Fat Burning Myths That Hurt Cyclists and Triathletes


With a few more pounds around our midsections thanks to the holidays, weight loss is a hot topic in January. And while many people start the new year with a “new” shortcut to shed pounds by Spring Break, smart athletes understand that a wise combination of nutrition and exercise will melt away those pounds. But even the most seasoned athletes can fall prey to myths about weight loss and the exercise/nutrition combo. To keep you cruising down the path to a stronger and leaner you, let’s bust apart the common myths that crop up every year.

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Myth #1: Low-intensity exercise burns fat faster

This “fat burning zone” notion originated as a simple misunderstanding of exercise physiology and escalated into a misguided fitness movement. When you’re exercising at a low intensity (moderate walking or easy cycling, for example), the majority of the energy you’re burning comes from fat. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem is, you’re not burning much energy in the first place. As you increase your pace, a higher percentage of your energy comes from carbohydrate, but the absolute amount of fat you’re burning, and the total number of calories you’re burning, go up as well. Put simply: a harder workout burn more fat and more total calories.

Even more important than the caloric expenditure is what moderate- to high-intensity exercise does for your fitness and health. When exercise is strenuous enough that it challenges your aerobic system, your body adapts and build bigger and more plentiful mitochondria in your muscles. These are the powerplants that burn carbohydrate, and drumroll please… fat. When they’re bigger and more plentiful, they’re able to supply you with more energy before you reach lactate threshold. What does that have to do with weight loss? Well, greater fitness gives you more furnaces to burn more calories, and the endurance to exercise long enough and fast enough to incinerate a significant chunk of energy with each session. So, forget low-intensity, “fat-burning-zone” exercises and stick with your interval workouts; the fat will come off and your performance will improve at the same time.

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Myth #2: Exercising on an empty stomach burns more fat.

There is technically some truth to this, but it’s not a smart way to train or try to lose weight. The problem here is that without adequate food in your system, the quality of your training session falls so dramatically that you won’t burn much energy before you grind to a halt from running out of gas. You’re burning a higher percentage of fat, but you’re going too slow to make any progress toward either your fitness or weight loss goals. For your exercise session to be effective, you have to have the energy to get out there and perform.

What about training with low carbohydrate stores or low carbohydrate availability (the ‘train low’ idea)? Read the following article for a lot more information about this training method: Which is better: Training with High or Low Carbohydrate Stores?

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If you still want to cut back on your calories, shift the harder portions of your workouts to the beginning of the training session. You still want to get a good warmup first (10 minutes at least), but then jump right into the intervals or other high-intensity work. That way, if you start to fade before the training session is over, you’ve already completed the work that’s most important for keeping you moving toward your goals.

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Bonus Tip: Make intervals longer, not harder

People are sometimes tempted to go extra hard during interval workouts when they feel like they have extra weight to lose. We’d rather see you add a few minutes to the interval – extend a 10-minute interval to 12 or 15 – instead. The reason is that the intensity of an interval determines which energy system you’re primarily targeting, whereas the duration of an interval addresses the amount of energy (ie. carbs and fat) you’re using to power that system. If you’re doing intervals just below your maximum sustainable pace, increasing the intensity changes the intervals’ impact on your training. Making the interval longer allows you to burn more calories while keeping your training focused on your long-term fitness and performance goals.

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Comments 20

  1. Thank you very much. I use this natural method: => the2weekdietnow. com <= (search it on the internet) and lose weight is easy for me

  2. Pingback: How to Go From “Fat and Slow” to “Lean and Fast” - CTS

  3. Pingback: Fasting or Working Out On An Empty Stomach — For Fat Loss & Ketosis | Rando Richard

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  5. Weight loss for people say over 50 is potentially frustrating, potentially due to a reducing metabolic rate (mainly from muscle loss) – but always, the same rules apply.
    Sweat the small stuff for a sample period – 1 recommend a 10 day plan to my clients – where you measure/quantify everything that you ingest. Then estimate your calorie expenditure, both resting and exercise related.
    The answer primarily lies in the net calorie balance. For middle aged people, I always suggest incorporating a regular routine of compound exercises and basic mobility work as well.
    Short duration efforts, reasonable intensity. Think squats, push-ups, kettle bell swings etc. done as a non stop circuit for 10 minutes.
    Stuck with it for 6 weeks and review your progress in conjunction with a slight daily calorie deficit.
    Works every time.

    1. I also don't know of anyone who'd argue humans lived in constant twilight back then, which would, well, make it very hard for humans to even live back then.

    2. Bob Hughes – Now that is a fairy tale romance and a perfect wedding. I have never met either of them but I had a ear to ear smile the whole time watching the video. Bob and Hilary (friends of Pepper and Rita)

    3. mooie clip van Emiliana Torrini, net als de tekst. Dat soort dagen heb ik ook wel eens. Oi va voi en behalve de ramen, en alle deuren die openstaan, heeft de verwarming het nu ook begeven. Ik ben verkleumd tot op mijn botten! @Robert, dank, Rutger ten Broeke maakt werk waar ik diep van onder de indruk ben. .

  6. When I stumble out to the garage at 5.20am to do my 3x30min z3 intervals it will be on an empty tummy as I have no time to eat prior to session. I got some sports drink and bars to consume slowly during warmup and RBIs. All good.

    1. Well great. I have to pee now. TURNING ON EVERY LIGHT ON THE WAY TO THE BATHROOM, WITH MY BACK TO THE WALL MODE, ACTIVATE.Anyways, nice pasta. Thoroughly scared the piss nearly out of me. Comment by Victoria on April 9, 2012 at 12:38 am

    2. Thank you for your presence in this world, your gentle, calm, lovely presence. Such a blessing YOU are to all your followers. Have a lovely, lovely day with your family and friends. And again, thank you with all my heart for the beauty you bring to this earth. Cindy

  7. I find that the machines at the local health spa perpetuate the 1st myth. They have a selection for “Fat Burn” and another one for “Cardio”. The 1st will suggest a heart rate of 107 which won’t even cause a break in sweat. I also found this same advice from my Endocrinologist I was reminded that going into an anaerobic state would burn only sugar, (which is good for my Diabetes II), but will not burn my fat. Frankly I am frustrated because even riding 100 miles a week at both levels does not have any affect on weight loss. My body, at 63 along with diabetes, does not respond like it did when I was in my 30’s . In my 30’s I could eat more and exercise for 1/2 of what I do now and stay slim. Good article but I am not sure I saw anything that can help.

    1. In accordance with your Dr. try keeping a log of what your eating. You’ll be surprised how many calories you ingest during a day, like adding mayo or piece of cheese to your sandwich, adds up quickly. Keeping track of calories helped me get over the plateau in 2015, and may work for you in 2016, good luck!!!

  8. thanks, agree with myth #1, although appetite also increases with exercise. I find that after higher intensity workouts I usually eat more, so food choices become critical, especially if weight loss is a goal. I think it’s also worth mentioning the additional “stress” higher intensity exercise puts on your system too, with regard to increasing cortisol levels which can also have a negative impact if you’re trying to loose weight.
    My point is, if weight loss is the goal could low intensity sessions be a better route? (for a specific target as part of a periodised plan I mean).

    1. Keep the high intensity sessions shorter. An hour or so is fine.

      That will mitigate cortisol release and minimize the catabolic effects in muscle tissue, keeping you lean and allowing that lean muscle to burn up fat.

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