Intermittent Fasting and Cycling To Work: A Secret Weapon


If you have done any research on losing weight, getting into shape, getting fit or just keeping your fitness level, you’ve probably come across both intermittent fasting (IF) and bike commuting as solid recommendations. 

They are often used as cliche bullet points on lists among other things such as: take the stairs, park your car far from the office etc.

Those bullet points don’t do justice to either IF or cycling to work and how powerful they are even in themselves, but much less when combined.

Both intermittent fasting and bike commuting are really large topics worthy of further consideration for anyone trying to build a healthy lifestyle.

I call them the secret weapons of busy people, because they are so easy to implement, yet so powerful when combined. Their beauty lies in their simplicity of approach and in how most people can fit them into their lives.

I have followed intermittent fasting for over 5 years and I’m a full-time, year-round bike commuter. Whenever the topic of fitness comes up in the canteen (almost daily), my colleagues tell me that it’s easy for me to keep fit, because I ride my bike to work. Little do they know that it’s only one part of the equation.

Often we feel that we need a silver bullet to fix our problems, which is why well-marketed fitness programs and special fad diets promising results without making an effort are so popular. 

In reality, I challenge you to think of any result in life that you are proud of and didn’t have to work for…

But working toward a goal doesn’t mean that it has to be boring or impossible. In fact, cycling and intermittent fasting are liberating because they are unconventional and they make you rise above two of your default routines that fill your day, namely:

  • Getting to work
  • Eating

Here’s the genius part, which links food and commuting: 

Getting to work requires energy. 

Food contains energy, which you can use to get to work.

So, buckle up, because we’re about to dive into some of the details to understand why cycling to work and IF are so powerful and how they can be implemented.

Here are the main points we’re going to touch on:

  1. Bike commuting, and its benefits for you. 
  2. Intermittent fasting: what is it and how it works. 
  3. Common problems and concrete tips to combine them.

Since this is going to be a long post, I recommend setting aside some time, and reading carefully. If you want to download the entire post for yourself, you can do it by entering your email address. I will send it to you.

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Bike commuting

If you start biking to work for other reasons, you will quickly realize just how powerful it is to burn calories. Even if you don’t see any difference in your waist size, you will definitely feel the difference in your appetite. 

There are some common concerns and objections when it comes to bike commuting. This is understandable. I have had some of them myself, and I’ve answered several of them on this blog. How far can I go and how long would it take for me to get to work?

Do I need to worry about body odor?

What gear do I need?

Once you’ve answered these questions and you’re ready to get started, you will quickly realize that bike commuting is a powerful tool which is well within your reach.

Easy to fit into a busy schedule

This alone can sell you on bike commuting as a fitness activity.

If you have a busy schedule then you’re probably familiar with the feeling of an exhausted sigh at the end of the week, saying to yourself: I guess I will really have to make a bigger effort to do some exercise next week.

Weeks and months go by and the same story repeats itself. You keep paying your gym membership fee to appease your conscience that you haven’t given up on your ambitious goal to make lasting changes.

The problem is that you never find the time, and many people genuinely don’t have 30-60 minutes to spend on working out a few times a week (especially if you have a family or a demanding job that requires your presence).

Even if you could set aside 30-60 minutes, it wouldn’t even be sufficient for a workout in the gym: to go to the gym, get changed, do your workout, take a shower and return home.

But what if you could do your workout while you’re making your way to work by turning your commute into a workout? Instead of burning gas in your car, you can burn energy contained in your body. It is one of the easiest ways to burn extra calories without having to find extra time.

Transform wasted time

If you look at bike commuting from another perspective, it makes a lot of sense again. Spending 20-45 minutes sitting in traffic every morning just to make your way to work is a “wasted” time. You’re neither at home nor at work nor doing anything that you could directly benefit from. You may use that time to listen to music or podcasts, but let’s face it: you just find activities to kill time during your commute

Riding your bike to work is like taking the initiative and actively transforming that wasted time into something that you directly benefit from. Your commute by car or public transport, which is annoying at worst, boring at best, turns into something enjoyable and fun.

