Some people don't eat much and are still overweight. Some eat everything they see, and couldn't gain a pound if they wanted to. Between these two extremes—where most of us dwell—is a range of intake, weight and output. In this relationship between energy, metabolism and output lie the keys to better performance.
Energy is the unit that describes work, and is most often called a calorie. A calorie describes the amount of work potential. For example, a gel usually has around 25 grams of carbs, which yield 100 calories of work for the body's function. As cyclists, the forward motion we produce is the by-product of work done by our bodies converted from chemical energy.
Dietary and exercise habits need to be correct and consistent and long-term.
Metabolism is the conglomerate of chemical processes that happen in our daily lives. When we eat, our metabolism breaks the food down and puts it to work powering and building our bodies.
As cyclists, our metabolism is responsible for fueling our rides and the recovery afterwards, and for all the mechanisms of growth that we hope for when we train. We want our metabolism to be vigorous and active in fueling and growth, efficient so that we can go the distance, while simultaneously providing high output.
The Equation of Losing Weight
Energy, along with the metabolism, equals our output. If you want to lose weight you must take in less than you're putting out. If you're eating 3,000 calories a day, but only burning off 2,500, then that surplus of 500 calories is likely going to yield potential work in the form of fat.
It's a simple equation. Output is the work done by the energy we ingest with the help of the metabolism to get the work done. At rest, our body is busy digesting, respiring, healing, building...essentially anabolising (building) and catabolising (breaking down). The number of calories we burn at rest is often referred to as our basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Let's go back to our extreme examples from before. What is going on with the person who eats little but is still overweight? Energy is low, but so too is the metabolism, which means that even though there is little energy going in, the metabolism is converting it very slowly, and so the resulting output is low.
Sometimes this is a function of genetics, but just as often a function of lifestyle and trends. Unfortunately, output will be low according to the equation, and will likely be stored in the saddlebags as unsightly potential.
Then there is the ultra-lean individual, who seems to be able to eat endlessly and still stay lean. This equation is characterized by a large amount of energy coming in, coupled with a very active metabolism, yielding great output in the form of metabolic and physical work. At this extreme, so much energy is being used doing both metabolic and physical work, that there is little energy available for physical growth.
It may be necessary to down-regulate the metabolism of such a person to make them more efficient so they can go the distance. Hence the infamous "long rides with little-to-no food" program that jolts the metabolism to slow down and become more efficient with available fuel sources.
Make Your Metabolism Work For You
What are the means for manipulating this equation towards our desires? First, the fine print: Make sure the goal is realistic. I have seen many a good crit rider ruin themselves in the quest to climb better. If you're naturally a big person who may be lower on the metabolic side of the equation, but are reaping the benefits of great absolute power, it may not be realistic to try to peel yourself down to become a climber.