Some of you may recall an article I wrote last year, looking at the potential problems encountered when cyclists become over-obsessed with weight loss. The consequences of extremely restrictive dieting begin with poor performance but can end in long-term physical and mental health problems. My observations amongst the peloton in Australia is that weight loss becomes a key focus for many cyclists in the lead up to next month’s Road Nationals, in order to maximise chances of climbing Mt Buninyong over and over again. Indeed I’ve got several clients with this goal in mind at the moment.
The question that has always been on my mind as a sports dietitian who works with many young National Road Series riders here in Australia is how our attitudes to dieting, weight loss and performance compare to those encountered amongst the pro peloton in Europe. We hear stories of coaches who demand that their stick-thin cyclists lose even more weight, and riders secretively bingeing on cakes when no one is watching. European journalist Gregor Brown managed to catch up with four professionals to get their take on eating, weight management, health and performance. We chose four riders who come from a diverse range of teams and cultural backgrounds.
ATTITUDES TO DIET AND WEIGHT MANAGEMENT
Where did your drive to diet or lose weight first come from?
Pinotti – From myself because I know very well just how important weight is when you are racing. Clearly, some managers and directors push because they maybe have riders that don’t do their part. However, you don’t have to be a genius to know that the lighter you are the stronger you are.
Daniel Llyod– From the press, what I’d read about the diets the riders had, how skinny they were, and how important the power to weight ratio is. The thing is, I was always skinny, but there’s a difference between skinny or lean. For me, being skinny is just not having a massive amount of muscle mass and being lean is not having much fat over the muscles. So you get people who haven’t got a lot of muscles and always look skinny, however, they might be 15% fat. On the other hand, you have people who look stalky, but they are actually really, really lean because they haven’t got any fat over the top. I’ve never had any problems with weight, but there were times when I could’ve been leaner
Eisel– You grow up with it. The first thing you learn is to eat more carbohydrates, you learn more about your body than normal people. I remember racing in Italy in the amateur ranks, you’d be in a big hall, everyone would get a big plate of pasta with sauce, olive oil and Parmesan. Afterwards, Prosciutto and mozzarella. That became a routine. From that point on, you learn pasta will be a part of your life!
It’s how we learned, we were taught by being shown. I was interested in lots of the things, I started reading books about diet, saturated and unsaturated fats. It varies by riders, though.
It’s true, some teams or sports directors really push it. When you are young, they come up, pinch your body and say something like, ‘Oh, so you didn’t touch your bike last week?’
Matt Lloyd – I’ve never been pushed to diet by anyone. I think through training & racing at the highest level means you’ll naturally become lean. I don’t care what other people say, as long as I’m healthy and happy.
Alan McCubbin: The motivations for cyclists to lose weight seem to come from a variety of places. Some athletes are very intrinsically motivated to do what it takes to succeed, others need some encouragement from coaches and fitness staff. The key here is the need to balance the message of body fat management with the need to optimise health and performance – but more on that a bit later.
Unfortunately I see some young athletes who are motivated by other factors – appearance, wanting to impress the opposite sex, peer pressure or a desire to emulate their sporting heroes. This can be a particular concern in the teenage years when athletes are still growing, because they risk not adequately fuelling both their physical growth and their training. It’s also where the seeds can be sown for overly obsessive or disordered eating, which can be difficult to overcome later if it starts to affect health and performance.
Did you find the push to lose weight was more prevalent in some teams than in others? Or with some directors?
Pinotti – In general, the Italian teams focus more on diet. Abroad, it’s not that they are less attentive, but they don’t bother you as much about it. It’s part of tradition, maybe, because you eat better in Italy and there’s this culture.
Daniel Lloyd – No, but I think that was more due to the nature of the era I was in. I was in a few Belgian teams, where it doesn’t matter so much and an extra layer seemed to help for warmth. When I got to Cervélo… I know there were riders that the directors had a word with, but it was the worst thing they could say to them because they were already … striving to lose weight anyway. No one really did that to me because of my build and the way I looked.
Eisel – In Team Sky, for example, they don’t push it to the limit. They want to get the best out of you and offer you the best you can have, a chef at the camps and the best food. Having a permanent nutritionist and the ability to talk to him. That makes a difference. That’s different than a team sending you an e-mail telling you what to eat and your diet for the next three weeks.
The Italians just grew up like this, that’s how they are. They always say, don’t put on too much weight. Good sports directors nowadays though, know how to talk to their riders and how to programme the season. It’s much better than how it was before.
