent research discussed in this article indicates that a pre-sleep feeding that includes protein and carbohydrate can increase muscle protein synthesis overnight, replenish glycogen stores, and increase sleep efficiency and sleep quality. (Trommelen 2016)
Align training schedule to normal mealtimes
One strategy for maintaining a caloric deficit while supporting training and recovery goals is to schedule workouts so your post-workout meal aligns with a normal mealtime. In other words, finish your workout and then have lunch or dinner instead of having a post-workout snack and then waiting to have a larger meal later. Across a full day and full week, this consolidation can be helpful for reducing total energy intake without compromising recovery.
Reduce energy density of meals, but retain or increase nutrient density
Reducing the energy density of your diet means reducing your consumption of highly concentrated energy sources and replacing them with foods that contain less energy by volume. Pasta, bread, and potatoes are concentrated carbohydrate sources and great choices when you’re looking to replenish severely glycogen stores and train with high carbohydrate availability tomorrow. Green leafy vegetables and high fiber fruits are examples of low energy density carbohydrate sources. Lots of volume, high water content, high nutrient density, yet not a lot of calories. As Coach Renee Eastman helped me point out in this article, you also have to be aware of the energy density of common protein sources.
The exception to this recommendation is that concentrated carbohydrate sources like ProBar Bolts, ProBar Bites, Muir Energy gels, and Fluid Performance sports drink should still be utilized to consume 60-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour during prolonged exercise bouts longer than 60-90 minutes. Remember, fueling your workouts to support high quality training and recovery is a higher priority than creating an energy deficit.
Eliminate high energy density beverages, including alcohol
One of the easiest ways to reduce daily and weekly energy intake is to eliminate high energy density drinks like soda (yes, that includes ‘carbonated fruit drinks with all natural sugar’), sweet tea (sorry, friends in the Southeast US), some fruit smoothies, and most coffee drinks that take more than two words to describe. Eliminating beer, wine, spirits and mixed drinks should also be part of your weight loss efforts, particularly because they’re not helping your performance or recovery anyway.
By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Aragon, Alan A et al. “International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 14 16. 14 Jun. 2017, doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y
Arent SM, Cintineo HP, McFadden BA, Chandler AJ, Arent MA. Nutrient Timing: A Garage Door of Opportunity? Nutrients. 2020; 12(7):1948. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12071948
Kerksick, Chad M et al. “International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 14 33. 29 Aug. 2017, doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
Manore, Melinda M. “Weight Management for Athletes and Active Individuals: A Brief Review.” Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) vol. 45 Suppl 1,Suppl 1 (2015): S83-92. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0401-0
Trommelen, Jorn, and Luc Van Loon. “Pre-Sleep Protein Ingestion to Improve the Skeletal Muscle Adaptive Response to Exercise Training.” Nutrients, vol. 8, no. 12, 2016, p. 763., doi:10.3390/nu8120763.