This is a very good question, and one that is asked many times over. However, it is not an easy question to answer, given everybody has different body physiology and also different cycling goals. As a result the genetic makeup of our body will affects our bodies ability to lose and gain weight and lose and gain lean muscle mass. This being said, your body weight, lean muscle mass, body-fat percentage, body-mass distribution and body-fat distribution all play a big role in your performance on the bike.
In the world of cycling, there are basically two different body types. One that is very muscular and powerful. These body types do very well riding on mostly flat terrain, and tend to be good sprinters, as they have big and powerful legs.
The second body type we see in cycling is the “hill climbers”. These cyclist tend to be shorter, and typically very light with very low body fat percentages. However, being short and extremely light is not enough to make one a good hill climber. A cyclist who has a desire to be a good hill climber, also needs to have what is known as, a high power to weight ratio. What this means is they the strength and ability to generate big power in relationship to their light body weight. It is critical to sustain raw power to climb, and to climb steep inclines over long distances without fatiguing to point of exhaustion.
There is also a “middle cycling body type”. This is the term I use to describe a body that is in-between that of a very lean and light hill climber, and that of a big strong powerful flat riding sprinter. This body is typically the body of time trialist. This cycling body type needs the power of a sprinter, needed to sustain a particular speed, yet at the same time needs to be not too heavy as pushing weight on any terrain makes riding that much harder.
So where does this leave all of us? Well the commonality to all these body types is cyclist, is the leg muscularity, as the leg muscles provide all the energy for forward motion. Therefore our weight distribution is important, we require a largest percentage of muscle mass to be in our legs, and less in our upper bodies. Having said this, we still need to have strong backs to support our bodies while riding, to maintain good posture and help to prevent soreness in our neck and lower back muscles.
Body physiology is important and genetically inherited, and equally important, is the emphasis of how much body fat we carry. Excess body fat, becomes what is known as “dead weight”, which simply means weight that does not contribute to strength, power or speed. Typical body fat percentages for female competitive cyclists is very low, and is around 12 – 16%, and in the average female, is around 18 – 25%. So how do we work with what our genes have given us, without carrying extra body fat? The answer to this, is what and how much we eat. All cyclists need to fuel their bodies with abundant high quality unprocessed carbohydrates, lean proteins, good unsaturated fats, and a variety of vegetables and fruits. But the difference lies in how much of the above foods we consume.
If we determine our body fat is too high for our body type, we should focus on reducing our serving sizes, while at the same time maintaining at least 3 hours of cycling per week, in addition to 1-2 weight training sessions, to maintain lean muscle mass and core body strength. Also, there are specific “power and strength” workouts on the bike that could be added into our weekly training rides, to assist us to becoming stronger and more powerful, at the same time extra body fat is lost. I would suggest to these cyclists, to keep a food daily food log, which provides a reflection of what and how much you are eating, as most of us are eat well, but the key lies in the amount of calories, in relation to how many calories is being expended on the bike.
Those who wish to maintain their current body weight, and wish to become stronger and more powerful, need to diligent at keeping a steady and consistent amount of good quality calories coming in on a regular timed basis, along with the addition of “power and strength” specific workouts on the bike to achieve these goals.
To summarize, all cyclist have certain body types, which we cannot change. What we can be responsible for, is keeping our diet “clean” from highly processed foods, saturated fats, and sugar loaded foods. While keeping the emphasis on fueling ourselves with good quality slow burning carbohydrates, lean proteins, and ample vegetables and fruits, to keep our bodies lean, yet strong to tackle whatever our riding goals are.