The #1 mistake riders make when trying to lose fat.

Performing well on your mountain bike takes a lot of things. Cardio, strength, skills and mindset all merge to help us perform our best and have the most fun on the trail. However, I’ve lately realized that I have been neglecting a very important issue for a lot of riders.

And that is losing some fat to dial in your weight.

Let’s face it…being overweight and riding your mountain bike presents some challenges that are best overcome by simply losing some fat. Getting leaner can help your endurance (less weight to carry), your skills (less bulk to move around) and your mindset (you’ll feel more confident in your ability to move well).

In fact, for many of your reading this fat loss is one of the main health benefits you’re looking for from your mountain biking experience.

This leads a lot of you to seek fat loss/ weight loss advice and unfortunately a lot of that advice is misguided at best and an outright lie at worst. The fitness industry in general and the fat loss industry in particular are full of snake oil salesmen and pitch artists who promise the world but usually only deliver frustration.

I’m not sure why I haven’t talked more about fat loss on this blog but I think it is something I need to do more of. I’m not going to turn it into a full time subject – flat pedals and standing pedaling need their space as well – but I am going to start addressing some of the common mistakes people make when trying to lose fat while mountain biking.

And while there are a lot of them to get to I want to quickly address the main issue, and that is the idea of a “fat loss program” in the first place.

From what I’ve seen as a fitness pro with 15 years experience is that fat loss is a bull shit goal by itself…if it is the focus of your program you will most likely fail in the long run.

Oh, you might be able to overtrain and starve yourself to a lower weight in the short term but in the long run most people fail with that approach.

And this is because they miss the most important element of fat loss – their lifestyle.

Losing fat is more about fixing your lifestyle than trying to lose fat.

If you are overweight then something about your lifestyle lead to that result. And if you want to see lasting results your goal needs to be fixing that problem in your lifestyle with a sustainable solution, not “fat loss”.

If you don’t recognize the need to fix your lifestyle and instead focus on drastic changes that you can’t sustain then you’ll fail in the long run.

You have to find a workout, nutrition and lifestyle approach that fits your reality and you can sustain.

Now, once you’ve found that then you can use the “crash” diets and exercise programs to put an edge on things for little while but until you have a sustainable lifestyle underpinning it you’ll just end up in a vicious cycle of losing some fat only to see it come back again.

So, my first bit of advice is to stop worrying about “fat loss” and figure out how you can fix the lifestyle issues that led to being overweight in the first place.

If you do this you’ll wake up one day and realize you’re losing the weight without “trying” and now you can keep it off because you know exactly how to do it. And that is the ultimate goal for any fat loss program.

BTW, just to get some ideas on future posts on this subject what are some questions you have or things you’d like to see discussed? I get most of my ideas from you guys so just comment below to let me know what the main issues you may be facing when trying to lose and/ or maintain your optimal weight.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Tash says:

    Thanks for the post – damn fat loss I know I just have to cut out all the chocolate and after dinner snacking. However where I get stuck is the lean protein diet program fitting in with a high cardio/biking lifestyle not just a case of getting lean to look lean and good at the gym. I want to be fit, lean and functional on my bike. I know carbs fit in there somewhere but am trying to find out where and when, what types to stop the overtraining/under carb crash!

    Reply • July 1 at 11:44 am
  2. Joel says:

    What are some foods high in energy but low in fat building charcteristics that i can snack on during the day to bridge the time between meals? I have a very physical job, and ride 2-3 times during the work week, FYI.

    Reply • July 1 at 1:32 pm
  3. liers99 says:

    Spot on post. Unfortunately the american lifestyle sets you up for failure. When I started on the journey to getting healthier I was 240 and tired of being tired. I lost 20 lbs pretty quick just riding but I found out that there was much more too it. What I found the easiest to start with was to just simply eat less. I’m not talking about starvation diet either. I started out making the same meals I always ate and just leaving a bite or 2 on the plate. Then I started shrinking the portions. Once that is under control I started cleaning up the diet. Then once I got my diet cleaned up, I found I could eat almost as much as I wanted. If you eat the right food your body will tell you when to stop eating. Using this approach I lost 55lbs. in less than a year and have kept it off. My weight fluctuates a bit but I have never been over 190 since I changed my eating habits. At the beginning of the year I go on a crash diet for a month to shed the holiday weight and then I am right back to the normal. Its really not hard it just has to be something that you are committed to doing or you won’t see it through.