And think about it: it’s exactly the 40-90 minutes a day that you can’t spend going to the gym. 

By the time you get to the office each morning you will feel great and accomplished, because you got from A to B powered by your own feet! What a confidence booster too!

Riding to work is a fitness activity

No matter how experienced you are as a cyclist, and no matter how fast you ride your bike to work, moving forward requires energy. It’s a fitness activity.

The old lady going at a snail’s pace is doing fitness. The young guy ripping up the tarmac at 25 mph is doing fitness. So is everyone else in between.

The difference between one extreme and the other is intensity. You can be serious and intentional about bike commuting as a fitness activity if you make a plan, but know that you don’t need to be a fanatic to see results. It’s a natural consequence of using your own energy to get from A to B.

Cardio

When you do cardiovascular activities such as cycling, you elevate your heart rate to meet your body’s increased oxygen demand

Even cycling at a steady slow pace means that your body requires more energy than it is when you’re sitting idle.

Harvard made a list available which details how much energy is required for various activities. An average 185 lb person can burn around 355 calories during a 30 minute ride when going at a comfortable pace of 12-13.9 mph (19.5 – 22.5 km/h).  While that may not sound much, it’s more than 6 times the amount than your body would require in the same amount of time just sitting in the car.

Going at a fast pace, you can burn 530 calories in the same amount of time. 

You can do the math of approximately how much you could burn each day if you ride your bike to work.

But you can take training to the next level.

HIIT

You can increase the benefits of cycling to work by 25-30% if you add some short sprints to your ride (source: PubMed). This is known as HIIT or High Intensity Interval Training. 

It requires very little extra effort and it gives you huge benefits in return on top of something already beneficial.

In fact, many bike commuters use their commute as a HIIT workout.

On your way home (or on your way to work), ride at your maximum pace for 30 second bursts, followed by a 30 second more moderate recovery. Repeat this 8 times in a row, and you will boost your body’s energy consumption by 25-30%.

If you have a 30 minute ride you can burn around 600 calories this way.

Of course, this is next level training, but you can expect great benefits from a normal comfortable pace too.

Other benefits

Riding your bike on a regular basis also improves strength and endurance

If you’re often short of breath you will notice how easy climbing stairs or keeping up with your children’s pace becomes within a few short weeks of bike commuting. 

You will feel much more alert and sharp, and your overall mode improves greatly, not to even mention the great service you do to your heart and lungs.

Commuting also relieves you from the stress of sitting in a traffic jam, because you’re in constant motion. 

By the time you get home from work you don’t have to think of doing something for your health, you have already done two workouts. 

Intermittent fasting

Let’s turn to the other component of this secret weapon: intermittent fasting.

This is conventional wisdom turned upside down.

Most of us feel hungry no later than we get out of bed. In fact, most people grab something to eat within 15 minutes of waking up

Popular wisdom suggests us to eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper. You shouldn’t go to bed with a full stomach since you won’t be able to burn the calories you ingest in the evening and it all builds up in the form of fat. 

Popular wisdom also suggests us to eat many small meals throughout the day, as opposed to a few large meals. This way you can keep control of the amount you eat at any given time because by keeping food in your system you never feel hungry. You also keep your metabolism firing at an optimum rate this way.

Intermittent fasting challenges the breakfast first and many small meals theory, and makes two bold suggestions:

  • Delay your breakfast
  • Eat only 2 or 3 times a day and don’t snack in between

What is Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting (IF) is a dietary protocol that tells you when to eat and when to fast.

If you think about it, it’s powerful, because unlike any other diet it doesn’t restrict what you can eat or how much you can eat. IF tells you to keep an 8 hour window open for eating throughout the day, and don’t open that window until as late as you can.

