There is a misunderstanding or ten out there about cycling and food, chief among them is that you can eat anything, or more importantly as much of anything as you might want, if you put enough miles in on the bike.
The main problem is that there is some truth in that misunderstanding and I’ll just go ahead and call it a myth. The truth is, when you’re putting in 150-200 miles a week in, you can eat some food, in fact you have to. Ridden fast enough you’re looking at upwards of 11,000 extra calories or 1,571 extra calories a day. Add that to my basal metabolic rate, the amount of calories I need to eat every day just to stay on the right side if the grass and I’m looking at just shy of 4,000 calories a day to maintain my 165 pounds.
When you consider that many diets call for as little as 1,200-1,600 calories for a daily intake, almost three times that is a lot of food. Unfortunately there’s more to it than that: If you think you’ll get to eat a piece of Death by Chocolate cake whenever you want, you’ve got another thing coming…
First, if you want to lose weight, you’re obviously going to have to operate on less food. I’m maintaining my weight because I’m as light as I want to be. To lose weight I tried to operate on around 3,000 calories a day which would mean a loss of two pounds a week. This is not easy. On 3,000 calories a day I was hungry most of the day except after dinner. After losing fifteen in just seven weeks I started bumping my intake up to slow the loss down… I got too skinny. The problem is in fueling the riding, maintaining the speed and trying to lose some pounds at the same time. It’s a delicate balance that required eating precisely at the right times and in relatively small amounts compared to how I eat today (this has to do with fueling muscle recovery, maintaining a daily cycling schedule by mixing in the proper active recovery rides and loading up before and during the long rides).
When I achieved (what I thought was) a good weight, I had to learn how to maintain it. This simply meant eating more but I went through an important metamorphosis in how I looked at food, entirely…
Once I got to a certain point with cycling, I wound up looking at food only as fuel. Done well, you come to see that certain things you thoroughly enjoyed at one time are really quite useless. In my case, things like donuts, soda and candy are worse than just useless. See, I like to ride fast. Very fast. I try to ride with the local racers at least once a week (and succeed for about 23-25 miles). The problem with crap food is that it makes lousy cycling fuel. Take donuts: As cycling fuel they’re a waste of stomach space. A donut is good for about eight or maybe ten miles. A banana, on the other hand, is good for twenty or more. Candy? Five miles, if you’re lucky. That aforementioned Whopper? Fifty miles, easy. Now, soda is tricky. Seventy miles into a 100 mile ride, an ice-cold Coke tastes like pure Heaven and that jolt of sugar and caffeine provide both instant and prolonged relief. The sugar is obviously the instant but the caffeine, according to studies I’ve read (meaning I read the actual studies and abstracts, not the often mistaken reporting on the studies) caffeine helps the body convert from mainly burning carbs as fuel to burning mainly fat once you’ve depleted yourself of easy-burning carbs. I’ve felt this work and it is awesome. However, off the bike, it’s a useless waste of calories and my biggest problem is that I really like Coke. I try to maintain a 70 mile rule now when it comes to that oh-so-wonderful beverage. If I’m not in the middle of riding 70 miles, no Coke. That means no soda with dinner, no pop when I eat out, none. Abstinence is the only way I can keep from over-doing it.
Now here’s where this becomes mind-boggling (or mind-blowing as the case may be): I earlier stated that on a very active week, 200+ miles at an average pace of around 19 mph, I can eat “just shy of 4,000 calories a day” – technically that’s something like 3,960 on my most demanding of weeks (normally I’m around 3,400 calories a day when I’m riding between 120 and 150 miles a week). According to a study, they found the average American’s calorie intake, when under-reporting is factored in, is around 3,300 calories per day. This is the average American who, I guarantee you, is a whole lot less active than I am… Eats only 660 calories a day less than I do on my heaviest of training weeks and only 100 calories less when I’m putting in 150 miles on my bicycle. Cutting through the BS, I only eat slightly more than the average person and am probably on the order of 20 times more active. What I see as a lot of food, as the average person sees it, isn’t all that much. Therein lies the rub.
If you’re having a problem losing weight and you’re exercising a lot, not only will you have to recalibrate your thinking the way I did, you’ll have to change the way you think about how much is “a lot” as well because you’re most likely quite far from reality.
Clarification: The numbers quoted above are for men only, because I happen to be one. For women it’s much worse and more difficult. The average woman, who rides like I do, should consume (according to government recommendations) 2,000-2,400 calories a day if they’re very active… Add the crazy mileage factor and you’re only talking about maybe 3,000 calories a day. In other words, the most a woman can hope to eat would have me wasting away to nothingness before your very eyes. This breathes life, yet again, into the notion that when I talk about “a lot” and what others who can’t lose weight “think” is a lot, we’re talking about very different amounts.
This dose of reality is brought to you by Fit Recovery. I apologize in advance for bursting any bubbles.