Cycling’s Body Weight Obsession – How Light Is Right For You?

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– In this video, we’ll set out how you find your optimum cycling weight, and how you maintain it, but
in answering that question, we’ll also land on one of
cycling’s biggest issues, one that’s rarely talked about. So, you’re gonna hear from
an expert on this subject who will advise on how to
find your right weight, and we’ll also hear from a
rider who’s pushed it too far, but has fortunately
come out the other side. As cyclists, we want to be light. On a bike, light is generally fast, that much is basic physics,
and it’s because of this that cycling has become obsessed by it, both in terms of technology,
and also our own bodies. Seemingly, every cyclist
you speak to will say that they feel that they can lose weight. Now, that feeling might
be based partly on dreams of improved performance,
but probably also, a little bit about looks. There is nowhere to hide
in Lycra, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that we might feel the need to look a certain way. And so starts the obsession,
train more eat less, perhaps even skipping meals
altogether, or riding longer and harder, specifically
to burn off calories. It is all to easy to lose perspective. We lose track of what we really look like, why food can actually
make us fast and not slow, and why being light is
only a really small part of being a bike rider. Firstly though, leaving aside aesthetics, let’s look at the science,
why is weight so important? Well, power-to-weight is the
measure of cycling performance. Put out more power and be lighter and you’ve got the secret of
success, a simple physics. On a flat road, your
frontal area holds you back by generating aerodynamic drag, but as soon as the gradient begins to tip, your weight begins to
impact on your speed. So, carrying less weight up
hills means you ride faster. Carrying more weight
means you need to put out more power to go the same speed. Now unfortunately, we all have a limit as to how much power we can produce, no matter how much we train,
but with weight loss though, well how do you know where the limit is? Most of us have no
idea, and that’s perhaps where the problem lies. Ben King of Team Dimension
Data is a double-stage winner of the Vuelta a Espana,
and about to go into his ninth season as a World
Tour pro, but as a young rider, he developed an eating disorder
as a result of his pursuit of increasing performance
and decreasing weight. I’m wondering whether you’d
be happy just to sort of talk us through the
situation, how that came about and what the issues
were that arose from it. – Yeah, for sure, and I
really appreciate you guys giving this the attention
that I think it deserves, in cycling and endurance
sports in general, because I think it’s not something that’s talked about often,
but it is a big issue. I think it’s seen as sort
of a women’s disease, and something that’s all about body image, and people comparing
themselves to fashion magazines and everything like
that, but then, I think there are these young
cyclists, and I was a case of kinda comparing myself to body images of the Chris Froomes
and the Michael Rasmussens and guys like that, but
I was watching on TV and looking how skinny they
were, so yeah, I think it’s definitely something that
deserves some attention. When I was a junior cyclist, then pretty dominant on the local scene and raced for a Hot Tubes
Developmental Cycling team, a junior team that got to race in Europe, and really an incredible
organization, incredible support, took us to Europe, and
because we’d been so dominant in the States, we thought we
were gonna go over to Europe and just kick butt, and I just remember never having suffered so much
just to finish races that, in the past, I was just
winning easily, or at least in the mix and then went
over there and realized, oh wait a second, like,
either I don’t train as hard as these guys or I’m not
as talented as these guys, and I think it’s kind of
a combination of both. I came home and was like,
“Wow, what just hit me?” and determined that I needed
to make up the difference over the winter in my training. In high school, (sighing) I
was running cross-country, and then in the winter
I was on the swim team and the indoor track team,
and I worked that out with the coaches because
swim practice started at nine o’clock, whereas track practice was right after school, so
I never missed a practice unless I had a meet for one or the other. I was taking a weight lifting
independent study credit, so around lunchtime, I was in the gym, and then as we approached
the spring cycling season, I was setting my alarm for 6 a.m. and waking up to ride a
trainer before school. – Wow.