There’s no such a thing as a forbidden food. Even your favorite apple pie!

Special diets are never easy to keep and cause much frustration, but much less for someone on a busy schedule or for someone living with other people. If you or someone in your family has ever been on a special diet, you know what a pain this can be. There are two solutions:

  • Lowest common denominator: everyone eats according to the strictest diet. This is very frustrating for everyone except one.
  • Cooking separately: this is very frustrating for the one who preps the meals. 

You don’t bump into these issues with IF since you can eat anything, just not anytime.

Intermittent fasting protocols

There are various approaches to intermittent fasting called protocols. These are the three most popular ones. 

16/8

By far the most popular and easy to implement protocol is the 16/8 protocol. The numbers refer to the hours of fasting (16) and hours reserved for eating (8).

If you follow this plan, you have 8 hours to consume all of your meals each day followed by 16 hours of fasting. For example, if you have the first meal of the day at 11 am, you should have the last meal of the day at 7 pm. If you wait to have “breakfast” at 1 pm, you can have your dinner at 9 pm.

Whether you start your first meal at 10 am or 12 pm is entirely up to you. The system works with you. This is why it’s so powerful and easy to implement.

This is my preferred plan. I have my first meal sometime between 11 am and 12 pm and my last one between 7 and 8 pm.

Whether you still have your three meals or go down to two meals is entirely up to you, and it can vary from day to day. As you will see later, the magic happens in the 16 hour fasting period.

Here are some visual examples of when you could eat.

5/2

Instead of hours, the 5/2 refers to the days of the week when you decide to take a break from eating. You have 5 days of eating normally and fast 2 days a week.

For example you could have meals as normal on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and fast for 24 hours on Tuesday and Friday.

The main difference between 5/2 and the other IF plans lies not only in the timing, but also to the restrictions: in the 5/2 plan you’re allowed to consume a modest 500 calories on the days of fasting, and you’ll still get the same benefits.

OMAD

This acronym refers to One Meal A Day, and it’s exactly what it suggests: you plan to have one meal each day. It’s also known as the Warrior’s Diet.

After fasting for almost a whole day, you consume all your caloric intake in one session.

Which is the best for you?

The best protocol for you is the one that you can fit into your schedule and find easiest to follow. In terms of efficiency, you need to experiment, because everyone’s body responds to them differently

In my experience as a bike commuter, a well dialled-in 16/8 plan is the easiest to follow and it gives great benefits. 

Why does IF work?

I don’t pretend to be a nutritional expert, but here’s some of the background of why intermittent fasting works, explained in my own layman’s terms.

The Principle of Low Hanging Fruit

Energy stored in two ways: blood sugar (aka. glycose) and fat. Blood sugar, as its name suggests, is contained in the blood, and it’s the easiest for your body to tap into as an energy source. 

Fat is stored in your cells and can’t be used directly. It’s more difficult for your body to access it. Since your body is lazy and always reaches for the low hanging fruit, and goes for the Easy Energy First (EEF). You always use up the energy available in your blood sugar first, and only then does it reach for the fat.

When you eat (especially carbohydrates, such as sugar, potato, pasta or bread) you cause a spike in your blood sugar level. This gives you an immediate boost of energy.

Cyclists going for long rides take energy bars, drinks or chocolate because it helps them maintain their blood sugar level so they can fuel their muscles and perform at their peak level.

As we said, after you’ve depleted the sugar level, you will start using energy contained in the form of fat

This is where IF gets interesting. After about 10-12 hours of not eating, your blood sugar level is zero, and your body needs energy to keep going, so it’s forced to use the energy available in fat. In the last 4-6 hours of the 16 hour fasting period, your body is very efficient at burning fat, because it’s the only energy source it can tap into.

More on this later…

Contrast IF to eating several small meals throughout the day from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep. Since you ingest food all the time, you keep your blood sugar level stable. Your body always has easy access to energy.

