To maximise your workout on two wheels, you’ll need to make sustainable changes both on and off the bike.
By Annie Hayes
Considering cycling for weight loss? No matter whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned rider, it’s entirely possible to get leaner in lycra. Cycling is a moderate-intensity exercise that burns hundreds of calories an hour while being gentle on your joints, so it’s ideal for shedding your spare tyre.
With that said, cycling for weight loss is no walk in the park. If you’re serious about maximising the benefits of your workout on two wheels, it’s not just about making your time in the saddle count – though we’ll share advice on that, too – you’ll also need to make sustainable changes both on and off the bike.
- Track yourself
Not only is tracking your progress a useful motivational tool – especially on tougher training days – but it’ll also provide you with valuable insights to maximise your rides. Of the many trackable metrics available, it’s most important to keep track of your distance, speed, elevation and heart rate, says Tyler.
‘An accurate heart rate chest strap will give you a good indication of how many calories you are burning,’ he says. ‘Tracking your distance and speed can tell you how far and fast you’re going. You may think you are going fast or pushing hard, but without the data, you won’t know. As your fitness improves, your heart rate will lower at a given speed, so over time you must increase the speed or length of cycles to burn the same amount of calories.’
- Increase the intensity
When you’re cycling for weight loss, intensity matters. ‘Look to push yourself harder, both in terms of duration and the speed you are pedalling,’ says Williams. ‘You should also look into increasing the incline of your rides by choosing routes that involve traveling uphill. A combination of these factors will see much greater progress toward your weight loss goal.’
You won’t just burn more calories – you’ll boost your metabolism, too. ‘When riding at a higher intensity, you dip into your anaerobic energy stores, which need to be replenished during rest,’ she adds. ‘This increases the number of calories you burn during rest and turns your body into a calorie-burning machine round the clock.’
Don’t underestimate the importance of regularly incorporating long, slow rides into your workout regimen.
- Mix up your regimen
Upping the intensity needn’t mean emptying the tank during every session. If you’re finishing every ride feeling completely and utterly drained, you’re pushing too hard – and it won’t make you leaner or faster. Going all-out triggers the release of cortisol, the stress hormone – this is fine in short bursts, but when your levels are constantly elevated, it signals your body to store fat around your belly.
Don’t underestimate the importance of regularly incorporating long, slow rides into your workout regimen. ‘Vary your rides from gentle longer cycles, to short and sharp intense blasts,’ says Tyler. ‘The gentle rides won’t be too taxing on your body so you will be able to do them more frequently, the intense rides will burn calories much faster, but be more difficult to recover from.’
- Include HIIT
To maximise your weight loss efforts, incorporate one or two HIIT-style workouts every week. ‘HIIT entails short bursts of intense exercise alternated with intervals of low-intensity exercise,’ says Williams. ‘You want to be between 70 and 90 per cent of your heart rate for the majority of the session outside of the low-intensity intervals.’
Your workout might look like this:
- Cycle as fast as you possibly can against high resistance for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Follow with between two to three minutes of a gentle cycle at a low resistance.
- Repeat this structure for 20 to 40 minutes.
Short on time? Try tagging a HIIT session onto the end of a moderate ride, Williams suggests, to reap the fat-burning benefits. ‘HIIT workouts can help you burn more calories at a much quicker pace, as well as improve your cardio fitness, decrease body fat and, again, encourage higher calorie burn when rested,’ she says.
- Ride in the morning
If you can, go for a spin first thing. ‘It’s very easy to let the day get away with you,’ says Tyler. ‘I would advise waking up, having a coffee and getting straight out for even 30 minutes. The fresh air and exercise will set you up for the day, and soon the waking up earlier will become natural and easier.’
And if you do ride in the morning, go before breakfast. Known as ‘fasted cardio’, exercising on an empty stomach can help you burn up to 20 per cent more body fat, according to Northumbria University. ‘You’ll have enough glycogen in your muscles to sustain around two hours of fairly intense exercise,’ Tyler adds.
- Integrate cross-training
Cycling is excellent for working your lower body, but a solid weight loss regimen requires a total-body approach. Including non-cycling workouts will boost your mobility and flexibility ‘to stretch out stiff muscles and tendons and reduce the risks of any aches, pains and potential injuries,’ says Williams. Plus, it’ll keep your training interesting.
‘Pilates, free weights and swimming are all ideal for cross-training, each of which encourage a stronger core which will in turn benefit your cycling performance, as well as assist in building muscle which directly impacts your body being more efficient in burning calories,’ she adds. ‘Pilates also offers a great aid for improving flexibility.’