– So, I was working out four times a day, and got
to the point where I was really kind of abusing my body. I wanted to do everything I could to be as good as I could be,
and I’m still kind of leaned toward the mindset
whereas I feel like if I’m not tired all
the time, then I’m not trying hard enough, which is a lie, and it’s something that I
have to be conscious of. But, I felt like if I had any
little bit of energy left, I needed to put that into my training, but it got to the point where, (sighing) and my dad, he was coaching me
at the time, and he knew it. He saw very clearly that
I was over-training, and he used to hide my cycling shoes so that I would wake up in
the morning and I’d go down to ride a trainer, and I
couldn’t find my cycling shoes ’cause he was like, “You’re
over-training, don’t do it, “don’t do it,” and I would
go and do it anyways, but once I got to the point where I knew I couldn’t train anymore,
it’s power-to-weight, so I thought, okay, well
the only thing I can do now is to lose weight, and
I was very, very thin. I had muscles from swimming and lifting, but I was also a junior, and I don’t, it’s certainly not healthy for
a junior to compare himself to a 35-year-old World
Tour cyclist’s body image. I would come back from these
epic kind of training days and sit down to do my
homework, and around the time dinner came by, I was starving,
and would just pretty much binge eat, and then I would
have to go to swim practice, and I found myself kinda
regurgitating in the pool, and that was not a nice
feeling, and one day, I knew I had overeaten
before practice and that, so I made myself throw up,
and it was an extremely shameful feeling, made me aware that every time I felt like I’d
overeaten, I could just erase it, which also wasn’t true,
and so I developed a habit over a few months of, even at
times when I hadn’t overeaten, I was making myself throw
up and I was basically starving myself on top
of all of that training that I was doing.
– That’s a monumental amount of training for anyone,
I think, and particularly for a teenager.
– Mm-hmm. – Your mindset at the time,
were you thinking that those training sessions were
gonna be beneficial, or had you sort of lost track
of how you might be benefiting from those training sessions?
– I had lost track of what was actually
beneficial because, clearly, what would’ve benefited me
was to take a few days off, but (sighing) it’s a
really difficult balance of when you should push through fatigue and when you need to
give your body the rest that it needs in order to recover. So, I think for young
athletes, coaches, and mentors, and my dad was that
person in my life that, he’d get to sit down at the
dinner table, look at my eyes, and say, like, you’re over-training, tomorrow you take a day off,
and this is the same guy who, we’d be out on motor pacing sessions and I’d be doubled over
on the side of the road, and he’d say, like, get
back on, we’ve got another 30 minutes to do, so he knew
me better than I knew myself, I think, and he could
tell me when was the time to push through and when was
the time to respect my body and to take rests, so I
think it’s really important for athletes of any level
to have those people in their lives that can say,
now you need to take a break, hang up your bike for three or four days. It’s not gonna hurt you. – It’s clearly a really
complex issue, then. Perhaps, it’s impossible
to separate weight loss from performance and training. The question is, though,
how do we get it right? What is your optimal weight? Well, we’re turning to Renee McGregor who is a sports and eating
disorder specialist dietician. So firstly, how would
a cyclist actually find that optimum weight?
– That’s a really good question, and I think, I
suppose the first thing to say is that most people have,
are probably already at that kind of lower end of normal. If you do regular
training, you cycle a lot, you do endurance training,
you probably find that you’re already where your
body is most comfortable at. If you’re new to it, perhaps
you’ve taken up cycling because it is a way of wanting
to lose a bit of weight, but its’ also something you
enjoy, then you may find that initially you do notice some
changes in your body weight, and so if you’ve been
carrying a few extra pounds, you’ll probably find you do drop that. So, to answer your question
about how do you find the optimal weight of
performance, is a lot of trial and error, and when I
work with professional athletes, it is a really, really fine
line between them being light enough to perform
well, and then too light, where they start to actually
have negative consequences, and a lot of that is around, kind of, looking at their body type. There’s no magic formula,
like, there’s no kind of magic equation to go,
right, if you do this and subtract that and add this, you’re gonna get to an optimal weight. It is a case of trial
and error in terms of actually looking at the numbers, so looking at your performance tests and finding out are they improving, are they not improving,
what have you noticed? It’s about being consistent
as well in your performance, so consistence in your training,
and that’s something that I don’t think a lot of
cyclists, or even athletes, generally take on board that
