One of the questions that cyclists often ask is if they will lose any weight during a cycling holiday.

While generally the answer is yes, this is a surprisingly complex question. This article will look at the relationship between cycle touring and fat loss, and offer advice on how to get the most from your holiday.

Weight Loss and Fat Loss

The first key point to make is the difference between losing weight in general and losing fat. General weight loss includes water, muscle and fat, while fat loss obviously refers to just fat burnt.

To improve your overall health and fitness, the ideal is to reduce fat whilst keeping water and muscle levels roughly the same (or even increasing them slightly). For most people, this is easier said than done. When doing cardio (including cycle touring) for several hours each day the body prefers to use readily available energy (glycogen) and muscles for fuel, in addition to fat.

Ultimately, weight loss is a simple matter of calories consumed against calories used. Cycle touring holidays use substantial amounts of calories, so weight loss is very likely. There are other factors to determine the percentages of fat and muscle that will be lost.

Factors affecting fat loss

Weight

The first factor affecting how much fat you will lose on a cycle tour is your weight at the start of the tour. Generally, the more fat that you are carrying, the easier it is to lose.

A rider weighing 15 stone will lose fat more easily than a rider weighing 11 stone. The heavier rider has a lot more fat available for energy, so the body will more readily use that as a source of energy.

Heavier riders will lose substantial amounts of fat just by cycling for a few hours each day on the tour, at an average intensity. They will generally lose large amounts on any hilly days or where they cycle at a faster pace.

Riders with a lower body fat percentage can lose fat as well, but for substantial losses they will usually have to climb hills or ride at higher intensities.

Fitness

The fitness of a cyclist is another key factor: the fitter that a rider is, the harder they have to exercise to lose fat.

There are some caveats to this; for example fit riders with heavy muscle mass will have fast metabolisms which aid in fat loss. However, in general it is true that fitter riders are more efficient at doing exercise, and so use less calories to do the same activity as someone less fit.

This produces the scenario where a fairly unfit holiday cyclist can burn more calories (and burn more fat) cycling just 30km each day on flat roads, than a club cyclist will on a 60km rolling ride.

Effort

The effort of the cycling is another factor in fat loss while cycling. There are several schools of thought as to what intensity of cycling produces the greatest fat loss.

One school believe that steady, easy paced cycling is better for fat loss. They believe that at a speed where you can easily carry out a conversation, the body typically prefers to use fat as fuel, rather than muscle or carbohydrates.

This is true up to around one hour of cycling; however, most tours are much longer than that, and so are more likely to use stored carbohydrates and muscle for fuel.

At the other extreme, advocates of HIIT (high intensity interval training) and the Tabata protocol believe that short bursts of sprinting are most conducive to fat loss.

Whilst research suggests this to be true, it is not practical to apply this kind of training to cycle touring.

Overall, the best intensity for fat loss while cycle touring is whichever pace you can maintain comfortably. Obviously a cyclist racing over mountains will burn more calories than one trundling through valleys. However, while on holiday, fat loss is very much a secondary concern to having a good time, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, so you may as well cycle at your own speed.

Food and Drink

What you eat while on the cycle holiday will have an impact on your fat loss. Once again, it is a matter of calories in against calories burned - the less you eat, the greater your fat loss will be. However, again there are some caveats to this.

It is key to consume enough protein. This is not usually a problem with the abundance of meat and fish in the average Western diet, however, can be more tricky for vegetarians. Protein is crucial to help to preserve muscle and encourage your body to use fat for fuel.

It is also important not to eat too few calories. Not only will this catch up with you by the third or fourth day, making the cycling less enjoyable, but it will also encourage your body to use muscles for fuel. If your body thinks that it is starving, it will try to hold on to the fat that it has.

Remaining hydrated is also important for fat loss. Both the liver and kidneys need a lot of water to function properly and to help to convert fat into usable energy.

How Much Can I Lose on a Cycling Holiday?

As seen from above, there are many factors determining weight loss on a cycle tour. The simple forumla to work out weight loss (excluding water) is calories expended - calories consumed. It is then up to other factors to determine how much weight is muscle and how much is fat.

A Basic Calculation

One kilogram of fat contains close to 8000 calories (a pound of fat is around 3500 kcal).

One hour of cycle touring on slightly rolling terrain at a pace where you are breathing slightly heavily, but able to talk comfortably, will burn around 500kcal for the average rider. (Cycling hills, for example, can burn well over 1000kcal per hour).

The average daily time in the saddle on a cycle tour is 3-4 hours. If we call this 4 hours, the average rider will burn around 2000kcal per day from cycling.

This is on top of the number of calories that your body normally burns every day.

On a cycle tour, we find that people will eat more than usual. They are hungry and need to replace fuel, and also are on holiday and want to taste lots of new things. This can, on average, be around 800 kcal more than their normal amount.

So, the average cycle tourist may lose around 1200kcal per day (2000kcal burnt cycling - 800kcal extra eaten), over a one week tour, this will amount to 8500kcal.

If the vast majority of calories burnt is from fat, not muscle, this will equate to just over 1kg (2.2lb) per week.

Being unfit, cycling hills, cycling a greater intensity, going for longer distances or eating less, will all increase this amount burnt. Whilst the opposite also apply.

Author's Bio: 

Ian Smitton is a tour leader for Cycle Fiesta, a tour operator running cycle tours in Spain.

He runs specialised tours designed to be challenging, but also accessible for beginners. These tours to the mountains of Mallorca and cycling in Tenerife are designed as enjoyable holidays where you will lose fat without even realising it.