Weight Management for Cyclists

Everyone knows that maintaining an appropriate weight is good for health. If you are a cyclist, your weight can also have a significant impact on your performance. The first step to weight management is determining whether you would like to lose, gain, or maintain your current weight. It’s also important to note that any purposeful weight loss should ideally occur during the off-season. Weight loss in-season is likely to negatively impact performance.


Determining an ideal weight:

It can be a challenge to identify a realistic and healthy performance weight. If you are unsure what a healthful weight or body composition is for your particular needs, it can be measured by the use of skinfolds (be sure to enlist a qualified tester), a BodPod test, or a DEXA scan. Knowing your body composition can help you determine how much room you have for improvement. Alternatively, assessing your metabolic rate (how many calories you burn each day) with a Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) test may help determine an ideal daily calorie goal.


Once you know where you stand, you can make a goal for where you would like to compete. You may want to work with a registered dietitian or exercise physiologist to determine a healthy and realistic goal. A professional will help to determine a goal that takes into consideration your history of body weight. Your goal weight should promote good health and eating habits, while allowing for optimal sport training and performance.


Energy balance is complex

If you are currently maintaining your body weight, you are in a state of energy balance – where energy intake equals energy expenditure. Energy balance is complex and dynamic. Changing one factor on the energy intake side can have an impact on the energy expenditure side and vice versa. For example, regular participation in high-intensity exercise can alter appetite-regulating hormones, which may ultimately lead to reduced energy intake.


Although we wish we had an easy prescription that would be effective for everyone, each cyclist is unique. How your body responds to changes in diet and physical activity depends on many factors including but not limited to genetics, hormonal balance, gut health, body composition and total amount of energy expended including non-sport activities.


Here are sport-specific tips you can use, depending on whether you are hoping to lose, maintain, or even gain weight for your cycling goals:


  • Avoid unusual diets and Very Low Calorie Diets: Although it might be tempting to restrict food intake for quick weight-loss results, this approach can result in the following:
    • Decreased lean tissue and muscle strength
    • Decreased glycogen stores, leading to decreased energy for performance
    • Decreased ability to concentrate
    • Fatigue
    • Inadequate nutrient intake
    • Emotional distress due to hunger, fatigue, stress


  • Keep an eye on your protein intake
  • In general, the protein needs of athletes are higher (1.2–1.7 g/protein/kg) than that recommended by the RDA (0.8 g/protein/kg) for non-active individuals. Although most athletes consume plenty of protein, if you have decided to restrict your caloric intake, you need to make sure you are still getting enough protein to help preserve your muscle mass.


  • It’s important for athletes to consume adequate high-quality protein throughout the day to ensure that adequate protein is available for building, repair, and maintenance of lean tissue. Diets higher in protein can keep you feel full and satisfied.
  • Be strategic when planning your meals and make sure that you are eating some protein after exercise and spreading it out across the day.


  • Build your meals around nutrient dense foods: Nutrient-dense foods are relatively rich in nutrients for the number of calories contained. High nutrient-dense foods include:
    • Produce
    • Whole grains
    • Lean meats, poultry, and seafood
    • Eggs
    • Beans and legumes
    • Nuts and seeds
    • Low-fat dairy products


  • Aim to increase intake of foods high in water and fiber including:
    • Produce, beans and legumes

This means you can eat a greater volume of food for an overall lower energy intake and helping you to feel satisfied while eating fewer calories.


  • Athletes struggling to maintain or gain weight during competition:
    • Consider adding a 400-500 calorie smoothie to your daily routine—milk, frozen fruit, nut-butters, 100% juice, oats and yogurt are readily available and make a portable and refreshing snack.
    • Add 1-2 snacks to your daily routine, 200-300 calories each.
  • Pay attention to use of caloric beverages: Consuming sugar sweetened drinks, juices and alcohol can add calories to the diet without providing many nutrients or satisfying hunger.
    • Sports drinks are a GREAT choice when you are active, especially on rides lasting more than an hour. These specially-formulated beverages (homemade or store-bought) provide athletes with fluid (for hydration), carbohydrates (for energy and flavor), and sodium and potassium (essential electrolytes that also promote water retention).
    • If you are working out for 60 minutes or less, water is the best choice.
    • After a workout or ride low-fat chocolate milk can be a great recovery beverage (that many people think tastes great too). The carbs, protein, and small amount of fat found in low-fat chocolate milk help replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle tissue.

The bottom line:

Management of weight can be difficult. If you think your performance would benefit from losing weight, you may want to work with a professional. A sport dietitian can to help you learn to plan daily meals and snacks to help you perform at your best. An exercise physiologist or cycling specific coach can recommend changes in the amount and intensity of training which can have an additive effect to the dietary changes.

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