Some Thoughts on Weight and Nutrition
Some Thoughts on Weight and Nutrition
The past few months I've had a lot of riders ask me questions about my nutrition, losing weight for performance, and that sort of thing. Like it or not, as a climber the delicate relationship between food and optimal weight is an important part of the picture. I guess after some of my successes this past summer people are interested in how I tackled it and managed that balance. The answers are not what people are expecting.
I thought I would write down a few thoughts I have on nutrition as it pertains to bike racing, especially when it comes to weight. The whole topic of nutrition is too broad to cover, so this post is focused on weight. This is especially geared toward younger riders since that's where the majority of the questions have come from, but I think the fundamentals can be pretty broadly applied.
Of course, before I get started I should be clear that I am not a certified health professional of any kind, and what follows below constitutes my opinion and does not replace the advice of a licensed professional.
I think this is the true place to start: does weight even play a factor in your role as a rider? If you're not already throwing down on the climbs, or your races hardly feature climbing, chances are it's minimal. Dropping a bit of weight, even if your power somehow didn't drop with it (unlikely) is not going to turn a donkey into a race horse.
If you think you have weight to lose, find out if you do! Get a proper skinfold/bodyfat analysis. It only takes a matter of minutes. Stop guessing. It's 2019. Sounds so simple but nobody seems to do this.
Do some testing at an exercise physiology lab. Wear the mask for the whole thing, not just the VO2 part - it's uncomfortable but it's worth its weight in gold. From there you can see exactly how much fat and carbs you're burning at every intensity level.
It's the year 2019, but most riders still don't make use of the science and technology that has been available for years. A proper test in a lab will lay naked your true capabilities. Remember: there are no bad test results, only poor interpretation and application.
High Risk / Low Reward
Use numbers and facts to make objective decisions.
FACT: You gain 0.1 watts/kg (4-5 watts) for every kilogram (2.2 lbs - that's 7000 calories) you lose
It's generally accepted that for every kilo you drop, you gain 30 seconds up a moderately steep (7%) climb of 10 km. So in terms of percentage gain you're looking at 1-1.5%. That's not nothing but definitely falls into the "marginal gains" camp.
But at what risk? If you did the first step and tested, you'll know how much fat you can safely lose and how much you can hope to improve your w/kg. Worthwhile? Let the numbers tell you. Look at yourself and know where you stand in the big picture.
Look at your race schedule. In Europe races are longer and often have three or four big climbs along the way before the final to the finish. In the US this is hardly ever the case; stages are shorter, the terrain much easier, and there's often only one big climb at the end. Climbs tend to be shorter too, more in the 10-15 minute range.
Understand that it's impossible to get stronger while creating a caloric deficit. You can't do both. Riders who "decide" they need to lose weight generally do so while trying to train intensely to build form. This is not physically possible. They’re impatient, and instead of removing a maximum of 200-300 calories per day, they embark on crazy crash diets with huge caloric restrictions, especially carbohydrates. This often happens during a training camp before a key race and these camps are often at altitude, where carbohydrate needs are even greater, making things even worse.
All of this is a recipe for disaster. Riders completely deplete themselves of glycogen while chronically over-training, to a point of no return. The body fights back in all sorts of ways, including by lowering the metabolism (Google “Set Point Theory” for more). Recovery goes to hell, and all you can manage is a brisk endurance pace or low tempo. Often they can feel quite good at these lower outputs, but as soon as you actually try to go hard, it's lights out. It's not uncommon for riders to be missing 30, 40, 50+ watts of top-end. Your legs feel completely empty, you can't even get your heart rate or breathing up, and you often have that "foggy brain" or "floating" feeling from low blood sugar. Maybe you can muster up one good hard effort (usually early in the session) but then you’re completely empty and unable to repeat it. And forget about trying to train (or race) hard multiple days in a row.
It helps to zoom out and remember the fundamentals. Training is not when you get stronger… recovery is, and your nutrition is what your body uses to rebuild. Training only breaks your body down. If you’re not giving your body the resources to recover and rebuild, not only are you not getting stronger, but all you’re doing is making yourself worse. You’re digging yourself deeper and deeper into a proverbial hole.
