The Skinny on Climbing

Racers don’t expect to win hilly races carrying bricks or riding 33-pound bikes. Extra pounds are a huge disadvantage. Unless a weighted-down rider’s talent or training is far superior to that of the competitors, he would be dropped on any longer climb. Small differences in weight make large differences in race outcome. A difference of two pounds in the weight of bike and kit will make a difference of about two bike lengths for every minute of climb. On a one-minute climb two pounds makes the difference between being in the group and chasing over the top. With larger weight differences or longer climbs, the gaps grow proportionately. Riders often ask for exercises to make them better climbers, but the question which should come first is whether the rider is light enough to be a good climber even with excellent training. A majority of riders are overweight for climbing. Why is the disadvantage of excess weight so obvious when the weight is bricks or bike parts, but so difficult to grasp when the extra weight is muscle or fat?

There is no formula for ideal weight

Riders lighter or heavier than average can succeed. Graph #1 shows the heights and weights of some riders who have won the grand tours and major classics, or who have done well enough to be hired by top domestic professional teams. There is a range of weights for each height among these heroes, but the range is limited to about 15 pounds on either side of the average, and the riders who climb well are at the low end of the range while those whose successes have come on flatter courses are at the other. Until a few years ago lower category and masters riders could exceed the weight range of the pros by 5-10 pounds and still contend. In many districts in the U.S., racing has become enough more competitive and knowledge of training and nutrition have improved enough that this is no longer the case. Elite 3s, masters and women in most districts and Elite 4s in some have to be as light as the pros to compete. Success in climbing depends on the power-to-weight ratio. The power that matters is that which can be sustained for the length of the climb without leaving one too drained to be competitive in the remainder of the race. Power can be improved with training to some extent, but a rider who wants to do well in hilly races and is more than a few pounds heavier than the range for successful riders his or her height will benefit as much or more by losing weight than by training better. After all, the lighter riders are training well too. Riders who are lighter than the low end of the range may climb well, but will suffer on the flats and probably not sprint well. They should consider gaining weight to improve their racing. The vast majority of bike racers are over- rather than underweight for their goals, so the remainder of this article will focus on weight loss. The “off season” which we are now entering is the ideal time to pursue weight change goals.

Lean enough is not always light enough

There are several common misconceptions about nutrition and weight. One is the myth that “lean weight” and “ideal race weight” are the same. While there is an ideal body fat percentage for bike racers (typically 5-8% or a bit less for men and 12-15% for women), simply losing fat to arrive in this range is not going to make everyone light enough to climb well. As an extreme example, consider Arnold Schwarzenegger at the peak of his bodybuilding career. At 2% body fat he was still far too heavy to climb quickly. Some riders need to lose muscle as well as fat to reach competitive weight for hilly courses. What would you weigh in climbing shape? Could you get there by losing fat only? Find the range of weights for your height on graph #1. To climb well, you need to be in the lower half of the range. How much would you need to gain or lose to get there? If you know your body fat percentage, figure out how much you would weigh if you got into the recommended body fat percentage range. If you would still be heavy for climbing, you need to lose muscle mass to become competitive on climbs. Losing fat is a serious challenge. Losing muscle mass is difficult enough that I encourage muscular riders to consider other goals before starting.

Calories In – Calories Out, Not!

Another troublesome over-simplification is the idea that weight loss is a simple matter of “calories in and calories out”, that if one eats less and exercises more, one will lose weight. This is true on a day-by-day scale, but one can only lose significant weight by sticking to a plan for many weeks or even months. “Calories in – calories out” ignores the fact that different sorts of exercise draw on different fuel sources and so have different effects on appetite, recovery needs and weight loss. Harder exercise uses more calories per hour than milder exercise. According to the “calories in – calories out” theory harder exercise is therefore more effective for weight loss. As the exercise intensity approaches the lactate threshold however, a larger percentage of the calories expended will come from carbohydrate and a smaller percentage from fat. At the lactate threshold, fat metabolism essentially shuts down. While the carbohydrate and water used in one ride must be replaced before the next ride, fat weight lost can be truly lost. Because glycogen must be replaced between rides, exercise near or above lactate threshold does not support lasting weight loss. Additionally, glycogen depletion makes one hungry, increasing the challenge of decreasing the “calories in”. Fat depletion can also leave one hungry, but the effect is much weaker. There is an optimal “fat burning zone”, a crossing point where the higher calorie consumption that comes with exercise intensity has begun but the decreasing percentage of fuel calories from fat is still mild. For most experienced racers it will be at about 60-80% of maximum heart rate, coinciding with the range that is also optimal for developing aerobic fitness.

A Calorie Is a Calorie, Not!

The idea that the effect of a certain number of calories consumed on your energy and weight will be the same independent of the calorie source is false. Aside from the fact that some foods have more performance- and health-supporting vitamins, minerals and fiber than others, different calorie sources have different effects on recovery, energy, appetite and weight control. For example, one must eat carbohydrate to replace the carbohydrate used during exercise. Fat and several of the amino acids that make up proteins cannot be converted to glycogen at all. If you are already at your target weight, you really need to know the following about nutrition: get plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats (or vegetarian protein sources) for the fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, and get enough carbohydrate to replace what you use every day. There are some gains to be had with an understanding of the timing of ingestion of these foods. If you need to lose fat, there’s a whole world of additional information you’ll need to act on to achieve your goals.

