6 Reasons to Gain Weight to Ride Better
Dropping pounds isn’t the only—or necessarily the best—way to improve your power
Getting faster on a bike is a game of numbers: Riders who can produce the highest wattage per pound outperform their peers. But in the quest to improve that power to weight ratio, too many riders get fixated on the second half of the equation to the point of nearly neglecting the first half. Well, here are six reasons you may actually benefit from a bit more, rather than less, beef, to produce more power. (Still looking for advice on how to get fast? Check out Selene's book!)
When It's Better for Your Body
Your “magic” weight isn’t. Confession: This is one I have learned the hard way more than once. Like many cyclists, I had this “magic number” in my head of what my race weight should be. But when I started weighing myself regularly and tracking performance, a funny thing happened—I realized I consistently raced better, felt stronger, and had more chainless days at a weight that was about three pounds heavier than that magic number. (Heck, five days into a stage race, when I was seven pounds heavier than that magic number, I had one of my best days ever on a bike.)
Stored carbohydrates and fluids are critical fuel for hard efforts. You’ll blow through them on a long, hard day. You also need glycogen for recovery. If you live in fear of weight fluctuation and restrict calories to maintain your lowest weight at all costs, you may be missing out on being your best.
Want to know why you tend to gain weight while training for a century? Here are some answers:
You’re one sneeze away from sick. There’s a fine line between skinny and sickly. Unless you're naturally very lean, forcing your body fat into rock bottom territory can be a serious blow to your immune system. Body fat ranges for optimal health are 18 to 30 percent for women (who naturally have more fat) and 10 to 25 percent for men.
“You may find yourself below those ranges in the heart of race season, but when you push too far, too long into the lower ranges, the compromises to your immune system are great,” says Hunter Allen, founder of the Peaks Coaching Group and co-author of Training & Racing with a Power Meter.
You’re miserable. Your body needs carbohydrates—one of the first things many weight loss seekers cut—to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical that elevates your mood and helps suppress hunger. Your brain also needs fat to function. Keeping yourself in constant deprivation mode raises the stress hormone cortisol (which, ironically, encourages fat storage). If you’re chronically cranky, it’s time to put some whole grains and healthy fats back in your diet. Even if it means adding a pound or two, you’ll likely more than compensate for the marginal gain in the form of maximum happiness watts.
When It's Better for Your Riding
Sprints are your jam. After all, you don’t see too many skinny track cyclists. Sprinters aren’t at the mercy of gravity in their quest for success. They just need watts—lots and lots of watts. That means muscle, which means a few more pounds than their lightweight climbing kin. Even among elite professional racers, the top sprinters can come in more than 30 or 40 pounds heavier than top climbers of the same height.
Rocks and roots are your thing. Mountain biking is more of a full-body affair than road cycling, as you need strong upper back, biceps, triceps, and chest muscles to push, pull, and otherwise manipulate your bike up, over, and through the obstacles mother nature offers up. A little additional upper-body muscle may tip the scales a few ticks higher, but it’ll help you get down the singletrack smoother and faster.
Your hormones are in havoc. Women, if you’ve stopped getting your period (and are not pregnant), that’s known as amenorrhea and it’s a red flag that you are not nourishing yourself adequately, says physiologist and nutritionist Stacy Sims, PhD, author of ROAR. “This is especially common in women who go too low in carbohydrates,” she says.
Amenorrhea can set the stage for long-term health damage, so it’s important to address by feeding yourself enough to match your training. “You need 130 grams of carbohydrate or the equivalent of about 520 calories’ worth (the amount in one cup of pasta, one cup of beans, and a potato) for daily life; if you’re training you need more,” says Sims.
Men, you may not have the same obvious signals of hormonal distress, but endurance training combined with very low fat (in your diet and/or on your frame) can lower your testosterone, leading to fatigue and low libido. Pay attention to how you feel and be sure to fuel yourself adequately—especially when you’re riding lots—to maintain healthy hormone levels.
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