Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Weight Loss and Bike Strength

The hilly part of the season is on us, and like others, my weight is down. I haven't been this light since I had three months of what the village nurse called "the running tummy" in Africa; she also suggested that maybe I'd contracted HIV, since that was the pattern with the other men in the village who had lost the kind of weight I'd lost. Thankfully, I only had pneumonia, dysentary, and some kind of weird infection on my big toe from, I'm guessing, playing barefoot soccer in a cow pasture.

Last week my grandmother, who hadn't seen me in four years, told me I looked "thin as a whip." That's her way of saying, "get yourself checked for tapeworms, boy."

Take a look around you at your next race: cycling is a disease. Tim Rugg used to be eight feet tall and drink things other than his own piss. Here he is with Brown and bottled water, back before cycling took him:

I used to lift weights and prided myself on having a little meat on my bones. Not any more.

Sunday I tried to move a couch, confident I could muscle the thing into our apartment. Unfortunately, I couldn't, and I broke out into a fierce rage--a rage I assumed was about the absurdity of the exchange. That is, the new brown couch is nearly identical to the old brown couch, and I couldn't understand why I had been saddled with the suddenly hellish task of making the Sysiphean exchange. I was too weak to hoist the thing properly, and ended up breaking one of its pitiful wooden legs, and spent the afternoon gingerly throwing myself at it to get it through the door and shouting profanity. Then, there were the two hours spent fixing it, wondering: "why have a become a damned weakling?"

It wasn't about the couches. It was about my inability to toss shit about as a man should do. That night I was so angry I went to the gym and squatted it out (with a childishly small amount of weight), just to make myself feel better.

During the Tour, cyclists may lose over ten pounds--most of it lean body mass including muscle and bone. At the end of it, they look like famine victims.

Surprisingly, that weight loss is, on average, usually the result of only a daily 100-calorie deficit. In a study of energy intake and output from the 1988, researchers found that cyclists took in, on average, 6000 calories per day, while their average expenditure was nearly 6100 calories a day. They ingested 49% of their energy while riding. That's 94 grams of CHO per hour (think, 3/4 of a cup of pasta).

Take a look at Contador--his body is clearly thinnner than last year at this time. The effect of the Giro was not only to make him weary, but to simply eat away at his flesh, so much so that he could not return the lean mass to his ribs in time for the Giro.

Look at Contador's face at the start of the Giro:

Compare it with his face at the start of the Tour:

It seems he's much leaner. But for him this is probably not good; his weight loss could explain his current drop in form. His body has endured too much load and cannibalized too much lean mass. The extraordinary pop he had in the Giro is gone.

A truism I've heard on the powerlifting forums is that you "can't gain strength and lose weight at the same time." That's the problem with losing weight as a cyclist--you lose power, as Contador has done.

It is possible, however, to lose weight and maintain strength. In a 1990 study of high school wrestlers who lost weight over the course of a season, their arm strength did not decline significantly, even as they lost, on average, 4 pounds.

It's unclear how or why this happens: the study, for example, measured arm strength but not leg strength. Maybe wrestlers, as they lost weight, lost strength in their arms? Lance Armstrong used to come into the season 10-15 pounds over his ideal Tour weight. He'd cut the weight in May and June, maintaining the wattage he'd gained through training (and dope?).

Bodybuilders follow a similar pattern: build muscle/gain weight -> maintain muscle/lose weight.

The effect, for cyclist, may simply be to strip the parts of the body of cells not needed for propulsion--that is, everything but the legs and heart. The effect, in this case, is just of mere distribution of muscle. Or it could be an entire-body effect, in which case the weight loss is not localized.

In either case, the hilly season and the couch moving season should be two separate phases. No lifting till September.


Nick said...

what if you lose weight at a greater rate than you lose power?

or you just have a lot of excess to begin with and are trading small amounts of lean mass increase for larger amounts of fat decrease?

what if you are a systematic anomaly?

you'll notice i have been largely invisible all month. it's not by mistake.

Anonymous said...

Indeed the biggest challenge in pulling off a Giro/TdF double is recovering, not training too much, and eating enough to gain back some mass and allow the body to repair.

As for cyclists like us, the quest for being as light as possible is foolish. Unless you are doing long sustained climbing, you are better off doing strength and core training year around. A stronger, more efficient body will benefit the races us amateurs do. Power to weight rarely comes into play in any MABRA race. It is all about power and the proper application of it.

