If you’re looking to get fitter, trimmer and lighter, not to mention healthier, then cycling is a great way to lose weight. It’s efficient, enjoyable, easy to slot into a busy day and, best of all, has emotional and mental benefits as well as physical ones. What’s not to like?
- How to lose belly fat by cycling
- 10 steps to becoming a fitter, faster, better cyclist
- 6 ways for cyclists to burn fat fast
In fact, we’ve found 30 reasons to love cycling, and if an activity is enjoyable, studies show you are much more likely to stick with it, which is hardly rocket science, but is a big plus when it comes to trying to shed some weight.
14 things you need to do if you want to lose weight by cycling
1. Set a realistic goal
You can choose a target weight using Body Mass Index, or BMI, as a guide. This is a based on a person’s height to weight ratio, and is used by many medical professionals, and is good for identifying a healthy target weight to aim for. Use an online tool such as the NHS BMI checker to identify a healthy weight for you.
BMI is far from perfect, but is a good guide to get you started.
An alternative is to aim for a target body fat percentage. A healthy man would have a body fat percentage of 15–18 percent and a woman of 25–32 percent. A man who trains and rides regularly can reach a body fat percentage of 8–10 percent and a woman training and riding regularly of 24–28 percent.
There are lots of weighing scales that will measure body fat percentage, so buying one could be a good investment
2. Aim for a rate of weight loss of up to 1kg per week
While it can be tempting to try and lose more, studies have shown that sudden and rapid weight loss is rarely maintained, with many people putting the weight back on and more.
Instead, think of this as a gradual process and a change of lifestyle. You don’t just want to lose the weight, you want to keep it off too.
"For most people if they have an hour a day, and they are happy doing an hour a day of exercise, then they can expect to lose a kilo a week," says Andy Wadsworth, a personal trainer and coach.
3. Ride at a moderate pace often
If you want to burn fat, you need to ride at a pace that gives you a heart-rate of between 68 and 79 percent of your max heart rate. This is something you can set up using a heart rate monitor and bike computer, such as Garmin.
If you don’t have these, you need to aim for a pace that leaves you out of breath but still able to maintain a conversation.
Most of your exercise should be at this level, which is good news because although it’s tiring, you won’t be finishing every ride completely drained.
Aim for around an hour a day.
4. Commute to work!
One of the brilliant things about cycling is that it’s also an efficient form of transport, so switching your commute to two wheels means you’ll be getting in a regular amount of exercise in time that you would have spent travelling anyway.
Commuting by bike can have a huge impact on weight loss. A recent study by the University of East Anglia and the Centre for Diet and Activity Research showed that people who switched to cycling from driving or public transport lost on average 7kg/1stone over the course of a year, when riding 30 minutes each way.
Cycling also helps improve your concentration, creativity and stress levels, so you’re also likely to be more productive when you get to work.
5. Add two or three high-intensity sessions a week
High-intensity sessions will help improve your cardiovascular fitness, making your body a more efficient calorie-burning machine. Either swap these for two or three of your regular rides or, if you feel up to it, add them on top or combine them by adding a high-intensity session at the end of a moderate ride.
For these efforts you’ll need to be riding to 70–90 percent of your heart rate for most of the session, or riding hard enough that you can’t hold a conversation. You don’t need to hold this pace for the whole session: interval training is very effective.
Wadsworth recommends adding this on top of your regular workouts. "Your body starts to work in an anaerobic mode, so your body has to repair itself after the exertion and burn fat that way, as well as increasing your aerobic capacity and muscle mass."
"The more muscle you have, the more fuel you'll need to keep it going, the more calories you'll burn," he continues.
If you don’t fancy doing this outside or the weather is bad, there’s always the spin class at your local gym. It won’t be as much fun as riding outside but it does mean you can get a good workout when it’s lashing rain.
6. Get plenty of sleep
Sleep is the unsung hero of weight loss. Studies have shown that people who get six to eight hours of sleep a night are much more successful at losing weight and keeping it off, and also tend to be less stressed.
Research has also indicated that people who don't get enough sleep at night are more prone to feeling hungry and less likely to feel satiated when they eat.
And of course, a good night's sleep is essential to help the body repair and build muscle after each day so you are ready for the next.
It sounds simple, but it's important; aim for a quality sleep of around seven hours every night to give yourself the best chance of losing that weight.
7. Keep track of your progress
Keep motivated and monitor your progress by recording it as you go.
Don’t be disheartened if things don’t change at the same rate; you are training your body to be fitter and more efficient, and some weeks you’ll see lots of progress, other weeks you might plateau. The overall trend is what’s important.
If you’re tracking your progress using your weight or body fat percentage, then measure yourself once a week, ideally at the same time of day. First thing in the morning after you’ve been to the toilet is a popular time!
If you use Strava or a similar route tracker, you’ll be able to see your fitness improving as you progress — you’re likely to get faster along sections, which gives a great sense of achievement!