So to summarize, you're risking everything for a possible 1% gain. Really stupid. I would much prefer to be a little heavier but strong and resilient and able to go full gas at all times, rather than slightly lighter but totally empty.
Read more: Overtraining and Fatigue in Athletes
Stop Reading Click-Bait on the Pros
You should be highly skeptical of any story you read about what the pros say they're doing. It could be taken out of context, misquoted, or even be deliberate misinformation aimed at the competition.
At best, understand that the pros you're reading about on the Internet are fully grown, mature adults that have spent years competing professionally. They have years of training six hours a day, riding multiple grand tours in the same season, and competing at the highest level in their legs. When some article takes one sentence they said in an interview and makes it the headline, it gets blown way out of context. Understand that these riders are fully developed and have completely maxed out their physical potential that could be achieved through training and racing. The only area left for them to find gains is by manipulating their diet and weight. They are squeezing the last drops out of the sponge. (They're also on teams that employ highly-trained doctors, trainers, and nutritionists that will (hopefully) guide them to go about it in a healthy manner that doesn't harm performance).
Young riders, on the other hand, still have the potential for massive gains from training. 10, 20, 30+ % is totally possible, simply by training hard, eating properly, and looking after yourself. So why focus on the 1% ?
Young riders should be getting noticeably stronger every year. They should be gaining weight year-over-year, not losing it! Their bodies are still growing and developing. Everything from bones to muscles to internal organs are still developing. Weight gain is normal and should be expected up to around 25 years old. Below 25 a rider should not even be thinking about losing weight. Weight going down should only be a cause for concern.
Carbs Are King
Nutrition is far too big a topic, but I do want to touch on the Low Carb/High Fat BS that people still fall prey to. Understand that even at low intensities your body is still burning some carbohydrates. As you go faster this increases. Your body stores very little carbohydrate in the form of glycogen; the rest must come by eating regularly and adequately. At racing intensity, the vast majority of fuel comes from carbohydrate. Most riders don't eat enough during training and racing. You should be aiming for 80-100 grams (grams, not calories!) of carbohydrate per hour in a race.
Those who think you can "teach" your body to use fat as a primary fuel source are worshiping at the altar of pseudo-science. There are ZERO studies to back that notion up. At the most, studies show a slight improvement in fat utilization at low intensities, but none at higher (racing) intensities. Not only does it not carry over to higher intensity, but it has been shown to meaningfully hurt performance at higher intensities. Can you "teach" your body to run without oxygen by holding your breath on a training ride? Good luck with that.
Remember: you can have the engine of a Lamborghini but if there's no gas in the tank you're not getting it out of the driveway.
I'll wrap this up by circling back to myself, since this is my website and it's obviously all about me. Jokes aside, this whole topic usually comes up because I keep getting asked about what I did with my weight to help me win Green Mountain or Mt Washington last summer. The answer: nothing. I never tried to lose weight. I let the body do its thing and focused on getting as strong as possible, getting enough sleep, and maintaining a low-stress environment. If I worried about anything it was that I wasn't getting enough in.
The only key change was my living situation. After many years living in unstable, chaotic, high-stress environments, over the past year I finally created a stable living situation for myself where I could be relaxed, sleep well, and have some control over my environment. If I had to give one piece of advice to a young rider, I would point to that. Create a stable, calm living situation for yourself, and the rest will follow.
I do monitor my weight regularly because it helps me know if I'm training too hard or too little, and especially if I'm eating and drinking enough. It may seem counter-intuitive but I've found that by weighing myself frequently I eat more. When I was younger I wouldn't travel with a scale because I was self-conscious and feared being made fun of. Without it, I would feel bloated from travel and assume I was over-eating and gaining weight. I would end up under-eating, under-performing, and come home to have the scale say I had actually lost weight. These days I don't give a shit what other people think and I weigh myself regularly and make sure I eat enough. Peoples' opinions and their pseudo-science don't matter to me; all that does matter is the results sheet and my name at the top.
Thanks for stopping by,