you need to be able to be consistent every single day to see adaptation and progression. That means you actually
need to fuel your body appropriately, not always be cutting back, so I do tend to use a mixture
when I’m working with people, a mixture of what their BMI
is, and I know people will go BMI, there’s no science behind it. There’s a lot of science
behind BMI, and particularly when you work with people
who are on the very low end, you can definitely get some
ideas of when they’re going too low, so at the moment,
the general guidelines, 18.5 to 25 is being that
kind of normal range. If I see anybody drop
below 18.5, I get twitchy, I’m not gonna lie, but
then also at the same time, I would look at biomarkers,
so I’d be looking at particular hormonal
aspects, thyroid function, inflammation markers,
so you can start to see what is going on within the
body, and alongside that, you’d also look at body fat percentage, so we’ve gotta remember
that weight’s just a number. It’s not really telling us
what the body composition of an individual is, so
that’s also quite critical. – Most of us, I guess, don’t
have access, or perhaps even the desire to get that
support team behind us, the professional team, and so
what should we be aware of? What are the, sort of, the
risk signs that perhaps things are not going
in the right direction, whether that’s from a
performance perspective or whether it’s perhaps
a mental perspective? – So, that’s a really
good point to bring up. Annoyingly, often when
people do initially lose a little bit of weight, they
may find their performance improves a bit, and that’s
where we get into trouble because people think, oh, I lost two kilos and I had the best
performance I’ve ever had. Maybe if I lose more,
I’ll be even quicker, or I’ll be even better,
and this is where it can kind of spiral out of control, I guess. So, performance is not always the best indicator to look at, initially. What you will find is that you can’t maintain that performance. You may get two adequate
results, and then you’ll start to notice that your performance declines, but some of the things
that you will notice, sort of physically and mentally, will be, like physically, you
may start to find that you can’t concentrate very well, you may find you’re a bit more irritable, you might find that
your sleep is affected. You may find that, actually,
you don’t really wanna hang out with people, you
actually become quite withdrawn and you could become very,
very obsessive about numbers. One big sign is often
that people can become quite evangelistic about their
training and their nutrition, so they’re really focused
about macros and numbers, and am I doing it correctly,
and they never wanna deviate. So like, I eat really
well, I like good food, but if my friend rang me
up this evening and said, do you fancy a pizza and a glass of wine, I’m not gonna say no. I’m not gonna deviate
from my healthy eating, but a lot of people can’t do that. They become very fixed that
something awful will happen, so it almost creates an
anxiety, a heightened anxiety, and that’s the other
thing you might notice that actually start to
physically feel quite anxious, like something awful’s
gonna happen all the time, and there’s a lot of
evidence and a lot of science around there that actually
demonstrates that actually one way to numb that
anxiety is actually training and restrictive eating, so what happens is you almost have this
self-perpetuating cycle. Every time you feel
anxious and uncomfortable, you go out and train because
it does momentarily fix it, and then you stop, and
then you get anxious again, and so you can get into this
kind of over-training mode. – And so, what then, if anyone watching is recognizing themselves in some of those classic warning signs that
you’ve just been talking about, what can they do to
try and stop themselves going down this sort of cycle? – So, there’s a lot more
emerging now, I mean, this has become a problem, a
widespread problem that we’re starting to become aware
of in the world of sport. I mean, I’ve been working in
it for several years anyway, but I think there are more and more people becoming aware of it,
and there’s a lot more coach education going on. One of the things that
I’ve been working on is I’ve been involved in
an advisory group board, in an advisory group, where we’ve created the Health for Performance website, which is a really, really useful resource. I really recommend people
go and check that out because we’ve done pages
for health professionals, individuals, parents, carers,
so there’s kind of like, a kind of friendly version
for wherever you are, and it helps you to identify
symptoms, and then it also gives you someone posting
to what you should do next, and there’s a lot of
resources on there as well. There’s a lot of kind of
books and presentations, and also kind of access to practitioners that are specialists in this field. – We’ve talked a lot about performance, but there is this very
aesthetic side to cycling. We have to wear Lycra, and
that’s not very forgiving, and we’re bombarded of images
of professional athletes, looking as professional athletes do. I mean, not everyone, I
assume, can get ripped, can get that physique, and
so is there a reason why certain people will carry
fat in certain areas, like why you can’t necessarily
get chiseled calf muscles, or whatever?
