Nutrition: Lose weight the Tour de France way

Pick up some tips from the pro peloton

Over the past few years we’ve seen pro cyclists in the Tour de France making significant changes to their body composition, resulting in improvements in performance. 

Lance Armstrong is the obvious example, with Bradley Wiggins also making a well-publicised change this year.

During the 2009 Tour, Wiggins said: “Compared to the 2007 Tour, my weight loss means I’m carrying the equivalent of six bags of sugar less up a mountain. Shedding that weight is all that I can do to give myself the best chance on the climbs other than taking drugs, and I’m not going to do that.”

How do pro cyclists shed the pounds?

According to his book The Lance Armstrong Performance Programme, Armstrong would carefully count his calories, weighing food or estimating calories based on size.

He would also time his training sessions carefully, starting his long rides at 11am, riding through lunch (eating energy bars) before returning home at around 4pm for a main meal.

Wiggins, on the other hand, trained hard before breakfast to speed up his metabolism for the day. He also avoided gluten for two months, and abstained from alcohol completely. Both cyclists’ weight loss was gradual over a period of many months, never losing too much weight too quickly.

There were reports in the press that Wiggins had a body fat of four percent during the Tour and this would not be unusual for elite male cyclists. It could easily be imagined that others within the pro peloton have similar body compositions. 

Think about the consequences

In professional cycling, power-to-weight ratio is very important, especially for those who want to climb well and win a Grand Tour. Any excess weight such as body fat will only slow them down.

Excess muscle on their upper body will also make climbing harder. When the margins between winning and losing are so small at the elite level, pro riders have to look at every advantage.

However, while excess muscle on a cyclist’s upper body is dead weight, it’s vital in other sports. So, if you like to run, swim or play team sports as well as cycle, don’t lose weight by just losing muscle mass, or you’ll notice a decline in your performance. Similarly, if you lose too much body fat, your health will be affected.

Weight loss requires careful consideration and should not be done on a whim. Remember, elite athletes like Wiggins will work with some of the best sport scientists in the world to make these changes.

What can I do?

If you’re thinking of changing your  body composition ask yourself ‘is my body composition really stopping me from achieving my goals?’ If you’re overweight, this is probably a symptom of poor nutrition, so tackle  this before going on some fad diet.

For those who like to enjoy the off-season taking in a few beers and munching sweets, it’s likely your body fat will increase. A small increase in body fat is good and healthy during the autumn – after all, your body and mind need a rest. However, if you take it too far you’re going to have to get back in shape at some point. 

Large swings in body weight can have a negative impact. A more controlled approach to losing weight is a better idea. Decreasing calorie intake by 500 kcal per day can lead to losing 1lb in weight in just a week. Lose them from calorie-dense, nutrient-poor sources first, as follows:

  1. Alcohol
  2. Saturated fat
  3. Simple sugars
  4. Other fats
  5. Carbohydrates
  6. Protein

Done slowly, this will have less of an effect on your training. However, cut calories for too long and your training may begin to suffer.

Size Zero cyclistsPro riders who went from slim to slimmer

Jan Ullrich: “I have seen many lean riders in the peloton, but very few Tour winners,” he said in response to criticism of his winter weight. At race weight, he won the Tour de France in 1997, Vuelta e Espana in 1999 and Olympic time trial in 2000.

Lance Armstrong: Pre-1996 and Lance Armstrong was a double Tour de France stage winner and UCI world champion. Post-cancer and the stripped down Armstrong was overall winner of the Tour de France seven successive times.

Bradley Wiggins: Pre-2009 and despite world and Olympic pursuit titles, Wiggins had yet to trouble the overall leaders of a grand Tour. At the 2009 Tour de France,  a lightweight Wiggins was a different proposition in the mountains, finishing fourth overall.

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