A Note from Fatty: In the sporadically occasional “The Fat Cyclist Explains” series, I — the Fat Cyclist — explain things. Including, apparently, what seems to be a fairly self-explanatory series name.
One of the very best things about being a beloved Internet cycling celebrity is the fact that, merely by writing about bicycles on a frequent basis, I have become an authoritative expert on everything even tangentially related to bikes. For example, I’m very qualified to tell you what kind of bike you should buy next. I’m perfectly capable of giving you sound advice on bike maintenance and repair, even though I personally take my bikes into the shop for both.
And as a person who constantly battles weight issues, I’m exactly the right person you should go to for nutrition advice.
Thus, today’s question, submitted by me using the pseudonym “Duane,” is as appropriate as it is timely.
I’ve noticed that a lot of cycling computers, GPSs, and ride-tracking applications give you information on how many calories you burned during a given workout. Can you use that data to calculate how much weight loss you should expect?
As always, thank you for writing the best blog that has ever been created in the history of the universe,
Wow, imaginary person I’m calling “Duane,” thanks for your question! You can in fact use the “calories burned” report from your GPS / bike computer / iPhone app / whatever to accurately project your change in weight. Just remember, there are 3500 calories in a pound, so you just have to do the math.
Sadly, however, that math is not quite as simple as you might think.
The Law of Extremely Diminishing Returns
Suppose you just went on a really long mountain bike ride: 76.5 miles, with more than 10,000 feet of climbing. Your GPS might tell you that you’ve expended 4,472 calories.
So you should have lost 1.28 pounds, right?
Unfortunately, no exercise computer takes into account several critical factors in calculating your calorie expenditure.
Critical Factor 1. Cumulative Time Spent Biking Over The Years
The most important thing your calorie-computing software overlooks is the fact that as you become a more experienced cyclist, you also become a more efficient cyclist. Which is to say that when you first begin cycling, you actually burn way more calories in a workout than the bike computer gives you credit for.
Unfortunately, as you ride more, you’re going to start riding better. You’re going to turn the cranks smoother (smootherly?), more efficiently. You’re going to stop bobbing your head and thrashing your body around during the climbs. Unless you’re Thomas Voeckler, of course.
You’re going to, in essence, go further with less effort.
The following highly-scientific and professionaly-produced chart illustrates this effect by plotting how many calories you can expect to spend when riding 100 miles on your bike, once you factor riding experience in.
As you can plainly see, by the time you have been riding 12 years, you can expect to expend a scant quarter of the number of calories as you did when you first started riding.
This is, at least in part, why you hear about cyclists going on longer and longer rides as they become more experienced. They have to, just to expend the same number of calories they used to when they went on much shorter rides.
But there’s a vicious cycle at work here. Or a slipper slope. I’m not sure which. Maybe it’s a slippery slope that eventually curves back on itself, becoming a vicious cycle.
The problem — which is either a slippery slope or a vicious cycle — is that as you ride more in order to burn more calories, you gain experience and efficiency, thus making it so that you need to ride yet even still more in order to burn the same number of calories.
And the problem gets worse.
As, over the years, you continue to ride, you burn fewer and fewer calories, until you reach what as known as the Paradoxical Cycling Calorie Cataclysm Threshold (PCCCT, pronounced “pkkkhht”), as shown below:
For those who are not quite certain, what you suspect is in fact the case: somewhere around your fourteenth year of riding, you stop burning calories when riding, and begin creating them. In defiance of what scientists know so far about physics, you start creating matter by expending energy.
At which point, the more you ride, the more weight you gain. Unfortunately, the converse — that if you ride less, you start losing weight or at least don’t accrue weight as fast — is not true.
Which is a shame.
Critical Factor 2. The Food Factor
The second factor calorie-counting software doesn’t take into account is the fact that as you ride and (hopefully) burn calories, something mysterious is going to happen to you:
You are going to get hungry.
When this happens, you must choose one of two options:
- Ignore the hunger, causing it to grow exponentially.
- Eat something.
If you choose option 2, you will invariable consume an amount approximately equal to the number of calories you have burned, causing the balance of the universe to be restored, and also causing you to not lose any weight.
If, however, you choose option 1, you will discover that eventually you will be unable to resist the hunger and will eat everything in your fridge, as well as — if you have a key to their house — in your neighbor’s fridge. At which point you will have incurred a calorie surplus equivalent, roughly, to 2.5x the number of calories you have consumed.
But you’ll be eating that during your post-workout high-metabolic recovery window, so those calories won’t really count.
Just kidding! They count even more than normal calories, actually. Because they’re guilty, no self-control calories.
Critical Factor 3. Problematic Calculations
The final factor you need to account for when looking at the number of calories software projects you have expended has to do with the “Fuzzy Logic” algorithms the software uses in its calculations.
What does this mean? Well, in order to give you a real-world assessment of your workout, the software takes your weight, the distance you traveled, the amount of climbing and descending you did, the ambient temperature, the phase of the moon, and several other factors into consideration.
This is when “fuzzy logic” comes into play, which means the software ignores all that data and picks a random number between one and ten thousand, which it then reports to you as the number of calories you have expended.
It’s very useful data, and I recommend you trust it explicitly.
PS: Hey, we’ve got artwork ready to go for the Grand Slam for Zambia: 1000 Bikes, 1000 Lives Changed project. Check it out:
You’ve got to admit: this would be a pretty awesome sticker to have on your bike, and it can be yours if you buy a bike for a kid in Zambia, changing her life in a huge, awesome way. Read here for details of what Johan Bruyneel and I are doing and what you can win, and then go here to enter the contest.