How to Go From “Fat and Slow” to “Lean and Fast”

By Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

Truth be told, I’m writing this as much about and for me as I’m writing it to hopefully help you. I am my own example. I’m that guy who got fat and slow over the winter and is now staring down the ever-shortening runway toward a goal event. I also know I’m not alone, so for all of you who are squeezing yourself into jerseys that are a little tighter than you’d like, here’s what we’re going to do to get back to being leaner and faster.

Just Keep Pedaling

The only way get back to being lean and fast is to keep riding while you’re fat and slow. Some of your rides and workouts will be frustrating. As I huff and puff my way up climbs that seemed routine last summer I fight against an inner monologue reminding me how slow I am. “Give up”, it says. “Turn back.”

No. I won’t give up and I won’t turn back. The only way is forward, however slowly. Replace the negative self-talk with positive thoughts: every mile and every climb is bringing you closer to being the athlete you want to be. The fitness will come, the adaptation will happen, but only if you keep pedaling.

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Push Yourself but Don’t Bury Yourself

It took time to get fat and slow and it will take time to go the other direction. It is tempting to go full-throttle on every climb or to try to achieve power outputs you could sustain last summer, but that’s a fool’s errand. You have to be pragmatic, embrace the fitness level you have right now, and establish training intensity ranges that are appropriate for where you are right now. Your current ClimbingRepeat power range might be what your Tempo range used to be, and that may be disappointing, but true nonetheless. The quickest way to bring those power outputs back up is to do the best work you can with the engine you have now.

Be Consistent

Both for the sake of fitness and weight loss it is better to train more frequently than to go really long once or twice a week. Your shorter, more frequent workouts will be higher quality, meaning you’ll be operating at a higher intensity for each hour you’re training. Long endurance rides have their place, but as those rides get longer you go slower because you don’t have the endurance to maintain a strong pace. It is a more effective use of your time to ride only as long as the pace is effective for improving performance. Better to do 2-3 good hours than a 5-hour ride where you’re just groveling along after hour three.

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Eat on the bike

When your jersey fits like a girdle it’s like having a judgmental partner along on every ride asking, “Are you really going keep eating?” But during rides that are longer than one-hour consuming calories is important for maintaining training quality. This is even more crucial when you are incorporating an interval workout into a 2-3 hour ride. Caloric restriction will help with weight loss, but you have to look at caloric restriction across the whole day and the whole week, not necessarily during workouts where you need the energy to perform at your best.

Recently the concept of Low CHO (low carbohydrate availability) training has gained popularity. The idea is that you start training sessions with low carbohydrate stores and this helps the body improve its ability to provide energy from fat. There are two details many people miss about Low CHO training: 1) it’s not intended for all training sessions and 2) it means starting the workout with low carbohydrate stores, not restricting carbohydrate intake during the actual training session. Low CHO training is most appropriate for long endurance rides. When you have interval training scheduled you want to do that with High CHO availability. If you’re going to ride Low CHO plan it for a long weekend ride, but consume CHO calories as you normally would during a long ride. And understand from the beginning that you’re not going to feel very strong.

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Don’t Miss Out on the Easy Wins

We have a lot of hard work ahead of us but it’s easy to focus on the hard stuff and forget about the easy stuff. Drink plenty of water, especially as you increase your training frequency and the weather starts getting warmer. Get more sleep; even an hour more than usual is good. There are also some easy choices we can make to cut out excess calories. If you drink alcohol, stop for a while. Skip dessert. Pass on the appetizers. Personally, I also use a nutrition-tracking app on my phone called MyFitnessPal. More than the calorie counting alone, the most valuable aspect of the app for me is how clearly it illustrates where I’m wasting calories.

For instance, I have nothing against bread or pasta but two slices of bread for a sandwich tick off nearly 300 calories but aren’t very filling or satisfying. In contrast, making a giant and very filling salad (lots of fiber and water from vegetables and fruit) is a much more satisfying and nutrient-dense way to “spend” those 300 calories. As an athlete and a coach I don’t recommend tracking every meal throughout the year, but I do believe it can be useful for relatively short periods of time when you’re focused on specific goals.

