Training to be a better fat burner can make you stronger on your bike and leaner in your kit. – By Selene Yeager
As cyclists, we have a love-hate relationship with fat. We love fat as fuel and want to be better fat burners, because that gives us the power to ride longer at a higher pace without ripping through our limited, precious glycogen stores. But we don’t want too much fat pushing back against our lycra, since cycling is also a power-to-weight sport that punishes us – especially once the pavement turns upward – when we carry it in excess.
Becoming a better fat burner can help with both of those things. As you may have guessed, there is no one magic recipe that will turn every rider who follows it into a fat-burning furnace, but there are steps we can all take to be our fat-burning best, says Chris Myers, master coach with the Peaks Coaching Group.
“The science is not 100-percent black and white. But how you time your nutrition and plan your training intensity can promote fat burning, as well as ultimately improve your performance,” he says.
Here are four core fat-burning strategies to employ.
1. Trade Breakfast for “Bikefast”
Or ride your bike to breakfast several towns away. Fasted riding is a tried – and true – way to help your body burn more fat. The easiest way to do it is to ride out before breakfast after you’ve been fasting all night long and blood sugar and liver glycogen stores are low, so your body needs to tap into fat for fuel.
Research shows you can do this without harming your performance, provided you maintain the right intensity and/or duration. One way is by riding for a longer duration at a low intensity. One study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that men (the effect wasn’t strong in women) who performed cycling workouts after an overnight fast five days a week for four weeks improved their ability to tap into their fat stores and had bigger gains in their VO2 max than those who ate before training. Research on competitive cyclists has found that cyclists who restricted their calories by 40 percent and performed fasted rides improved their power-to-weight ratios without compromising their endurance performance.
If improved fat burning is a goal, incorporate two to three fasted rides a week. To do it, have some black coffee, tea, or water first thing. Take a bottle of plain water with you (and a snack just in case – bonking is not the goal, and it’s not safe to ride fuzzy-headed) and ride for about two hours at zone 2 (55 to 75 percent of your VO2 max intensity or about a 5 to 6 on a 1 to 10 scale).
2. Push Your Body to the Max
Carbohydrates rather than fat fuel your hardest cycling efforts, but done regularly, those high-intensity efforts can still make you a monster fat burner. Fitness-wise, high-intensity intervals or sprint training increases your maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max), raises your lactate threshold, and improves your cycling economy so you can stay “aerobic” and burn more fat at higher intensities. It also boosts levels of key muscle-building, fat-burning hormones like human growth hormone, and may suppress your appetite. High-intensity riding may also work better than steady endurance riding for reducing dangerous belly fat, according to research.
“I’m a fan of VO2 max and sprint intervals,” says Myers. “They get your metabolic rate up and increase the enzymes that break down triglycerides [stored fatty acids].” Try 30-minute sprint sessions two days a week. Warm up. Then perform 30-second max efforts with four minutes rest in between. Then cool down.
For an even bigger fat-burning bang, you can do your intervals in a fasted state, which some research suggests improves your fat-burning adaptations even more. Just keep it short, says Myers. “You have enough glycogen for 75 minutes of upper endurance training before the stores get depleted, and interval workouts are not more than an hour.”
3. Build Your Fat-Burning Engine
Even the seemingly “skinniest” pros in the peloton strength train to improve their power-to-weight ratios. Strength training builds muscle, which is more metabolically active (aka burns more calories and fat) than fat tissue and it stimulates anabolic hormones that help you burn fat as well as build muscle. Hit the weights twice a week. Whether you lift lighter weights for higher repetitions or heavier weights for lower repetitions, the weight you use should be taxing enough so you the last rep is very challenging.
Two moves every cyclist should master:
Squat: Stand with your feet hip to shoulder-width apart and toes pointed slightly out. Hold weights at your shoulders or down at your sides. Push your butt and hips back as if you were sitting in a chair and lower down as far as possible while keeping your weight on your heels. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Deadlift: Hold a barbell in front of your thighs, arms extended, palms facing in. Keep your back flat. Hinge at the hips and lower the weight toward the floor, allowing your knees to bend slightly. Keep the weight close to your body and lower it until your upper body is almost parallel to the floor. Contracting your glutes, push your hips forward to raise yourself back to the starting position
4. Hop Aboard the Espresso Express
Would there be bike riders without coffee? Maybe. But they would be sad sleepy shells of the java-loving cyclists we’ve grown to know and love. That might be because caffeine improves cycling performance on nearly every level (which helps you burn more calories – and hence fat) and helps the body utilise fat as fuel, so you don’t burn through your carbohydrate stores as quickly. The International Society of Sports Nutrition reports that 1.36 to 2.72 milligrams per 0.5kg is most effective.