Cycling to Lose Weight

Losing weight is one of the most common reasons people start cycling. Riding a bicycle is an excellent way to lose weight because it builds muscle, tones your body, and increases your overall fitness levels without jarring or damaging your joints. This “low impact” quality means that virtually anybody—regardless of current weight or fitness level—can get in the saddle, begin pedaling, and start shedding unwanted pounds.

Weight Loss 101: Understanding the Basics

Riding a bicycle helps you lose weight in 4 main ways:

1. Burn fat

When it comes to burning fat, cycling’s biggest strong suit is going after belly fat. Accord- ing to Selene Yeager, author of Ride Your Way to Lean: The Ultimate Plan for Burning Fat and Getting Fit on a Bike, “even before you see a single pound disappear from the scale, cycling begins melting away deep, dangerous belly fat from your middle.”35 Interestingly, cycling burns fat even when you’re riding a very low intensity. So if slow and easy rides are all you can do right now, that’s still enough to start dropping pounds.

2. Burn calories

To lose weight and keep it off, burning fat isn’t enough on its own. You also have to pay attention to calories—both the calories you consume and the calories you burn. As the fitness experts at Cycling Weekly put it: “The simple equation, when it comes to weight loss, is ‘calories out must exceed calories in.’ . . . You need to burn more calories than you consume to lose weight.” As it turns out, riding a bike is an excellent way to burn calories. You’ll burn anywhere from 400-1,000 calories per hour, with more intense rides burning more calories. To get a more precise idea of how many calories you’re burning, use the following equation:36

  • Step 1: Figure out your body weight in kilograms (to convert from pounds, divide your weight by 2.2).
  • Step 2: Gauge the intensity level of your ride (using the standard Zone 1-5 system).
  • Step 3: Using the chart below, figure out how the correct METS rating for your ride (METS measure how much energy it requires to complete a physical activity; the chart below is specific to riding a bicycle).
  • Step 4: Multiply your weight by the METS number. The number this multiplication gives you is how many calories you’ll burn in an hour of pedaling at each intensity level.
RIDING INTENSITY  METS
Below Zone 1: less than 10mph, very leisurely ride
4 METS
Zone 1: 10-12 mph, very easy ride, essentially a warm-up
6 METS
Zone 2: 12-14 mph, a moderate riding pace and intensity
8 METS
Zone 3: 14-16 mph, a vigorous riding pace and intensity
10 METS
Zone 4: 16-19 mph, an intense, very fast ride
12 METS
Zone 5: over 10 mph, a race-level ride at or approaching your maximum
16 METS


3. Continue burning calories after you ride

Amazingly, cycling helps you burn calories even when you’re not pedaling. As Yeager puts it: “Cycling also coaxes your body to continue burning calories at a higher rate after you’ve racked your bike, because your body is still working to repair and replenish your muscles.”

Cycling is also proven to raise your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which means your body will continue burning calories while you’re at a normal resting state. In fact, researchers have found that you can speed your metabolism, and therefore increase your calorie-burning capacity, for as long as 12 hours after a vigorous bike ride.

4. Become a fat-burning machine

Cycling promotes a number of processes throughout your body—including improved oxygen flow, mitochondrial growth, and various fat-burning mechanisms—each of which actually improves your body’s ability to burn fat and lose weight.

This means that riding a bike can exponentially increase how much weight you’re capable of losing. Not only will you lose weight while riding your bike today, but by getting out and pedaling on a regular basis, you’re also training your body to lose even more weight the next time you ride. Simply put, “as you ride more and improve your fitness, your body becomes . . . a better fat-burning machine.” 

Workout Plan for Losing Weight on Your Bike

Interestingly, your body will technically burn more fat when you pedal at slightly lower intensity levels. But remember that you burn more calories at higher intensities. This seeming paradox actually highlights the power of interval training. When you incorporate a mix of low- and high-intensity pedaling into your workouts, you get the best of both worlds, optimizing your body’s fat-burning and calorie-burning mechanisms at the same time.

The following workout plan has been designed to tap into the weight-loss potential of interval training. It’s based on the Bike Your Butt Off! program, one of the cycling world’s go-to weight loss routines.41 Before you begin, please note that to see the best results, you’ll need to mix into your routine some upper body and core workouts. Check this article for suggestions.

WEEK 1

During Week 1, look for terrain that is flat or that includes some gentle hills. Do the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1
5 minutes
2. Smooth and steady pace
Zone 2
5 minutes
3. Pedal hard
Zone 3
3 minutes
4. Cool down
Zone 1
2 minutes


WEEK 2

In Week 2, look for terrain that has some gentle, rolling hills. Do the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1
5 minutes
2. Smooth and steady pace in whatever gear is most comfortable to you
Zone 2
5 minutes
3. Pedal hard in a more difficult gear
Zone 3
2 minutes
4. Pedal very fast in an easier gear
Zone 3
1 minute
5. Pedal at a brisk pace in whatever gear is most comfortable to you
Zone 1-2
2 minutes
6. Repeat steps 2-5 twice more, for a total of 3 complete sets in all


WEEK 3

For Week 3, try to add some more hills to your route. Complete the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
5 minutes
2. Pedal at a brisk pace
Zone 2
15 minutes
3. Begin pedaling harder, keep coasting to a minimum
Zone 2-3+
10 minutes
4. Pedal at a brisk pace
Zone 2
15 minutes