    Reply • July 1 at 4:38 pm
    • Martin says:

      Love this comment Liers99… I just bought a mountain bike after not being on one for close to 15 years. I weight 246lbs today. My whole life until 20s i weighed 175. Sounds like I’m right at the beginning of where you started.

      Wish me luck 🙂

      Reply • March 15 at 2:35 pm
  4. Paul says:

    Best bit of advice I ever read, “Stop eating like a child” truth is as adults we know what’s good and what’s bad, if that isn’t working, 200 swings before your morning shower will help

    Reply • July 1 at 5:33 pm
  5. I am 5’11, 150 pounds, body fat 6.5%

    I did not try to achieve that body fat. I just eat a 100% organic whole food plant based diet. Lots of greens, superfoods, veggies, beans, sprouts, fruits. My protein comes from Algaes (like Spirulina and Chlorella), Rice Protein, Sprouted/ steamed Lentils and Mung, Sprouted wild rice, and Oatmeal. Plenty of natural oils and fats from hemp, chia, flax, coconut, seeds, avocados, fresh seed milks, olive oil.

    Body deserves the best fuel possible.

    Reply • July 1 at 7:00 pm
    • Adam Looze says:

      I am 5’7 135 pounds. Have never been over 140. Fortunately my favorite foods are fruits, vegis, and chicken. My least favorite is anything greasy. My favorite drink is water. My least favorite is soda.

      I am saying this because I made myself have these favorites. Eating chicken and greens every day got me in the habit, and it is not that difficult. I wake up every day with a healthy shake and sometimes cereal. No lunch. Then a 10-20 mile mountain bike ride. Then dinner (chicken and something.).

      It is not that difficult. And if you are overweight, and have trouble eating less, make the strive to eat very minimal for a week. It sounds bad but your stomach will get used to less food, and you will get full quicker. Also eating very healthy, will fill you up quicker.

      Reply • July 6 at 12:50 pm
      • Vincent says:

        I’m 5’7″ 214lbs looking for recommended diet I can follow to loose about 55 lbs

        Reply • August 21 at 7:10 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          dMy colleague Abel James has a great website at http://fatburningman.com/ and his Wild Diet book is the best diet book I’ve read in a long time and is highly recommended.

          Reply • August 22 at 3:00 pm
        • Matt Hixson says:

          Hi Vincent, I am a health coach and mountain biker. Three years ago I returned to mountain bike racing at 40 years old and nearly 200lbs. In the past year I have lost about 40lbs and now effortlessly maintain about a 160lbs. I have done this through a LCHF diet (Low Carb High Fat). The gist of it is that your body will burn what you feed it. If you continually feed yourself a high carb diet of added sugars and unnecessary grains your body will become used to having that hit of sugar every few hours. Any excess calories get stored as fat. If instead you give your body high quality saturated fats from things such as avocados, coconut, and grass fed animals your body will switch into its preferred state of fat burning. In this state you can easily skip meals and exercise while fasted without becoming hangry. Eating this way has completely changed my life for the better and I’m excited to share it with others. I feel faster and stronger than I ever have in my life. If you’d like to know more come on over to my website at http://www.matthixson.com and contact me.

          Reply • October 6 at 7:46 pm
    • Jeff Coyle says:

      Right on, Phillip! Me, too. Best way to eat for health, looks, energy and performance.

      Reply • August 8 at 9:24 pm
  6. Clive Dale says:

    I agree – our weight and health is a reflection of the life we lead.
    Change the lifestyle and the weight goes up or down according to the change we made. Diet MUST be a lifestyle and not an event.