Clothes are also a great way to check how you’re doing. If you’ve got a favourite item you want to fit into, or something you currently wear, check back every couple of weeks to see how it fits on you now.
8. Add in some cross-training and flexibility work to your routine
While cycling is great for weight loss, it does put stress and strain on the body, particularly if you are new to it. Cross training will help balance out the leg-heavy muscle workout you get from pedalling, and flexibility work will stretch out those muscles and tendons, preventing injury, aches and pains.
Free weights, pilates, swimming, Zumba and boxing are all great for cross-training, giving you a stronger core which will benefit your cycling. Pilates and yoga are good choices for flexibility work.
All of these help build muscle, and the more muscle you have the more efficient your body will be at burning calories.
- Training exercises you can do off the bike
- 8 stretches to improve your flexibility and cycling performance
9. Eat little and often
If you think of your body like an engine, then you want to keep it topped up with fuel and running at a steady rate throughout the day.
Wadsworth recommends eating small amounts of good food every three to four hours, it will help you maintain a stable metabolism, burn fat consistently and ensure your energy levels are stable so you have enough oomph at the end of a day at work to hop on your bike.
When you finish a ride, a protein and vegetable-rich dish will help you recover better.
- Best carbs for cycling — what to eat and when
- 9 energy-boosting breakfasts to keep you riding strong
- 6 healthy, tasty and quick packed lunch recipes
- 10 protein-rich meals for post-ride recovery
- More tasty and nutritious recipes for cyclists
10. Avoid sugar and processed food
Sugar and processed foods may give you plenty of energy, but they often have low nutritional value. Plus, any sugar that you don’t burn off immediately will be stored by your body in the form of fat, which is exactly what you are trying to avoid.
We’re not saying you can never have cake — it’s a traditional part of the cycling experience, after all — but we are saying limit your intake to once a week or as a treat, and cut out those other sugary snacks and chocolate bars altogether.
You’re also best to avoid the sugar-packed sports energy gels and bars out there. They’re fine for racing and long events, but if you are trying to lose weight then you are better off eating a good balanced meal beforehand and topping up with something like a banana, some nuts or jerky.
11. Focus on lean protein and plenty of fruit and vegetables
Eating the right foods is as important as avoiding the wrong foods. You need to give your body everything it needs to run efficiently, build muscle and sustain exercise.
Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight: How to get lean for peak performance (available on Amazon), recommends eating quality foods that will have a high nutritional value and often lower calorie density too.
Choose lean protein such as fish, chicken, beans and pulses. Opt for lots of fresh fruit and vegetables alongside them, and choose wholegrain carbohydrates or ones with a low glycaemic index such as sweet potato, rolled oats or rye bread.
As Wadsworth says: "It's a general rule of thumb, but if you can grow it or run after and catch it or fish for it, that's what you should be eating. Stick to that diet and you’ll lose weight."
Smoothies and juices can be tempting, but you’re often better off eating the whole fruit as then you’re also getting dietary fibre rather than just the sweet, sugary juice.
12. Try riding before breakfast
Heading out for a short ride before breakfast can be a great way of kickstarting your weight loss. Your body is forced to use its stores of fat as there is no food in your system.
This is called fasted training.
Aim for a ride of between 30 minutes to an hour, but you will need to eat something if you’re going to be riding for much longer than that.
13. Avoid overtraining or under eating
If you’re looking to lose weight it can be so tempting to beast yourself on the bike or cut your food intake right down. Neither of these is healthy, and ultimately they don’t work in the long term.
"If you want to burn fat, that’s like burning logs in a bonfire. If you want the bonfire to keep burning at high temperature, like your metabolism, then you want to keep feeding it logs every three hours — that's the little and often approach with food. If you stop fuelling it, then the body goes into starvation mode and it will hold on to calories more," says Wadsworth. "So short term yes you lose weight, but give it a few weeks and it all piles on again."
Go too hard on the bike, particularly if you are just getting into cycling or starting to do more, and you risk tiring yourself out completely, leaving you no energy to do anything, or injuring yourself and therefore putting yourself out of action.
Cutting back your calorie intake too much will mean your body isn’t getting enough fuel and nutrition to support the exercise you are trying to do, so won’t work as effectively, and is more likely to go into starvation mode where it stores any food it does get, which is completely counterproductive.
If you are trying to lose weight, then the general guidance is that men should aim for 1,900 calories and women for 1,400 calories.
Steady exercise with good, lean food equals steady weight loss that you’ll be able to keep off.
14. Enjoy it!
The best thing about cycling is how much fun it is. Whether you like speeding along country lanes, ripping along mountain bike trails, long contemplative rides on your own or social rides with your friends, there’s loads to love, and you’ll almost forget you’re actually exercising while you do it!
So get your friends involved, join a club, go out with your family and make cycling part of your life. Above all, have fun!
This article was updated on 5 December 2018 and has been rewritten since it was first published, so some comments below may be out of date.