How to Maximise your Fat Burning Potential – Without Affecting Performance! By Shelly Meltzer and Associates

Gone are the days of following the same nutrition strategy for each and every ride and for each and every person. As your training programme varies – number of sessions, intensity, duration, different environments and so on – so your nutrition should follow suit. This will allow you to really capitalize on specific training adaptations to reach your performance goals. This strategic approach is referred to as nutrition periodisation.

Training smart by eating smart….

A key principle of periodized nutrition is to train smart by ensuring that you ‘provide the best fuel and adequate energy (kilojoules) for the work required’. Contrary to popular belief this may not mean that you need 100% carbohydrate or 100% fat as neither of these are used exclusively as a fuel when training.  

Most of the time you use a combination of both carbohydrate and fat with the percentage contribution of each changing fluidly. At lower intensities, a higher proportion of fat is burnt for fuel, with carbohydrate brought into the mix as the intensity increases. This switching between fuels is dynamic and may vary during the course of one ride depending on specific demands.

Therefore, if you know your training demands for a specific exercise session, you can manipulate your nutritional intake on different days and base your meal composition and timing of meals and snacks on your exercise session/s.  For example, you would increase your carbohydrate intake when training at higher intensities or if anticipating a hilly route with tough climbs, as the need for carbohydrate as part of the fuel mix is increased when working out at your maximum.

Cyclist on a mountain.

Maximise your fat burning potential – without affecting your performance….

Recognizing that carbohydrate is a limitation to performance – both at high intensities and for endurance events, an approach that has been considered in both research and practice is to train your body to become more efficient at mobilising and burning fat. After all your body has plenty of fat to mobilize compared to carbohydrate stores. So the thinking is that by completing some training sessions with very little carbohydrate intake (‘training low’), and then doing high intensity sessions or racing with a high carbohydrate intake (‘competing high’) you may increase your ability to use fat for fuel at higher intensities thus  sparing carbohydrate and thereby improving performance during endurance and multiday stage events. Practically this may involve:

3 ways to train ‘low’....

A slow recovery ride on a relatively flat route is an ideal time to ‘train low’. Doing this once or twice a week should be sufficient to bring about the adaptations you are looking for. There are a number of ways to ‘train low’:

Training fasted: going out for a ride 6-10 hours after your last meal (would usually be a ride first thing in the morning).

Training twice a day: if you are doing two endurance sessions in a day, withhold carbohydrate from your recovery meal after the first session so that your second session is done without carbohydrates.

Sleeping low and training low: Do a training session in the evening and withhold carbohydrates from your evening meal afterward. Then do a training session in the morning without fuelling up.


To improve energy levels when doing these sessions consider having a shot of coffee and/ or rinsing your mouth out with a carbohydrate drink before your ride. Depending on which strategy you are using, your recovery snack may vary but should always include protein. This can be in the form of milk drinks, yoghurt, smoothies, biltong, chicken or eggs depending on what is most practical at the end of your ride. Doing these sessions too often may decrease your training intensity and therefore prevent you from being able to reach your goals. There is also the risk of illness and infection as carbohydrates have important immune functions. To reduce these risks, and to minimize muscle protein breakdown, ensure that you apply these restrictions only around targeted sessions ensuring that your overall energy intake is sufficient to support your work-load.

Train low, sleep low and train again in the morning is a fat burning routine which when incorporated into a bigger overall plan will help you achieve goals.

Competing ‘high’

When tackling a race with a particularly hilly route requiring high spurts of energy or even a ride with a group who are slightly faster than you, you will be working at a higher intensity and therefore your main fuel in the mix will be carbohydrate. At these intensities your limited muscle glucose stores will be used up much quicker and it is important to consider pre-, during and post-exercise meals and snacks.


Pre-ride snacks/ meals: Fruit, oats, toast or wraps, date balls, crackers, fruit or sports drinks can be used as a pre-training snack. During the ride, take into account the length of your ride, portability of snacks and how your gut feels. Bars, sports drinks and gels can be convenient options to carry, but there are many other food based options which can provide the same nutrients. Consider bananas, dates, naartjies, date balls, boiled baby potatoes with salt and trail mix (dried fruit, coconut flakes, and nuts) on the bike. Recovery: A combination of protein and carbohydrate is the ideal mix in a recovery meal or snack. Consider milk drinks, yoghurt and fruit, biltong, a chicken / egg sandwich.

Fruit and yoghurt combine as an excellent recovery meal for cyclists.
Fruit and yoghurt combine as an excellent recovery meal.

Personalised nutrition for riders

If you know what your overall energy expenditure and fuel usage is for different kinds of training, you can plan your nutrition accordingly. A V02 Max and Fat Max test* will provide this information and show you how much fat and carbohydrate (grams per minute) your body will be using at different exercise intensities.  Once you have this information, a dietitian with sports nutrition experience, can design and customize your nutrition plan to help you achieve specific outcomes. This ideally should include a process of monitoring and follow up allowing for tweaks and adaptations as your training changes. 

It is important to remember that carbohydrate periodisation is only one nutrition strategy and there are many other nutrients to consider as well as other factors when planning your intake. These can include your body composition goals, any medical and injury issues you may have, other forms of training you may be doing, environmental (heat, cold, altitude) considerations as well as your food preferences, intolerances (if any) and supplement usage.

*The Sports Performance Centre at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa will be able to do your V02 max and fat max tests

A pre workout shot of coffee to improve performance.
To improve energy levels when training low consider having a shot of coffee before your ride.

// ENDS //

Written by: Shelly Meltzer & Associates, Dietary Practice associated with the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. Learn MORE:

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