Calvini said...

@Nick: I should've asked you to move the couch! I think your strength on the bike is something of an anomaly; however, for you there's still an ideal weight and cycle of weight gain/loss that would help you peak. And that's probably something you'll figure out over time. I'm still trying to figure out mine.

@Anon: I think your point is especially true in the lower categories, where most races end in group sprints. Some of the best MABRA guys aren't stringbeans (Fader, Brown, DJ, Langley, Nima, Chip Hoover, Keck, McKinney and Frick). On the other hand, a lot of them are rail thin (Joe D., Gottlieb, Rugg, Nate Wilson).

Notice that they don't necessarily break down into neat categories by weight: Keck can climb, most can TT, and they can all be there in a sprint.

So while I agree with your point about power being primary in MABRA, I think weight does play a factor. Finding ideal weight is probably less of a factor than maximizing power, but I think, because it's still very important. Because weight and power move together as variables (like supply and demand) it becomes a complex thing to figure out.

BB said...

Uncle Pappy,

Your parallel to the sport of wrestling is a good one. Power to weigh ratio applies to both. In the sport of wrestling, the risk of dropping to the next lower weight category is that you will lose strength. Although, I think people react differently to weight loss. When I tried to lose weight to be more competitive at a lower weight I felt like you did trying to move the couch... I felt that I was much better off wrestling the higher weight class where I felt stronger and quicker. I also felt that by the end of the season those who were losing weight all season were ready to hang it up, when I was ready realize my goals. I think it is important to take a long term view and not yo-yo. If one can incorporate the proper diet to accomplish lean muscle mass into one's lifestyle I think that is the best way to go. A big difference between the sports is that a wrestling match lasts at most 7 minutes. So fast twitch muscle fibers are more important than slow twitch. I wonder how weight loss impacts the body's ability to sustain longer events vs shorter events??? I think different sports require tweaking the body differently and understanding how each body reacts to stimulus over time to find the right combination of training and diet for the individual. Within certain well understood parameters, I believe that there is a certain personality to optimal training that varies by individual.


Rollin' Polish said...

6000 calories taken and 6100 expended leads to more than a 100 calorie deficit considering the 1500-2000 calories required for basic metabolic function. If that number is correct then they are at a 2000cal/day deficit.

Cycling performance is not directly related to muscle mass, at least on the road. The energy systems used to propel a road rider primarily rely on different patterns of chemical reactions that trigger the release of lactic acid, ATP, and the uptake of red blood cells at a higher rate. In addition, being at that high of a deficit and racking up TSS for 3 weeks straight leads to severe deficiencies in hormones and the loss of muscle is primarily from being catabolic for so many days on end.

The old powerlifting myth you cited hasn't actually been followed for quite some time and depends a lot on build. I competed in powerlifting for 3 years and many of the elite lifters I knew put forth a lot of effort to make sure that they didn't creep over weight class limits. Only the heavies and super heavies really cared about losing absolute strength and it also depended on leverages and pharmaceuticals. Having a larger gut helps you bench more and gives you a more closed hip angle for squatting.

Wrestling matches are also quite a bit shorter than any non-track cycling effort and take a ton more muscular strength. Fast twitch fibers fatigue faster and often take longer to recover thus the fine caloric intake/deficit balance.

In regards to MABRA- are there any races with climbs over 8 minutes long? TTs are also fairly short and the type of often on/off patterns of crits and the surges of the rolling road races allows someone to have a much different LT p/w ratio and VAM than any pro cyclist. Most of the climbing-heavy races around here have lots of short anaerobic climbs, which comes down less to p/w ratio. Being at 150% of threshold vs. 165% for 2-3 minutes isn't that big of a difference and it then comes down to recovery between efforts and strategy. I think terrain contributes a lot to the close competition by riders of different styles. When I raced in Oregon there was the usual distinct body type pattern in racers because there were several races with 10+ minute climbs in them.

There's a lot of really long threads on the wattage forum about the subject and most of the coaches and riders agree that intelligent weightloss does not equal a loss in power. My personal best LT came at a bodyweight of 153, but I sit at 160-161 right now. My 1m and 5s power has not dropped since I started cycling and training with power and I've lost 90 lbs.