- You need a calorie deficit
Ultimately, the effectiveness of cycling for weight loss boils down to energy balance – calories in versus calories out. ‘To lose weight, you must be in a calorie deficit,’ says Tyler. ‘This means you are burning more calories than you are consuming. Increasing your exercise levels while reducing your food intake is a highly effective way of doing so.’
You don’t necessarily need to count calories to hit a calorie deficit. ‘Be wary of calorie-dense items in your kitchen,’ he adds. ‘A few drizzles of oil on your food can have more calories than a couple of chocolate bars. Watch out for condiments, too – try swapping out mayonnaise for light mayo, ketchup for reduced sugar. These little tricks reduce the amount of calories you consume, not the volume of food you are eating.’
- Skip the pastry
If you’re the type of person who likes to ‘reward’ themselves after completing a long ride, this tip is for you. ‘If you want to lose weight, skip the post-ride pastry,’ says Tyler.
Having a good source of protein post-ride will give your muscles what they need to recover and will keep you fuller for longer.
‘You may only burn a few hundred calories on a gentle ride, and that pastry and cappuccino could be well over 500 calories. Having a good source of protein post-ride will give your muscles what they need to recover and will keep you fuller for longer, too.’
- Focus on protein, fruit and veggies
When you’re cycling for weight loss, consuming the ‘right’ foods is just as important as avoiding the ‘wrong’ foods, Williams adds, so build your diet around nutritionally-dense, lower-calorie options – for example, lean proteins like chicken, fish, beans and pulses. ‘These also offer assistance in the recovery process after exercise,’ she says.
‘Additionally, you should opt for plenty of fruit and veg. Whole grain carbohydrates or those with a low glycaemic index – such as rolled oats or sweet potato – are a great source of carbs, which is essential for energy. You should also consume an appropriate amount of healthy fats, such as nuts and seeds, fatty fish, and avocado.’
- Drink lots of water
To perform at the peak of your potential, hydration is key – especially if you’re heading out for a long ride. Plan ahead so you know where you can stop for refills along the way. In the summer heat, you could even add an electrolyte powder to replenish what you lose through sweat. ‘Water is obviously essential, especially when it is hot out and you sweat a lot,’ says Tyler. ‘But it can help fill your stomach and reduce the amount of calories you consume.’
- Avoid overtraining
When weight loss is your goal, ‘it’s tempting to go all in, training five-plus times a week, cutting out practically everything you enjoy in your diet and generally pushing your body to the point of exhaustion,’ says Williams. But it’s not healthy, sustainable, or effective, ‘and will likely see you revert back to old habits in no time’.
When you push your body beyond its limits, Williams adds, you risk totally exhausting yourself, or worse – ‘injuring yourself and putting yourself out of action,’ she says. ‘You want to burn calories and work up a sweat, not push your body to injury or complete shut down. This also relies heavily on your diet and what you are feeding your body.’
- Fuel your workouts
Resist the temptation to severely restrict your calorie intake. When you under-eat drastically, your body burns through muscle tissue as well as stored carbs and fats. This has a detrimental effect on your metabolism that lingers long after you resume your usual eating patterns.
In order to perform exercise effectively, your body needs fuel – similarly to how a bonfire needs logs to burn.
‘In order to perform exercise effectively, your body needs fuel – similarly to how a bonfire needs logs to burn,’ says Williams. ‘Think of your metabolism like a bonfire. You need to keep feeding it appropriately in order to maintain its burning process.’
- Cycle everywhere
You needn’t just cycle to work out – consider adding short journeys to your day-to-day life. ‘When you’re not specifically training, can you use the bike elsewhere?,’ says Tyler. ‘If you need to pop to the shops to pick up only a couple of essential items, how difficult would it be to cycle? If you only live ten minutes away, don’t drive, take your bike! You’ll burn calories, get some fresh air, reduce your emissions and save money on petrol.’ And if two wheels are your primary mode of transport? Try taking longer or hillier routes from A to B.
- Buddy up
Don’t go it alone – buddy up to bolster your drive and keep your goals tracking. ‘A group, friend or instructor can help motivation and accountability massively,’ says Tyler. ‘It’s very easy to give up on a training session on your own, or even not bother. But if you promised a friend or have a session with an instructor, then your chances of cancelling will be much lower.’
- Have fun
It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the process. This might mean taking local scenic routes or trails, joining an online cycling community, tackling virtual rides on an indoor bike, or enlisting an audio instructor. Remember to be patient with yourself, too – the fitter you become, the more energy you’ll have, and the easier and more natural cycling will feel.