Weight Management – what we can learn from Team Sky’s mantra of “Marginal Gains”

“If you want to lose weight, be prepared to be f***g hungry….” Shane Sutton, Team Sky D.S.

You don’t need to have ridden bikes for long to understand that power to weight ratio is a key element of performance. In fact even a small loss in weight can significantly improve a rider’s climbing ability. And it’s not just climbing ability that can be improved with less weight – accelerating out of a corner in a criterium will require less power if you weigh less.

While fad diets come and go, for athletes such as cyclists, the fundamental equation of calories in vs calories out remains true. This isn’t difficult to understand concept – i.e. you won’t lose weight for that big road race if you are eating more calories than you are expending.

But where to start? I’m a firm believer in knowing where a rider is now in terms of their current ability and capacity for work before I devise a training plan for them. It’s the same with nutrition and any need for weight loss. This can be done by performing a “Diet Audit” or similar where the rider keeps a diary of what they eat and drink for a few weeks to look for trends. Riders should also note down what they drink as well as what they eat as there are plenty of hidden calories in beverages such as sodas. It is important to record consumption in the diary as soon as possible as many people often forget what they eat and/or snack out of habit and don’t even realize they are doing it. For example, I work in an office and one of our Administrators bought in one of those candy dispensers, the type where you put your hand underneath it and it automatically dispenses 10-20 M&M’s. People walk past all the time and get a quick M&M fix. I can tell you it requires massive will power for me to not put my hand out the day after a big ride!


The offending candy dispenser, you can tell its not the one at work as its not empty

So, you’ve been keeping a diary and you know what you eat (hopefully not 100 M&M’s a day from the office dispenser). You’ve got a big race coming up in the next couple of months and it’s got a big climb in it, so you know weighing less than you do is going to be an advantage. How are you going to get down to that ideal climbing weight?

If you were in Team Sky, you might go speak to the team nutritionist who would give you a balanced calorie deficit diet correlated with your training so you can peek perfectly for that big race. Or you could adopt the Bjarnie Riis approach (as detailed by Tyler Hamilton in his book) of get up in the morning, skip breakfast, go for a big ride, come back, drink a glass of water and take a sleeping tablet so you won’t wake up till dinner time, and if you’re lucky you won’t wake up until the next morning! The first approach is fine if you are a professional or money is no object and the second approach I wouldn’t recommend at all!

But back in the real world, and assuming a significant weight loss program isn’t required, an adaptation of Team Sky’s mantra of “marginal gains”, (may be in this case “marginal losses”) may work without being too extreme. These small changes can fall into several categories:

1. Small adjustments and reductions in intake can contribute to helping loose those pounds without being too drastic. The most important point here is controlling portion sizes and making healthy choices. For example, chose less fatty meat such as steak rather than burgers; take grilled food rather than fried; choose a salad rather than fries; cut out snacks or choose healthy snack options in between meals; don’t take second servings and skip the dessert.
2. Watch what you drink: choose water over soda, beer or wine, take coffee and tea black or without or with skim milk rather than cream or half and half, cut juice with water. Drink green tea (a recent study found it has minor weight loss benefits – one cup boosts your fat burning by 5.7g).
3. Make your own meals: Eating out is nice but generally you won’t know how much fat or how many calories you are consuming by doing so. By making your own meals from the basic ingredients you can control your intake much better, plus it can be healthier too. Don’t try and cheat by buying readymade meals that you just need to heat up, they may be convenient but they often have high fat and salt content.

In addition to the above, three other key pieces of advice I believe in are:

  1. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Don’t skip breakfast, even if you plan to ride before you eat (which can be an effective weight loss strategy).
  2. Remember to eat while on the bike so you don’t want to eat everything in the house when you get home.
  3. Just like training, make a plan and stick to it.

Finally, measuring, recording and monitoring your results is essential in trying to meet your goal, otherwise how do you know what you are doing is working? A full body composition sensing monitor and scale for monitoring weight, body fat percentage etc can be bought fairly inexpensively these days, I’d recommend one. Weigh yourself at the same time of day, ideally when you get up and before you eat or drink anything so as to get as consistent a reading as possible. Likewise, keep track of the data using a spreadsheet or if you want something more sophisticated, something like Training Peaks software can give you all the analysis you need (and more).

Remember, eat sensibly and don’t try to lose too much weight too quickly as doing so can adversely affect your performance and potentially affect your health.


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