Matt Lloyd –I think some teams have different policies or with some directors/doctors have an aim to have lean athletes. However I’ve fortunately never been in a diet driven team.
Alan McCubbin: Culture clearly has a big influence on the attitudes towards diet, eating and weight management in cyclists. It’s often said that the Italians in particular focus strongly on weight management, whereas perhaps this is less of a focus in other parts of the world. But the underlying attitudes and beliefs of individual team managers and coaches will no doubt have an effect with the melting pot of nationalities in teams nowadays.
Here in Australia I’ve also seen a great variation in the attitudes and beliefs of coaches and team managers to weight management. Some assume that the lighter a cyclist is the faster they’ll ride, whilst others are more concerned with overall performance and focus on other areas to find marginal gains.
DIET, WEIGHT, HEALTH AND PERFORMANCE
How did you cope physically and mentally when training while dieting?
Pinotti – Yeah, because you are training you are consuming a lot more energy and able to eat a lot more at the table. It’s not so bad for me, because I usually don’t do anything drastic. I try to cut 400 to 600cal a day, out of 3500 to 4000 a day, that’s something I can sustain. Sometimes, it’s hard to maintain the work you need to do because the muscles don’t have their fuel or you lack energy for that last 30 minutes of training.
Daniel Lloyd – Not from pushing too hard. Sometimes you try to do everything 100 per cent, diet, training, resting and everything else. I could do it for four weeks, then I’d get to a point where I’d really want a chocolate or a beer, or something. Then you’d go overboard because you didn’t have it for so long. I started to learn that it didn’t matter if I had the odd beer or some cake, because it’d just keep me going in the right direction instead of pushing me off the rails.
Matt Lloyd – I eat when I want, so I’m never feeling like I’d be selling myself short in training or races. I try and eat whenever I can, considering I’m one of the few road cyclists who try to gain weight.
Alan McCubbin: These comments raise some great points about both the physical and mental aspects of restricting your calories to reduce body fat. We know that the body requires a certain amount of energy ( around 30-40 calories per kilogram of fat free body mass) to sustain its normal vital functions. If the amount of energy available to fuel these functions (once exercise has already been accounted for) is less than this then hormonal changes occur that begin to down-regulate the reproductive and immune systems, which has knock-on effects on bone health. I described these in more detail in last year’s article.
Have you struggled with illness or injury that you attribute to dieting?
Pinotti – Maybe ahead of the 2010 Worlds when I got sick in Great Britain. I don’t think it was all due to dieting, but to a wide-range of things. Maybe I was paying from the amount of hard work I’d done beforehand, the wet weather in Great Britain… It’s not [just] attributed to the diet, but to the work I did beforehand and the weather – I was more vulnerable.
Daniel Lloyd – Sometimes. I lost weight in the last couple of years of my career, I was down to 68 or 69kg, but the majority of my career I was about 70. At the time I was down to 5% (body fat), I went to the Tour of Colorado and felt really good. I returned to the Tour of Britain was going well due to the altitude from Colorado. I think it depends on how quickly you lose the weight. It’s like training, if you suddenly increase the load, it’s more likely you are going to come down with something or get injured.
Matt Lloyd – No
Do you feel that your weight loss ever went too far?
Pinotti – Maybe in my first year as a pro, towards the end of the season, I was a few kilograms under what I’ve found to be my ideal weight. I was having trouble. Sure I was 5kg less, but it’s not as if I was going that much [better]. With the years, I’ve learned. I have a climb I do, I’ve seen my best times and at what weight, so know what’s ideal.
Eisel – Yes. You start losing power, especially when you start to lose weight in the last moment. You need to learn over the years what you need. For me, it’s better to have that kilo more at the start of a Grand Tour.
In the classics, doing over 200k, you can notice the lack of power [if you’ve lost too much weight]. You’re tired. Then you need to start analysing. Did I train too much? Was I too skinny? Was I too fat? It’s an extra motivation for some riders to be on race weight, it’s an extra drive for them.
Matt Lloyd – Yeah, I’ve lost power through being too light. It’s extremely dangerous while going down mountains.
Alan McCubbin: The loss of power is a really interesting observation. As Bernie Eisel mentioned, in the classics raw power is likely to make much more of a difference than an amazing power-to-weight ratio that focuses on the weight aspect at the expensive of total power. The effect of weight loss on cycling performance on the flat is actually quite small – modelling by body composition gurus Kevin Norton and Tim Olds from Adelaide showed that a 1kg body fat loss only improved 40km TT performance by 0.2% (less than 6 seconds if the baseline TT took 48 minutes). This small saving is likely due to tiny reductions in aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance.
