by Cheryl Madliger
Jenna bonked 50 km into her gran fondo, even though she’d spent months training for it. When she started training, she had also hoped to shed those last 10 lb. she couldn’t seem to get rid of. She had cut out gluten, fasted and spent more time than ever on her bike. She planned on finishing the century ride in six hours and no more. During the ride, the hills in the early stage of the route took a lot out of her. She had a strict limit on the number of calories she took in each hour. And, she carried that 10 lb. she had hoped to lose. Jenna had fallen far short of both her performance and weight-loss goals.
Going gluten free, riding fasted (that is, on an empty stomach), upping training hours – these are just a few things that cyclists try in their attempts to lose fat. According to registered dietitian Silvia Bonome of Westmount, Que., those kinds of strategies can leave cyclists undernourished. “The body needs to be nourished to perform,” Bonome said. “Whether you’re training or in competition or resting, the priority really should be nourishing the body at all times.”
While some cyclists cut out gluten in response to a medical diagnosis or incorporate fasted training as a means to improve their performance, others use these strategies to simply lose fat. According to Bonome, this idea can lead individuals down the wrong path. “Going gluten free is really only healthy for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity – it’s not for everyone,” she said. “All the gluten-free products that have come out on the market are not even a good solution for those with gluten-related conditions and disease, let alone weight management.”
Matt Fitzgerald, sports nutritionist and author of Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance , said fasted training is similarly co-opted as a tool for weight loss. “There are athletes or exercisers who will work out on an empty stomach for completely different reasons,” he said. “There are the competitive athletes who use it as one tool among many, and then there are the people who are focused on weight loss and think, ‘Wow, I’ll get a double whammy here: I won’t eat and I’ll exercise and that’ll be even better.’” According to Fitzgerald, that’s a mistake. “If that’s your mentality – you’re just trying to lose weight by throwing everything at the problem – that usually doesn’t work out too well,” he explained.
Whether it’s the cost of performance or of health, adopting a fat-loss-at-all-costs mentality can be dangerous for cyclists. So what’s a performance-minded cyclist who hopes to lose a few pounds of fat to do? Shift perspective said Bonome. “Fat loss is always a side effect,” Bonome said. “Weight loss, per se, is not a solution; a proper nutrition program is the solution. Then you’ll get your results, you’ll perform better, and you’ll lose body fat if you need to.”
A proper approach to nutrition is not a “diet,” though. Without counting calories excessively or needing to use exercise to make up for eating, a focus on fuelling your body and training properly can be simple and effective. “I’m big on increasing diet quality versus reducing the quantity of food you eat,” Fitzgerald says. “There’s plenty of room in most people’s diets to get rid of lower-quality foods and eat more, higher-quality foods.”
If you want to lose weight without compromising performance, you might have to shift your priorities. When losing weight is the end goal, it’s easy to see how taking extreme measures can be tempting. Instead, focusing on building healthy habits can maintain health and performance in the process. “Excess body fat can be lost while maintaining performance, absolutely, with a proper nutrition program,” said Bonome. ”But we really need to focus on the nutrition component, and then fit in the physical activity to make all of that work. Then the body-fat loss becomes the side effect.”