    Reply • July 2 at 4:51 am
  7. Wacek says:

    Really happy to see that post James! I’d love to read more on the subject. I went into weight dropping quite shy, as I am “ok” by most standards, and I was scared of loosing strength, and as you wrote some time before in other post: it’s about strength to weight ratio. I’d love to see some strategies how to drop weight and keep strength!

    Changing lifestyle is definitely what makes ANY goal achievable and lasting. I guess the point is that it is not about the goal. It is about the state. Goal is something you just reach, accomplish. You can start eating like a pig since the next day and it still won’t change the fact that accomplished something, your action was a success. We often have no plan after reaching the goal to maintain the state we wanted to achieve – What we need is a sustainable state. I tried to be more organized, more motivated – watched tons of Tony Robbins and Co. I lasted 1 month… and it’s not any fault of the guy with big teeth…

    Reply • July 3 at 7:58 am
  8. Mike says:

    This is probably a dumb question, and one I’ve been putting off asking for a couple of weeks because of that. But how do you make those lifestyle changes? I agree with the concept behind what you say but I rarely get more than two sessions into any exercise regime – even your excellent plans – before I slump back into old habits. Sometime i joke that I’m a couch potato trapped in a reasonably fit body, sometimes that doesn’t seem so funny!

    Reply • July 15 at 4:47 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The biggest mistake that people make is trying to make too many big changes at once. John Berardi has a great system he uses for his nutrition clients – he has them tell him on a 10 point scale how confident they are they can implement that single habit he is asking them to do. He is looking for something they are very confident they can do, even if it is just taking a multi-vitamin every morning. He has them focus on that single habit for a week and then he layers in another habit, making sure it ranks high on their 10 point confidence scale.

      The point is that the first few weeks almost feel like they aren’t doing anything because the changes are so small but eventually after a few weeks they have several good habits in place and they’ve built momentum. Once that happens it gets easier and easier to add new habits in. Start with one small and simple thing, conquer that and then move to the next thing.

      Hope this helps…

      Reply • July 15 at 7:54 am
  9. Scott says:

    I am wondering how effective my xc riding is in general. I’ll average about 150 bpm for a couple hours at a time on the singletrack but with gels and Gatorade drinks every so often I’m not sure if I am on target to drop significant weight. Seems to just balance itself out really.

    Reply • July 26 at 9:20 pm
    • Matt Hixson says:

      Hi Scott, I’m a health coach and mountain biker. I have lost about 40lbs in the past year through a LCHF diet and usage of a heart rate monitor while riding. Check out MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function) as pioneered by Dr. Phil Maffetone. The simple formula is 180 – your age. So a 40 year old person would have a MAF heart rate of 140. MAF is the heart rate at which your body is making the most use of its aerobic system to burn fat, before dipping into the anaerobic system and burning glycogen stores.
      Gels and Gatorade are sugar. Try doing some rides with your heart rate not exceeding, while staying as close to, MAF as possible without the sugary sports drinks and gels and you’ll see yourself begin to burn fat. You’ll lose fat while also training your aerobic system to be more efficient. You’ll get faster by being less massive and being more efficient before your body dips into your glycogen stores.
      For more info please feel free to contact me. Info available on my website at http://www.matthixson.com .

      Reply • October 8 at 3:55 pm
  10. john lou says:

    thank you;)

    Reply • April 21 at 5:40 am
  11. Siven says:

    Best heart rate to ride in to burn fat. Becoming fat optomized rider?