What do you know about the health and performance consequences of restrictive dieting?
Matt Lloyd – I think the body needs to gradually become bigger or smaller. In most cases it depends on planning training & races to reach the correct balance. I have seen alot of athletes angry due to their diets. I’m happy because it’s not a situation I have had to deal with.
PERIODISATION OF DIET AND WEIGHT MANAGEMENT
When in the season do you usually target weight loss?
Daniel Lloyd – My ethos was that during the winter you should do all you can in terms of training, but in terms of diet and drinking a bit here and there, I’d let myself do that because there’s been periods in my early career when I tried to do everything absolutely 100 per cent and I’d be able to do it for a month, but then I’d just completely crack and go the other way and not want to see my bike.
Eisel – There’s different weights. In the classics, I’d try to be skinny, but I realised over the years that if I was, I wouldn’t have the power. Being super skinny in the classics does not make you go faster, especially when it’s freezing every day. The best way is for me to keep a certain weight all year, staying between two or three kilos and not going up and down eight kilos, you never have to do a real diet.
Matt Lloyd – I try and gain weight, not lose it.
Alan McCubbin: Obviously different riders have different schedules, different goals and different needs. I recently wrote about the periodisation of diet to match different stages of training throughout the season (link). I suggested that a particular focus on body fat loss may be easier to achieve in the early, base phase of training. The difference between this and Daniel Lloyd’s suggestion probably relates to the amount of body fat to be lost. The PRO’s are usually only talking about 2-3kg either way, so for them this can be achieved later on in the season without compromising training adaptations and performance (provided they don’ try and lose all the weight in the week before a key race). But for other cyclists the amount of body fat to lose might be more like 5-10kg, and this is where a focused period during the base phase of training will likely pay dividends. The large and prolonged energy deficit required to achieve this during a block of high intensity training can be difficult to achieve, whilst still maintaining the quality of the sessions.
What’s your diet like in the winter?
Pinotti – I eat everything, really: meat and fish, pasta and rice. In general, in this period, the percent of fat that I eat is higher than other times of the year because… May I need 2500cal, but in the season it’s 4500 and those 2000 are carbohydrates, so for sure the percent goes down.
Eating too much, ever had that feeling?
Pinotti – Always when the season ends, there are those days, for about a week, when I’m eating more than I need to. There’s an offset, a delay from when you stop high-level activities every day to when your body realises it.
Daniel Lloyd – I didn’t have to tell myself, but I’d [come to a point where I wasn’t hungry]. There’s a time when you are training and racing hard when you can pretty much eat what you want, you never get that feeling where you are completely full. After a week of not doing very much, I’d … not really have much for dinner.
I remember when I was training and racing a lot, all I’d think about was sugar, whether that’s chocolate, cake, sweets, whatever that’d be. When I stopped, all I wanted was savory stuff, toast and butter, pasta and bagels and crisps. I was watching my diet, though, and my wife would [help].
I remember, when I was training I’d eat chocolate bars in one go! I remember, when my wife would buy chocolate I’d be very annoyed because there’d be a day she wasn’t home and [I’d take it] from the cupboards even if I wasn’t hungry.
TAKE HOME MESSAGES
For me there’s a four key messages that come through in these interviews:
• Weight for cycling is not all about lighter = faster, it’s about finding the optimal balance of power and weight for the type of cyclist you are, the types of races you race and the goals you set. A fantastic power-to-weight ratio not necessarily helpful in flatter races where total power (regardless of weight) makes the difference
• Weight loss for cyclists should not be rapid or extreme – overly restrictive dieting (especially during large volumes of training) affects health, performance and can lead to a rebound due to overeating – even the PRO’s are not immune from the same cultures and attitudes about food and eating we all share
• Different cultures, coaches and managers have different attitudes to weight and diet. Therefore your exposure to either helpful and harmful environments around weight and nutrition will depend on the team around you. If you’re not sure or don’t agree with the direction you’re being pushed in, seek a second opinion or advice from a sports doctor, sports scientist or sports dietitian who specialises in working with cyclists.
• The emphasis of training and racing varies throughout the season, and so your eating should also vary to suit your goals and what you’re doing at that time.