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Have Faith

Not the religious kind, although that probably wouldn’t hurt. Rather, have faith in the process. We know training works. We know that applying stress to the body and providing adequate nutrition and recovery yields positive adaptation. It won’t be noticeable tomorrow, or maybe even next week. But if you have faith in the process and stay the course the results will come.

I promise.

Update: As you can tell from the comments below, I originally posted this last spring. In the months after posting it, I kept at it, leaned out, and had a great summer and fall season. But seasons come and go, and at this time of year we hear from a lot of athletes who are struggling to stay motivated as they battle with unwanted weight. If you’re one of them, just keep moving forward! These tips can help you get to your goal. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach and co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

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Comments 20

  1. Thank you for this great piece. After being so fit last year for a 155 mile ride with 15k of climbing, I rested and when I got back to riding I hurt my right lower back nobody can figure what is my problem but the weight gain and loss of fitness is more painful, Did not know where to start. Thank you for this.

    1. Alli,
      Sorry to hear about the back issues with cycling. There is a new movement in physical therapy where the training helps to determine what the biomechanical root cause(s) are to the back pain vs. treat symptoms only. You can contact a PT at near you to see how they might help.
      Good luck,

  2. I was diagnosed with Graves disease (hyperthyroidism) in March. I lost weight due to the illness, but I lost a lot of fitness and really struggled. I’m back out there and I’m getting faster every week. Great article and lots of great advice!

  3. I open to suggestions on what to eat on the bike. The doc says my A1c is currently 6.2% and three months ago it was 6.1% (that is to say, the doc thinks that there is a risk diabetes could develop in the not to distant future). He wants me to minimize fresh fruit and to cut out sports drinks and energy bars. Any suggestions on what I should be eating on the bike to provide energy after the second hour of my longer rides?

    1. HI, I’m no physician, but also have to avoid simple CHO. I like dates, they travel well. They are very sweet, but a high percentage of the sugar is fructose and fiber content is relatively high. Studies in normal healthy’s and T2’s have shown that consumption of 50g (more than you will consume at one time on the bike) does not cause excessive glucose exursions and raises blood glucose less than an equivalent 50g dose of glucose. They are calorie dense, I’ll have one every hour or so on a long ride (I’m fairly small). Hope that helps.

    2. Try homemade rice cakes. There are several recipes for these on line and even videos on Youtube. These are great on the ride and you control what ingredients go into them. Brown rice is best. Freeze them for longer shelf life. They will thaw in time to eat in your jersey pocket and have the added benefit of cooling your lower back/core on warmer rides.

  4. I needed a data based way to work on my weight loss goal. Thank you! Downloaded MyFitnessPal and started tracking. One question: do you modify the recommendef calorie total to account for your daily workout?

  5. Like a fool I weigh myself everyday for it gives good feedback towards eating habits and wieght gain. My goal of having a solid spring season out of the gate after a long western by winter really was a motivator to keep the pounds at bay. This winter I put on 3lbs. I feel that my dedication to cycling really helps me stay in check. My biggest love in the sport is climbing. I look forward to these blog posts thanks!

  6. From downunder. Many thanks for your great, encouraging articles. I’m 61 years old and still improving. Staying positive, doing what you can, looking forward with your help. Your article is spot on.

  7. Indeed… The more frequent, shorter, intense workouts are a great way to feel successful with your workouts…

  8. i like the advice, “have faith…” This probably is the most difficult message, especially for an older “athlete” who loves the sport but was never a cycling competitor. As in most of life, “things work out.” Just have faith and as John Wooden said, be satisfied that you are doing the best you can with the tools you have. 🙂

  9. Best shape ever last year. This year between the holidays and an all inclusive in Punta Cana I put on some pounds. I am in sunny Naples and the first couple rides were not good. Tried to lose all of the weight at one time and thought I was going to die. Started doing shorter rides and the speed, endurance and weight loss is on track. Good advice, as always.

  10. Euna. I had bilateral hip replacements at age 39 so I can relate to drop in performance. Enjoy the comeback journey, and don’t focus on results on day to day basis but take longer term approach….1 to 3 month periods evaluation. Main thing is to keep riding! Mike

  11. Hip fracture 10 months ago and as 66 year old female having trouble with my fitness. This was message I needed. Hard not to lose faith when previously slower riders are now stronger riders

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