    Reply • December 2 at 7:16 am
  12. douglas vlad says:

    I’m 58, 6’2″ 270. Before I moved to NYC, while in Michigan, I seemed to keep my weight around 220. I had thought that up North,that biking in the mild weather,and xcountry skiing and snowshoeing in the winter were my things in keeping my weight down
    Now I bike a lot and no longer do winter sports, and am overweight. But since the onslaught of craft beers, it seems thatmy beer drinking has increased. So I stopped drinking beer every day about 2 weeks ago. I seem to have more energy and have lost 3 lbs. Don’t know about long-term. It’s been raining and I haven’t been on my bike in a week. Might have to start using the gym again. But I’d rather be on my bike

    Reply • December 2 at 8:13 am
  13. Jarett says:

    Your body needs fuel to function and survive. This fuel can only come from two sources: fat or sugar. I’m no nutritionist or scientific mind, but this simplified the idea of “fat loss” for me and made it easier to understand. Both sugar and carbohydrates are converted into glucose and glycogen in your body. Glucose travels around your body in your blood, and glycogen is stored in your liver and muscles. When your glycogen storage is full extra carbs are stored as triglycerides in fat cells for future energy needs. Reducing (not eliminating) carbohydrate and sugar intake reduces your available stores of glycogen and blood glucose levels. This causes your body to turn to fat stores for energy much more often than it used to. Thus you burn more fat. The calories lost from the carb reduction can be replaced by increasing clean protein and healthy fat (olive oil, coconut oil, quality butter, avocados, olives, seeds, nuts). This keeps your muscle tissue intact and gives your body energy and fuel in the form of fat.

    This has worked for me, granted everyone’s body is different. I aim for my daily caloric breakdown to look like this: 50% fat, 30% protein, 20% carbs. Keep in mind these are targets and not rules. I am also somewhat insulin resistant (due to genetics and a historically poor diet) so I try to keep my carbs lower than most probably need to. Most people can probably see results with a diet of 30-40% carbs. Elite athletes or endurance athletes can go even higher but for the person who is simply more active than average (like most recreational mtb riders) this would probably bring results. Of course quality whole food is the cornerstone of any healthy lifestyle and worth an entire post of it’s own.

    Here is a link to better information on the subject: https://draxe.com/healing-diet/

    Reply • December 2 at 8:41 am
  14. Pablo says:

    I am 50 years old and I lost 20 Kg 3 years ago.
    I do mtb once or twice a week and kettlebell training 2 or 3 times a week.
    I follow a low carb diet, without sugars neither wheat, with some paleo influence.
    If I need an energy boost before a long ride, a little of fruit is enough.
    Kind regards and ride strong.

    Reply • December 2 at 11:34 am
  15. Rob Lawrence says:

    I used to weigh 200 lbs, at 5 ft 8″ tall. I stopped eating anything with added sugar, and never eat carbs for energy- just the odd treat. This is very similar to Abel James’ stuff, or Mark Sisson.
    I am now 160 kilos and not just lighter, but far more healthy. I lost nearly a pound per week without being hungry. Sugar highs and lows are things other people have. And my MTB riding has improved out of all proportion to my weight.
    So fixing my “lifestyle” helped my riding massively. Far more enjoyable all round, which is what counts!

    Reply • December 2 at 1:14 pm
    • Matt Hixson says:

      Right on! I’m a certified Primal Health Coach through Mark Sisson’s program. I’d love to help fellow mountain bikers enjoy our sport even more by losing weight and becoming fat adapted.

      Reply • October 8 at 3:59 pm
  16. Kat says:

    I am 50+ super active female, but always about 10-15 lbs heavier than ideal. If I cut our sugar, I loose weight and don’t have to think about denying myself much of any thing else. Also, when I stop eating for the day at least 3 hours before I go to bed, I loose weight. Again, without changing the food I can eat. So–reduce sugar, eat dinner earlier. Try it out!

    Reply • December 3 at 10:03 am
  17. Kenny says:

    Over the last three years I’ve lose 65 pounds using mtb as my main source of exercise.
    My first item of business was to change my diet. I cut out chips and sugary drinks. Unsweetened tea and fruit, apples oranges and bananas are almost always available, replaced soda and chips. Next was portion control.
    The next change was what I ate. Switched to smoked turkey and low fat cheese on wheat bread for my lunch sandwich. Then two pieces of fruit instead of chips. It’s about 450 calories. Supper always included a salad with a vinegarette dressing. Pan grilled chicken or fish with a fresh veggie of some type with rice or boiled potatoes. There are lots of recipes available for healthy meals that aren’t trendy or difficult to prepare.
    Nutrition prior to riding usually consists of a sausage wrap from a local meat processor. There are no preservatives in the sausage at 400 calories and the tortilla is about 200 calories. It lasts for about an hour of riding. During the ride I use blocks and gels. Average calorie deficit is 600-1000.
    It’s not terribly difficult you just have to stay on track.
    I also have a 50 minute exercise routine I do one Tues, Wed & Thur. It helps build my cardio, core and my legs.
    I ride 40ish miles a week during the winter and 50 or more after the time change.
    This is my story and I hope it can help some of you.
    Wheels down, head up.

    Reply • December 3 at 12:59 pm
  18. Paul Oliver says:

    For you old guys, Silver Sneakers YMCA aerobics and circuit training are great in the winter when miles are down. At 67 it gets harder every year to stay on the trail without injury or burnout. Agree with most of you, trash the sweets, white flour products, and heavy starches like potatoes. Add an extra 2 egg whites in the morning for protein, stay with the meat, veggies, and fruit. If you need chocolate try organic vegan protein power for a snack. Stevia if you can stand it.

    My bike is always better than me, train on.

    Reply • December 29 at 2:12 am
  19. Mike Jansen says:

    My initial goal with mountain biking (apart from enjoying it!) is to mainly get fit in the sense of heart, lungs, muscles. Weight loss is a secondary goal. I have found with more intense rides, I’m sometimes getting a fatigue that lasts a couple days. I’ve been gradually getting in shape (starting with hiking, then adding mtb – very mild at first, still fairly mild) so I haven’t really been pushing it too much where I’d think I’d get exhausted. I was a runner many years ago, and I’ve been on and off in shape with mainly hiking, so my body “remembers” and I get back in shape fairly quickly. I’m wondering if I’m not eating properly before my more intense rides and that’s leaving me depleted. (I’m also 45 and I definitely feel that difference!) Any thoughts on what to eat before an intense ride (half hour before, a couple hours before, the day before) to not get depleted? Once I get that figured out, then I’ll gradually figure out how to tweak the diet for better weight loss.

    Reply • May 5 at 2:58 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Unfortunate there is no “best” approach that works for everyone. I have a two resources that can help you find out what works best for you. The first is a podcast I did with Precision Nutrition and the other is the book Primal Endurance by Mark Sisson. Between them you should get an idea of the best answer for you.

      Reply • May 8 at 8:01 am
    • Matt Hixson says:

      Hi Mike, see my other posts above about MAF and becoming fat adapted. I would recommend you build your aerobic base through a couple weeks of MAF riding, that is not exceeding a heart rate of 180 – your age, which would be 135bpm. This will seem extremely slow and you’ll be surprised how quickly a short climb will push your heart rate above that rate. By training for a few weeks at this moderate level of intensity you’ll not only train your aerobic system to be more efficient, but you’ll also get your body accustomed to burning stored body fat.
      Feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss it more.

      Reply • October 8 at 4:05 pm
  20. lalo says:

    I’m 5’8″ and 245lbs… I’m gonna start mountain biking this week. I’ve been invited by some friends who are also beginners.

    My first baby goal is to cut out soda completely. I’m not looking for anything drastic, but i’d like to get down to my normal weight of 175lbs which I was about 6 years ago.

    Reply • June 12 at 5:09 pm
    • Matt Hixson says:

      That’s a great first step. Once you get rid of the soda try to find the next biggest source of added sugar and keep eliminating things. I’m pretty sure you’ll see a noticeable weight reduction just by doing that even without any increased physical activity. If you’re finding yourself getting low on energy without the sugary snacks then supplement your food with sources of healthy fat such as coconut oil, avocado, seeds, nuts, butter from grass fed cows, and fatty cuts of meat from grass fed animals and wild fish.
      If you’d like to know more feel free to reach me through my website at http://www.matthixson.com .

      Reply • October 10 at 1:17 pm

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