A significant number of high-profile riders have been reported ill in 2014, both before & during events. This seems to have been occurring more often in the build-up to the Tour de France, with several riders dropping out of events recently. Could this poor health be a result of the extremely low body fat percentages riders are now attempting to reach before the primary target of the year? Are we on the verge of another big problem in the sport, with the Tour starting tomorrow, may some riders have developed eating disorders as a result of pressure from themselves or others to gain an unhealthy performance advantage?
Fat is required to keep us healthy, we all need some reserves, some have lots, some seem able to keep very little, but pro riders often look like they’re running dangerously low these days. We don’t have a recommended average body fat percentage figures for professional riders, although it’s been reported that pro men have been recorded well below 6%. ‘Essential Fat’ is 3% to 5% for men & 8% to 12% for women, so running near this without proper supervision is likely very unwise & particularly unhealthy.
It has to be noted that these riders don’t have to operate in the normal world that most of us inhabit, traveling to work on the bus & train around the general public with their coughs & colds. You & me would find it very hard to function at this kind of fat level, it’s not conducive to normal life & health. I have to admit, that in the distant past I too had developed a bit of interest in my weight, while I was at a point I was racing several times a week & getting obsessive with my training. At the time I’d probably not think/admit that it had got to a problematic level, but I was getting regular fat skin fold measurements & weighing myself daily, while marking it in the training diary. I managed to ‘survive’ for approximately 2 years at a level below around 8%, dropping right down to nearly 5% at one point. during this period I did get some good results, but I suspect my low body fat percentage contributed to a combination of health problems, mostly the ease by which I was able to contract colds & other illnesses, I got very run down & had the Epstein-Barr virus, all too common with underweight cyclists. It wasn’t a healthy or sustainable way to live, but at the time it seemed the ‘normal’ thing to do with those I was spending time with, who were all similar racing obsessives, caught in the same bubble.
Having a low fat percentage makes us look ‘ripped’, it intimidates our rivals & makes us look more ‘pro’. But what we don’t consider is that the professional riders who can stay healthy at very low fat levels are monitored by their teams physicians & coaches. They also don’t have to go to work 9 to 5. Everybody probably has a healthy range where they can fight off coughs, colds & other more serious illnesses, but without experiencing these negative effects, we don’t know where that line is drawn with each individuals physiology. Percentages are irrelevant, the warning signs are always there, but it is incredibly hard to discount them when riding a bike fast is really all you’re bothered about.
Lets take Carlos Betancur as an example. The recent information regarding Colombian climber Carlos Betancur’s weight brings back memories of Jan Ullrich’s expansive winter issues. Betancur’s weight gain is in no way similar to Ullrich’s, it’s very mild by comparison, but the Colombian has managed to put on 6kg over the winter, when you consider his race weight is 56kg, that’s quite a large percentage increase (although he has just managed to win a stage Haut Var). At 62kg (about 9stone 10pounds) & 167cm (about 5’6″) tall, Betancur would still be considered quite a little chap in normal society.
If we assume that he was at least 8% fat percentage, then at his 56kg race weight, he was carrying about 4.5kg of fat. So we can deduce that his 62kg weight increase resulted in a fat percentage of about 20%. As a comparison, for this piece I actually reverted to the long forgotten past & checked my own fat percentage using one of those fat-guessing bathroom scales, it said 14%. I’m a Sunday cyclist these days, fit enough for club rides but not for racing, I’d suggest that Carlos has indeed let himself go a bit if he’s fatter than a chopper like me.
This may not be the whole truth here of course, we’ve no idea if this is all fat that he’s gained, some could be muscle, he may have been doing some weights over the winter break. The rider in question has other issues, so the weight gain could be linked to problems back home in Colombia, but is still useful as an example.
Why they do it
If we take things on a simple watts per kg basis, we can see some examples of the performance advantages riders can get running at very low body fat percentages, while gambling with taking weeks of with illness & perhaps missing the their target events.
We can take our Carlos Betancur example again. At 56kg & a perceived 8% body fat, we deduce that he carries 4.5kg of fat. If we take Carlos’ fat percentage down to 5%, his total weight will be 54.2kg. If we then add some W/kg values we see where the gains are made. From the Andrew Coggan chart, an international pro has a functional threshold ranging from 5.69W/kg to 6.4W/kg. So if Carlos (for example) was at the bottom of this range & at 8% body fat, he would be expected to produce 319 Watts at threshold. If he managed to reduce his body fat percentage to 5%, his W/kg would increase from 5.69 to 5.9W/kg. What this means is that the weakest of the international pro’s can gamble with their health to elevate themselves from somebody struggling to maintain a contract, to a rider who is around a mid-level international pro & should be much more employable. The danger is that it’s likely only at the higher end where the pro riders have the medical support which can allow them to make such changes to their bodies, without the expected detrimental effects of their physical condition. Others may be making bad decisions in order to reach the pro level, without any medical support.
The Gist Of It
Losing weight for the hobby cyclist or weekend warrior is most likely always possible, but it’s a very different case for elite level riders, who could already be teetering on the edge of health problems, while being in the form of their lives.
An 85kg club rider who reduces his fat percentage from 20% to a reasonable & healthy 15%, would save the weight of 6.8kg, an important number because it’s the UCI’s minimum bike weight. By eating a bit better, riding your bike more & cutting down on beer & fizzy drinks you could shed the weight of an entire bike! So getting rid of that belly or bum is a big bonus to riding a bike for most people.
For elite riders, losing some weight may result in an increased risk of illness, meaning that all that training could be wasted by losing a big chunk of the season. If you’re racing in the UK, getting to dangerous fat levels is not only unwise, it’s also not going to benefit you as much as it would if you were racing up 15km long Alpine Cols. We have to deal with bad weather, especially in Scotland, leave the dangerous fat levels to the continental pro’s, racing in temperatures above 25°C & monitored by trained medical staff. If you try to race here at ridiculous fat percentages, you’ll probably have to wear extra clothing to just keep warm most of the year, best to keep that safety buffer in natures choice, a healthy layer of fat.
An unhealthy obsession about weight can develop into an eating disorder, this can happen to anyone, not just the to the media’s common target of teenage girls. Athletes can can encounter this problem too for an entirely different reason, performance, not body image. Stay healthy, stay lean, but let your body find its own level by eating a healthy balanced diet while training, if you go overboard on weight reduction, you may get more than you bargained for. Some natural weight reduction advice that anybody can do, as told to me by a former coach, “make sure you have a thorough visit to the toilet before every race”.