Can the body be taught how to burn fat as a main fuel source for cycling?
Elite International Cyclist, Sport Scientist and Coach Simon Williams of SW Sports writes can the body be taught to burn fat as a main source of fuel.
Traditionally sports men and women across the world have believed that the main source of fuel for exercise should be carbohydrates. The reason being carbohydrates are easily broken down by the body and absorbed into the bloodstream providing a quick source of energy. If carbohydrate stores are constantly being replenished then this is very effective way of fueling the body.
Cycling is an incredibly tough endurance sport, meaning that it would nearly be impossible to keep the carbohydrate stores suitably replenished to maintain the same level of energy delivery. Eventually stores will run done and the body will begin to rely on fat as its main energy source. Fat has more energy providing 9 kcal per gram compared to a mere 4 kcal per gram of carbohydrate. The body finds fats more difficult to break down meaning energy delivery will be slower resulting in a negative effect on cycling performance.
This can be achieved by teaching the body to use fat as the primary source of fuel at the beginning of exercise, thus saving the carbohydrate stores for later on in the ride or race when the intensity will increase and the body will become fatigued, meaning more energy will be required to maintain performance.
The body can be taught this by training in a “fasted state”. This means there is no food taken into the body prior to exercise, black coffee and water is all that should be taken in pre-exercise. The coffee will kick start the metabolism and the water will keep the body hydrated. Training sessions in a fasted state would ideally be between 1 and 2 hours, however can be done for up to 4 hours by eating a banana and protein bar at certain time intervals. Professional athletes have been known to train in a fasted state for 6 hours plus.
Teaching the body to burn fat as a main source of fuel can take anywhere between 2 and 6 months. For those looking to give it a go this is what I would suggest:
Between 1-2 hours: Ride these sessions in a completely fasted state. Following the ride, consume a protein bar, shake or a high protein meal.
Between 2-4 hours: Start off by bringing a banana and a protein bar out on a ride for more than 2hours 30 minutes and just have water to drink. The first time you ride more than 2hours eat the banana at 2 hours 15 and eat the protein bar at 3hours 30 minutes.
Week 2 onwards:
Don’t eat the banana until 2hours 30 minutes and the protein bar until 3hours 45 minutes. The following week, eat the banana at 2hours 45 minutes and the protein bar at 4hours or when you get home. The pattern would be to add 15 minutes each time to the point were you are not eating the banana, the protein bar or shake can be consumed when you return home. Take the banana and protein bar with you on all 4 hour rides in case of emergencies.
The above is a guide only.
In summary the use of fat as a main fuel source is a more effective option for those looking to gain that extra little bit when it comes to training and racing. Teaching the body to use fat by training in a fasted state will save carbohydrate stores for when they are needed, meaning that faster energy will be delivered at the correct time resulting in an improved performance.
SW Sports offers a professional and individual coaching service to anyone looking to improve their performance. SW Sports also provides individually tailored diet plans. For more information Simon can be contacted through his Facebook page SW Sports.