Toolbox: Off-Season Weight Control
Cyclists seem to work extremely hard during the season to control their weight, and one of their biggest fears is weight gain during the off-season being detrimental to their ability to regain a high level of fitness going into next season. Make no mistake about it; keeping the pounds (or kilos) off in the next 3-4 months is no easy task. Here are a few weight control tips to utilize as you go into the winter months and those oh so dangerous holidays!
One thing is for sure, a lot of bike racers are concerned about weight control during the fall and winter months. First, let me point out that there is a clear difference between weight control (or loss) and nutrition. Sound nutrition is the basis for any weight control, weight loss or health issues plan. You can control your weight eating Twinkies if you choose, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have solid nutrition.
Nutritional assessment – First, seek out a “neutral” nutritionist, fill out a 3-5 day diet record, and have them evaluate where you are getting your calories from in terms of carbohydrates, protein, and fat percentages. I use the word “neutral,” because a lot of nutritionists are not qualified and can represent a specific product. In addition, have them make sure that your caloric intake includes the right quantity and mix of vitamins and minerals. If there are any nutrient deficiencies, they can also be addressed at this time. Most important in this analysis is to have the nutritionist define your individual energy requirements during this part of the cycling season. Most athletes reduce their mileage and intensity and their energy requirements also change. This relatively simple analysis will help get you into a proper range of caloric intake. And of course, not only does it benefit you from a weight control perspective; it can also be a positive step to a healthy lifestyle.
Write it down – In addition to completing the initial food record listed above to figure out your optimal caloric mix and intake, take the time to keep an ongoing record of what foods and quantities you are consuming. It is not necessary to do this daily, but pick a few days during the week to write everything down in detail. First, you may be surprised as to how much of something you are consuming. This will allow you to control some of the foods you love so much and may be contributing to excess caloric intake. An example that comes to mind is peanut butter. How easy is it to spread a big scoop of peanut butter on your bread! Check out how much you are really putting on! Another benefit of writing it down is you may not want to write something down and that in itself may control your intake.
Timing is everything – Like a good comic, timing is key to being able to eat more of what you want and either maintain or lose weight. Remember to eat some carbohydrates and protein within about 30-45 minutes of ending your exercise session. Also, a major contributor to weight gain is eating in the evening – either late dinner or snacking after dinner. Unless we’re exercising right before bed (not recommended!), our metabolism naturally slows down during the evening. If we eat too much or too late in the evening, it is much harder for our bodies to burn off those calories and there is a greater likelihood that those calories will turn to fat. I generally recommend a hard and fast eating deadline (usually about 2.5 hours before bedtime), which seems to be comfortable for most people to maintain.
The “off” days – Focus on reduced caloric intake on the days that are not as active. It sounds simple, but can be difficult. It’s these “off” days of physical activity that can be the killers! It also represents a good approach of phasing in a weight control program. Instead of attacking the program with an all-or-nothing approach, start the first few weeks where you monitor only these off days. Sometimes, we aren’t as successful as we want to be because we just pick a day and start this all-or-nothing approach. Try phasing in slowly; just like you would do with a physical program that works on increasing loads and stress over time.
The drip system – Just like a drip system in a garden versus dumping large amounts of water and causing a flood, there has been a lot written supporting eating smaller amounts and spacing your meals out during the day versus the traditional three-meal system. The major benefits of this approach are preventing food overload and that heavy, bloated feeling as well as preventing a large insulin response or spike which as been shown to increase fat stores and decrease fat utilization.
Slow it down – Contrary to what we are trying to do on the bike, which is go faster, learn to eat more slowly and savor your food. The food isn’t going anywhere! It takes the brain about 20 minutes to signal it is full, so by eating quickly, you can easily overdose on the calories.
Moderation and common sense – Bottom line is don’t deny yourself the foods you love. A balanced nutritious diet that allows you some flexibility will still result in good weight control without driving yourself crazy! One suggestion might be to be control your diet more during the work week and give yourself more leeway on the weekends when you may be more active. By Monday, you are motivated and ready to jump back into the program again.
Alternate aerobic activity – You’re riding less, so try to supplement all that free time with alternate aerobic activities like hiking, running, or another sport you enjoy.
Educate yourself – Educating yourself and learning about nutrition in general, as well as your unique food requirements, are the primary components for weight control. By doing this, you are taking a major step towards both weight control and a healthier lifestyle. The key word here is “lifestyle.” For a lot of athletes, you are trying to change your eating habits in general, which requires attention most of the time.
Make it a priority – Just like the physical training activities you perform during both the season and non-race season; make weight control and nutrition a primary goal. Take it seriously, just like you take your physical training on the bike seriously.
We’ve written time and time again that a complete fitness program requires athletes to do so much more than just train on the bike. Weight control and nutrition are components that require attention year-around and not for just one week. Make no mistake about it, proper nutrition and weight control are very difficult tasks. But the more time you spend working on it, the more educated you become and in turn the more success you have.
I would also like to recommend a couple books recently written that I have found useful:
“In Defense of Food – An Eater’s Manifesto” by Michael Pollan
“Rethinking Thin – The New Science of Weight Loss and the Myths” by Gina Kolata
Ride safe; Ride strong,
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com and check out the AthletiCamps Blog.