I know cyclists who have summer and winter kits, not because one is warmer but because they fit into a medium jersey in the summer and need a large from October through March. Rather than reaching for the bigger jersey, here are proven steps I use to keep athletes from gaining too much weight in the fall.
Use Data To Dial Back Caloric Intake
If you’re using a power meter – and especially if you’re uploading your data to a tracking software – you can monitor your energy expenditure by ride and by week. Your kilojoule count is roughly equivalent to the calories you burned producing the work (4.184 kJ = 1 Calorie and your efficiency on the bike is about 20-25%). An average cyclist riding at 500kJ/hr for 10 hours a week burns about 5000 calories. If you reduce this to 6-8 hours a week you’re cutting out 1000-2000 calories of activity. Throughout the summer you have been eating to support 5000kJ of work each week, and if you keep eating that way while only doing 3000-4000kJ of physical work you’ll gain weight.
It’s not just reducing the size of your meals and maybe cutting out snacks and alcohol – although those are all great ways to reduce caloric intake without making drastic changes. You also have to adjust your on-the-bike nutrition. I recommend athletes aim to replenish 20-30% of hourly caloric expenditure during rides lasting more than 75 minutes. During a hard summer group ride at 600-700kJ/hr, then, you would consume 140-210 calories per hour of mostly carbohydrate. If your fall rides are more moderate 400-500kj/hr endurance rides, then 100-150 calories/hr is plenty. Don’t eat like you’re on an epic adventure when you’re really just cruising along.
Get Into Cyclocross!
If you want to keep eating like it’s the middle of summer then you need to keep training in order to keep your weekly caloric expenditure up! Cyclocross can be a great way to do that. The workouts and races are short but very intense, which makes ‘cross a great training tool for developing VO2 max power and for maintaining lactate threshold power that would otherwise erode during the fall and early winter.
Use Recovery Nutrition Wisely
Post-workout recovery drinks are great nutrition tools but you have to use them wisely. Following your longer and harder workouts they are a good idea any time of year. They are even more important when you are doing back-to-back days of training so you can replenish valuable nutrients quickly. If your training workload has diminished in the fall, your rides are mostly moderate intensity, and you have more than 24-36 hours between training rides, then your muscle glycogen will be fully replenished through your normal diet. In other words, drink a recovery drink between your big weekend rides, but maybe not after your Tuesday morning ride if you’re not going to ride again until Thursday afternoon.
Set Your Targets
For athletes who are at peak activity levels in the summer it is natural to gain a bit of weight in the fall and winter. That doesn’t mean you have to pack on pounds like a bear getting ready to hibernate. Set a target, or a ceiling, so you can change your habits before weight gain gets out of hand. Five to 7 pounds is reasonable and manageable. Ten pounds should trigger immediate diet and workload changes. Gaining 10-15 pounds or more will make it very difficult to exceed this year’s performance levels because the time and effort required to drop the weight diminishes the focus you can put toward improving performance.
Similarly, many athletes take a break from structured training in the fall and that’s fine, but set a hard end date for that period so your three-week break doesn’t turn into six.
Don’t Bank on Riding for Weight Loss
Cycling is one of the best exercises for sedentary people looking to lose significant weight. It’s no-impact. Gears make all terrain accessible. And new athletes can sustain the activity long enough to have an impact. But it’s harder for experienced cyclists to ride the weight off. You adapt to the workload and there’s a limit to the extra riding time or intervals you can add to increase it. Riding will keep weight in check and riding more will bring your weight down, but very slowly. If you gain 15 pounds this winter you’re going to need significant caloric restriction and increased training workload (from a variety of activities, not just riding) to drop the weight in the spring. That’s why the best thing you can do is to limit your weight gain to a handful of pounds.