Are you a cyclist? Improve your performance without losing weight

The hard battles between the cyclists in search of the final victory are a pure spectacle for the spectators and followers of this sport. We experienced a clear example at the end of the Strade Bianche 2021, where the final victory was decided with an explosive attack (1004w for 20 seconds) on a 16% slope and with 184km in the legs.

The demands of the tough stages make cyclists look for the “magic potion” to be able to achieve their best sports performance . In this article I will give you the keys to improve your performance without losing weight in cycling, taking into account nutrition and training. 

How can we measure performance in cycling? 

Having the ability to measure sports performance is essential for all athletes. In the sport of cycling, power meters have gained prominence as one of the most widely used methods to measure the performance of runners. The potentiometer allows to obtain information about the pedaling power that the cyclist can generate. This method allows the advantage of reducing the value alterations that can occur when working with pulsations, since pulsations can be altered by factors such as dehydration or temperature. 

Know the ratio watts per kilogram of weight 

By working with potentiometers we can obtain different parameters related to power, however, the one that can generate more possibilities for improving performance is the watts per kilogram of weight (w/kg) ratio . This relationship provides us with information on how many watts can be moved per kilogram of the cyclist’s weight, which allows us to obtain an absolute value that can be compared with another cyclist with totally different physical characteristics. 

To calculate it, tests with different times are used to obtain power values. Professional cyclists present values ​​around 5-6w/kg of weight and this value decreases for cyclists with less physical condition. 

The importance of body weight in cycling 

In cycling , as in some sports where body weight is a highly influential variable in performance, there is a belief that reducing body weight improves W/kg values. Using the math it makes sense, since if you maintain power with less weight you get a higher value of watts/kilo , but in reality and in physiology, this is not the case and this can be a mistake.

Cyclists generate their pedaling power through muscular movements, that is, the muscle mass of the cyclist is related to power. If senseless weight losses are made that generate a decrease in muscle mass , not only will we not improve, but we can harm the performance and health of the athlete. 

Is there an ideal percentage of fat and muscle mass for the cyclist?

We must understand that the distribution of body composition is much more important than the body weight itself to improve sports performance in cycling . 

We put the case of two cyclists: 

  • Cyclist 1: Body weight 70kg, 40% muscle mass and 15% fat mass.
  • Cyclist 2: Body weight 70kg, 45% muscle mass and 10% fat mass.

The two cyclists have the same body weight, however they have a different body composition A higher percentage of muscle mass and a lower percentage of fat mass predispose cyclist 2 to generate greater pedaling power compared to cyclist 1. We must understand that muscle mass has the capacity to generate power and that reducing weight at the expense of muscle mass can have an adverse effect on performance. 

Can losing weight help me improve performance?

Having a lower percentage of fat mass also influences performance because it has less influence on power and it can be considered that a higher percentage generates dragging an extra “ballast” for the cyclist. 

We must avoid the thought of reducing body weight as much as possible without criteria and set the goal of optimizing muscle composition to generate a good balance to maintain a good ratio of muscle mass and fat mass depending on the objective of each cyclist. If body weight were the determining factor in the w/kg values, two cyclists with the same weight would have the same performance, however this does not happen and we can see how cyclists with the same weight respond differently. 

How can we improve the watts/kilogram? 

In order to achieve good w/kg values, we must optimize nutrition and training to achieve the ideal composition for each cyclist . A recent study on the morphological characteristics of elite cyclists found that air resistance and gravity influenced the cyclists’ performance.

Those with greater total muscle mass generated greater energy and power at high speeds that were related to better performance on flatter surfaces. On the other hand, cyclists with a smaller frontal surface had better performance in the mountain stages due to less resistance to wind and gravity. 

The concept for improving performance in cycling is based on seeking a body composition formed by a balance between a muscle mass that allows maximum pedaling power to be applied and a fat mass that does not represent a burden for the cyclist . In climbing cyclists it will be more important to obtain more ectomorphic characteristics (lower body volume, with muscle mass and low percentage of fat) to reduce forward resistance in mountain stages. In more rolling and fast cyclists, more mesomorphic characteristics (more volume and muscle mass) will be more important to favor power at high speeds. 

The best training to improve cycling performance

Strength training combined with cycling training (resistance) allows the cyclist to work the muscles responsible for participating in cycling and therefore work on power. Studies carried out on cyclists have observed that the combination of strength training combined with resistance training itself improved muscle efficiency with greater activation and proportion of muscle fibers, higher repetitions in leg press and a greater capacity to resist fatigue by muscle-tendon stiffness. All of them allowed cyclists to improve their muscular power. 

This is how you should eat to improve cycling performance 

Cyclists should tailor their nutritional strategy with a focus on optimizing their body composition to allow them to generate their maximum w/kg based on their athletic goal. 

The main objective of the athlete’s diet should be to provide enough energy to guarantee performance. Remember that the muscle is responsible for generating pedaling power and that it requires energy to generate force. In cycling, carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the muscle and are stored as glycogen in muscle stores.  

The importance of carbohydrates for cyclists

Carbohydrate recommendations will depend on different factors (training, intensity, objective…). In general, cyclists recommend between 7-12g of carbohydrates/kg of body weight/day . In competition these recommendations may be superior. 

The characteristics of cycling, variable intensity and duration (>90min), make muscle glycogen stores insufficient to meet energy demands. For this reason, it is necessary to incorporate carbohydrates continuously during exercise. Recommendations can vary between 30-90g/hour of carbohydrates and in some cases even more. 

Post-exercise recovery, key to muscle regeneration 

Another very important aspect of performance is recovery after playing sports . It starts at the end of sports practice, and it is the period where muscle glycogen must be recovered and enough protein must be incorporated for muscle recovery. Performing these recommendations correctly enhances the physiological adaptations created in training. 

If the muscle has energy and proteins in its recovery process, it will be able to carry out the process of regeneration and construction of muscle mass capable of generating pedaling power that we are looking for. 

Depending on the morphological objective mentioned above , different nutritional strategies will be carried out between climbers and sprinters to achieve the desired adaptations. In climbers it will be important to control intake in order to enhance muscle development , but at the same time control, as far as possible, the increase in fat mass and body volume to limit the effect on the climb. In the case of sprinters, an intervention will be carried out to enhance muscle mass in search of increased power. 

Controlling nutrition along with training allows us to work to achieve the desired body composition for performance enhancement w/kg. 

Adapt your diet and training to your goals

We know the importance of body weight in cycling (gravity action in mountain stages), however, this should not be the priority when working with W/kg performance measurements . Pedaling power is influenced by muscle mass and its relationship with the cyclist’s body composition (balance between muscle mass and fat mass) may be more important.

The strategies to be carried out will depend on the objective and the modality of each cyclist. Remember that sprint cyclists benefit from greater total muscle mass (more mesomorphic) and climbing cyclists benefit from less bulky muscle mass (more ectomorphic). 

The combination of training and nutrition will be key to achieving changes in the desired body composition for the improvement of sports performance.

Finally, and from a personal point of view, measuring watts/kg of muscle mass may in the future be a more reliable measure of sports performance than current W/kg of body weight. This is because it can be inaccurate due to the difference between body composition with the same weight. This possible method allows the advantages that it currently offers (comparing cyclists with different characteristics) and at the same time reducing the limitation of body composition variability. The result would give us how many watts the cyclist’s muscle mass can move. 

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