WEEK 4

For Week 4, find a route that goes over mostly flat terrain with some mildly undulating hills. Complete the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
15 minutes
2. Rapidly scale up your pace and intensity
Zone 2-3
1 minute
3. Scale back to a brisk pace
Zone 2
2 minutes
4. Pedal very fast, making sure your gear isn’t too easy or too hard, maintain a steady cadence
Zone 3
1 minute
5. Pedal at a brisk pace
Zone 2
2 minutes
6. Repeat steps 2-5 twice more, for a total of 3 complete sets
7. Finish your ride at a smooth and steady pace inside your comfort zone
Zone 2
10 minutes


WEEK 5

For week 5, continue riding routes that include mildly undulating hills. Complete the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
15 minutes
2. Brisk pace and intensity
Zone 2
10 minutes
3. Hard pace and intensity
Zone 3
10 minutes
4. Interval of slower pace, slightly more difficult than your warm-up
Zone 1-2
2-5 minutes
5. Hard pace and intensity
Zone 3
10 minutes


WEEK 6

In Week 6, look for a route that includes at least one moderately steep and difficult hill. Complete the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
5 minutes
2. Brisk pace and intensity
Zone 2
15 minutes
3. Stand up and pedal hard Zone 3
30secs-1min
4. Sit back down and pedal at smooth and steady pace
Zone 2
2 minutes
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 five more times, for a total of 6 complete sets
-
15-18 minutes
6. Brisk pace and intensity
Zone 2
15 minutes


WEEK 7

This week, follow a route that carries you through a more steady range of gently rolling hills. Complete the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
5 minutes
2. Preferably on an incline, climb at a smooth and steady pace
Zone 2-3
2-3 minutes
3. Stand up and pedal hard Zone 3
30secs
4. Pedal at a more relaxed pace and intensity
Zone 1-2
2-3 minutes
5. Repeat steps 2-4 twice more, for a grand total of 3 cycles in total
-
4.5-6.5 minutes
6. Brisk pace
Zone 2
10 minutes


WEEK 8

This week, follow a route that carries you through a more steady range of gently rolling hills. Complete the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
10 minutes
2. Pick up your pace and intensity
Zone 2
15 minutes
3. Shift into a hard gear, stand up to pedal, then when you hit your stride in this gear, sit back down and pedal as fast as you can
Zone 4
30secs
4. Drop back to an easier pace to recover
Zone 2
1-2 minutes
5. Repeat steps 2-4 five more times, for a total of 6 complete sets
-
82.5-87.5 minutes


WEEK 9

For your rides during Week 9, find a route over flat terrain with at least one moderate climb. Complete the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
10 minutes
2. Pick up the pace and intensity
Zone 2
10 minutes
3. Find a moderate uphill and shift into a harder gear, forcing yourself to push harder and pedal slower (but without slowing down your actual speed too much), pedal hard and strong while remaining seated
Zone 3-4 3 minutes
4. On the downhill or when you return to flat ground, drop down to an easy pace
Zone 1-2
2 minutes
5. Repeat steps 2-4 twice more, for a grand total of 3 full sets (you can either go back to the same hill, or pedal on to another nearby uphill)
-
30 minutes
6. Brisk pace and intensity
Zone 2
10 minutes


WEEK 10

In Week 10, try to find a route with a good mix of terrain, including flats, challenging climbs, and sweeping downhills. Complete the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
10 minutes
2. Steadily ramp up your pace, and then maintain a solid Zone 3 intensity; whenever you can, push into Zone 4 and try to keep the pace there
Zone 2-3, with some Zone 4
45 minutes


WEEK 11

Stick with a route of mixed terrain for Week 11. Complete the following ride 3 times this week:

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
10 minutes
2. Shift into harder gear and scale up your pace and intensity
Zone 3
10 minutes
3. Shift back into an easier gear and lower your pace and intensity for a recovery interval
Zone 1-2 2-5 minutes
4. Freestyle: move through whatever mix of riding styles sounds most fun to you, but be sure you keep your intensity level between Zones 2 and 4
Zone 2-4
25-30 minutes
5. Drop into a smooth and easy pace to recover
Zone 1-2
5 minutes
6. Quickly increase pace and intensity
Zone 3
3 minutes
7. Pick up the pace and intensity again
Zone 4
2 minutes
8. Finish with a sprint, approaching your maximum effort
Zone 4-4+

1 minute


WEEK 12

This is the final week of your workout plan—congratulations! By now, you should be seeing noticeable improvements in your cycling skill, endurance, speed, strength, and body weight. For this week, try to find longer routes that cover a wide mix of terrain. You will complete 4 rides this week. You choose the sequence of rides, but be sure you do each ride once:

  • Week 6 ride
  • Week 7 ride
  • Week 8 ride
  • Choose your favorite ride from a previous week, or create your own long ride of at least 1.5 hours

Weight Loss Workouts When You’re Short on Time

If you find yourself without enough time to complete a full workout from the plan above, here are some effective workouts that take only 30 minutes to complete. While it’s import- ant that you do as many full-length rides as possible, you can occasionally substitute in one of these quicker workouts. 

30-Minute Workout #1

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
10 minutes
2. All-out sprint as fast and hard as you can
Zone 3 and up
30 seconds
3. Drop back to a slow and steady pace to recover
Zone 1-2 2.5 minutes
4. Repeat steps 2-3 as many times as you can
-
-

 

30-Minute Workout #2

HOW TO PEDAL
INTENSITY
HOW LONG
1. Warm-up
Zone 1-2
5 minutes
2. Shift into a slightly easier gear and pedal as fast as you can while still maintaining good posture and a smooth pedal stroke
Zone 2-3
As soon as you start bouncing in your saddle, slow down your pace until you’re back in control
3. As soon as you regain good posture and a smooth pedal stroke, maintain your pace and intensity
- 1 minute
4. Drop back to a slow and steady pace to recover
Zone 1-2
3 minutes
5. Repeat steps 2-4 as many times as you can
-

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