– I do think we are a society obsessed
with visual images. I think social media hasn’t helped that, and so we find ourselves
constantly comparing ourselves to what we believe are ideals,
but I’m also a big believer in the fact that we’re all unique, we all have our own genetic makeup, so there’s no real ideal
for every single person because every single person on
this planet is so different. So yes, we have these
professionals that area very sleek, and lean, and may look the perfect part. You’ve gotta also remember, they are also a very, very, very small
minority of our population. They’re, what I would call, outliers, and probably their body
can achieve those extremes. They do put themselves under an awful lot of physical and psychological
stress to get to that point. I think it’s really important
for people to understand that. It’s not just a natural
physique for a lot of them. They may have the kind of raw
material but it’s not natural. I’ve worked with younger cyclists who were sort of 18 to 20, and
they had been told to kind of get a body fat percentage
of X, and that can be quite difficult for some
of them because, naturally, their body is not gonna go there, and it can leave a real
kind of legacy in them that, well I’m not good enough
because I’m not reaching what I’ve been told to, even
though they’re improving performing brilliantly,
they’re getting the results, they’re not working to their strengths. So, we’re not all ectomorphs. Some of us are more kind
of muscular, naturally. We need to use that to
our strength, so I guess a lot of the education I
do is around acceptance, and body acceptance, that
we can’t all be perfect. There is no perfect, we
can’t all look the same. When I look at a lot
of my friends and peers who are good runners, and I’d
put myself in that category, but I’m never gonna have the
legs that some of them have got because genetically
I’m not built that way, but it doesn’t mean I don’t perform well. You learn to work with your
strengths, and so yeah, some people are gonna hold
body fat in different places, and it’s about, kind of, an acceptance of, well this is as good as it’s gonna get. – I’ll be honest, I’d not
expected our conversation to go down that route,
but I’m glad that it did. I mean, yes, we all should know, at least, that we’re all different. Some people naturally carry more muscle, others might carry more
fat, others always just look super lean, but I don’t
think I’ve ever really considered the limits of weight loss in such stark terms before. Now it is your health and
happiness that’s on the line here, but even so, I think it’s still worth putting the performance side of things into perspective as well. We know that weight
affects our climbing speed, but actually how much of
an effect does it have? If you’re carrying a lot of extra weight, then it actually is quite significant. So, if you’re maybe 110
kilos, and you were to shift 20 kilos of fat, then on a 6% gradient, to ride at the same 12
kilometer per hour speed would actually require 50 watts less, so that’s a reduction of 20%. However, if you’re at the
other end of the spectrum and maybe you’re 71 kilos
and you’re battling to lose one last kilo, it’s just three watts. Yeah, three watts can sometimes matter, but not at the expense of
being able to ride your bike. By far, in a way, the most important part of being a successful
cyclist is robustness, so the ability to ride in all weathers, the ability to ride hard,
and the ability to recover, and that is something
that we should all try and not lose sight of.
– But, for a guy like me, especially, I need to be on
kind of a high level year round, and I need to find a
weight that I can maintain, whether it be competitive
or in support of a teammate, I need to be kind of a durable guy, and when you get that light,
you’re certainly less durable. You’re prone to illness and injury, and I used to fight to stay
just as light as possible and that usually ended
up being 67, 68 kilos, and now I’ve just held onto
70, 71, and since then, I’ve had the best results of my career, so I’m not fighting it as much. I’m more focused on power.
– In terms of body image, I completely sympathize with that, and I don’t think there
are any easy answers. I mean, eating disorders in the
wider context beyond cycling are becoming increasingly prevalent. 6% of people have, or have
had, an eating disorder at some time, and it’s a
figure that’s on the increase. So, if you feel that might be you, or you perhaps know someone who you feel could do with a bit of help, then there are resources out
there, and we’ll put some links in the description beneath
this video as well. So, I hope you feel this
has been of some benefit. It’s certainly been
thought-provoking for me. I’d like to thank Ben and Renee as well for their time and their honesty. In the meantime, if you wanna
see another video here at GCN where we’re looking into some
health implications of cycling then there is one onscreen now.

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