Glycemic Index

Essentially all carbohydrates consumed have to be converted to a simple sugar called glucose before they can be used for fuel or stored as glycogen for later use. Most of this conversion occurs in the gut so that glucose is the form of carbohydrate absorbed into the blood and distributed around the body no matter what form is eaten. A major difference between carbohydrate sources is how rapidly they enter the blood. This difference can determine whether one gains or loses fat while maintaining the same total calorie consumption and the same ratio of calories from fat, protein and carbohydrate. In order for your body to function properly, the concentration of glucose in the blood has to stay in a narrow range. When you eat a meal that contains carbohydrates, glucose is absorbed into the blood. In order to keep the blood glucose concentration in the right range, a hormone called insulin signals fat and muscle tissues to take up glucose from the blood. The higher the blood sugar level rises, the higher the insulin level rises to drive more rapid glucose uptake. Foods that are quickly converted to glucose cause a larger spike in blood glucose concentration and so a larger spike in insulin. When insulin causes fat tissue to take up glucose, the glucose is converted to fat. When muscle tissue takes up glucose, it can be used for immediate energy or can be converted to glycogen and stored for later use. During and shortly after exercise, muscle tissue will take up glucose without prodding from insulin. If a resting rider eats carbohydrates that are only slowly converted to glucose (most fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lentils and beans), the majority of the glucose can be taken up by muscle tissue as it is released from the gut so that there is only a very small rise in blood glucose and insulin concentrations. Such carbohydrates are said to have a low glycemic index. If a resting rider eats carbohydrates that are rapidly converted to glucose (white breads, bananas, potatoes, white rice, sodas, candy, cakes, athletic energy foods, and cookies), there will be a strong insulin response, and much of the ingested carbohydrate will be converted to fat. Such high glycemic index carbohydrates will not be available to form glycogen or support recovery. Insulin also shuts down fat metabolism. During exercise, high glycemic index foods can provide carbohydrate needed for immediate energy, though large doses can also shut down fat metabolism, impairing performance and blocking weight loss. The reduction of fat metabolism lasts many hours after a high glycemic index meal, so contrary to popular belief, low to moderate glycemic index post-exercise foods actually support better recovery and next day performance than high glycemic index foods. Low and moderate glycemic index foods are also superior for pre-exercise feeding. The only time when high-glycemic index foods are the best choice is during exercise itself, and then only in moderate doses. The simple shift from high-glycemic index foods all the time to high-glycemic index foods only during exercise and low glycemic index foods at all other times combined with large volumes of training in the fat-burning zone has helped many riders who had seemed to be permanently over-fat to commence steady weight loss and eventually hit goal weight. Note:The upper limit of fat utilization in a rider doing 20 hours per week of training or less is about three pounds. It is not possible to entirely shut down the uptake of glucose by fat, so some amount of that fat weight will be replaced. That means that the limit of rate of weight loss as fat is about two pounds per week. It is not possible to lose weight more rapidly week after week without losing muscle weight and also without eating little enough carbohydrate to impair training. For most riders the maximum weekly weight loss without impairing training is closer to one pound. Take the number of pounds you intend to lose and figure that’s about the minimum number of weeks you’ll need to lose the weight. During the period of weight loss, you racing performance will be impaired, so if you have significant weight to lose, this is the time of year to get started, while we have several months of training before the next races. (If your focus is cyclocross, then the time to get started is after your season, in January.)

Losing Muscle

If you figured that you would be too heavy even when lean and you still want to pursue racing goals in the hills, you’ll need to lose muscle. To do this without impairing performance, you have to be careful to mostly lose muscle where it does not contribute to your racing (chest, arms and back) and less where it does (butt and legs). It is possible that you will actually need to lose butt or leg mass, especially if you have a long history of leg strength training with big weights. Muscle that does work will fight to maintain mass, so specifically losing unwanted muscle requires you to immobilize it as much as possible. Do no hard work and minimize other work done by the arms, chest and back while you lose the excess mass. Keep riding to use the muscles you want to keep. If you eat enough to maintain weight and don’t use certain muscles, they will be replaced by fat, so losing muscle also requires that you restrict total calories and reduce protein consumption slightly below the level required to maintain muscle. Go too far and you lose too much leg muscle though, so don’t cut out protein entirely. Somewhere close to one quarter gram of protein per day per pound of body weight that you want to maintain will work during the period of intentional muscle loss. Such protein restriction will definitely impair recovery between workouts, so this sort of weight loss has to be pursued early in the off season while training intensity in the gym and on the bike are still low.

Conclusions

For many riders hoping to be competitive in hilly races, simply improving training for hills will not be enough. Climbing speed is a question of power-to-weight ratio. Training can increase power but only so far. For the overweight majority of riders, loss of fat and perhaps muscle will also be required. Such weight loss is by no means a trivial endeavor but requires sustained modifications to habits of eating and exercise. For the lucky riders who need to lose only fat, a shift to a higher volume of endurance paced exercise and an emphasis on lower glycemic index foods while not exercising will be enough. For those who need to lose muscle weight, reduction of total calorie intake, protein intake and work done by the less needed muscles will also be required. By adopting and maintaining such habits over a period of several months, most riders can reshape their bodies to increase the chance of climbing well. Then if they have the talent and are training well, they will climb with the leaders of their fields.