The Two Hormones

There are a bunch of different hormones that regulate various functions of the body, but insulin and growth hormone both deserve special attention in intermittent fasting. Don’t take my word for it: here’s a post published on Harvard’s website about insulin in IF (link to post) and a JCI study available on NCBI about growth hormone (link to abstract).

When you eat, your body produces insulin in order to break down the sugar in your blood and turns it into energy for your cells. After all the sugar is gone from your blood your insulin level is also depleted. 

The frequency with which you eat influences your insulin sensitivity. Regularly depleting your insulin level by keeping longer periods of fast leads to increased insulin sensitivity, while regular snacking keeps the insulin production constant, and results in a lower insulin sensitivity.

The more sensitive your body is to insulin, the more efficient it is in using up the energy from the food you ingest

During intermittent fasting you regularly deplete your insulin level and you also improve your insulin sensitivity, which makes your body more efficient in burning energy when you do eat.

The other hormone that comes into play here is growth hormone, which is responsible for enabling muscle growth and muscle tissue repair. This is necessary if you want to become fitter and stronger. 

The problem is that insulin and growth hormone can’t both be present in your body at the same time, and the presence or absence of insulin is what determines whether there is growth hormone. Think of it as a see-saw, where the insulin is the heavy brother, who decides who’s up and who’s down.

During the fasting period your body stops producing insulin and starts producing growth hormone.

Exercise also stimulates the production of growth hormone, and the body also releases it while you’re recovering from exercise at night (for example, elite athletes always make sure they get sufficient sleep, which helps them recover from training faster).

Fasted Cardio: the Fat Burning Superpower

If you didn’t skip the previous paragraphs, you see where this is going and how you can take advantage of what we’ve learned.

If you do cardio training in the morning before you have your first meal you’re turning something that’s already beneficial into a true superpower. This is also known as fasted cardio.

Think of it:

  • You have been fasting all night (and potentially for a few hours before going to sleep), so your insulin is at its lowest.
  • You have been sleeping at night, so your growth hormone level has been raised
  • By doing exercise you further raise your growth hormone level
  • To do cardio, you force your body to turn the energy contained in fat into glucose

This is where bike commuters who follow intermittent fasting have a real edge over those who do cardio in the afternoon or evening, after having had several meals and a stressful day (stress is also a growth hormone inhibiting factor).

Food consumed after fasted cardio will be used much more efficiently, especially if it is proper nourishment. 

Why is intermittent fasting so powerful? Should you try it?

Intermittent fasting is the simplest way to bootstrap weight loss and maintain a healthy weight without following a special diet. It’s not a silver bullet, because it requires discipline, but it’s very simple to follow once you get the hang of it.

Given that it doesn’t require you to add anything to your schedule, but it’s so flexible that it can work with your life’s rhythm, it’s hard to find an excuse to not give it a try. 

We have five kids who eat their regular meals, but my wife and I both follow the 16/8 plan, and it’s one of our secret sauces. We don’t need to remove foods from our diet, everything is allowed as long as we don’t go crazy. In fact, we’re having some tea and chocolate as I’m writing this post. 

Instead of adding anything to what you already eat, you only delay your first meal as long as you can. This can be challenging at first, and you may find it difficult to go without food in the first days or weeks. 

Since we’re talking about delaying or skipping a meal and not about taking some special supplements, there’s no cost involved, and you can get started right away. Even if you live an active social life, IF works with you, and if you fall off the bandwagon, you can pick it up where you left it off at any moment.

Can you still overeat if you follow IF and put on weight? Of course, you can. Limiting the times you eat your meals doesn’t change the laws of nature. The amount of calories you consume (Calories In) and the amount of calories you burn (Calories Out) have to balance out. You’re just more efficient in burning calories. So it still holds true:

  • If you eat more than you burn, you put on weight.
  • If you burn more than you eat, you lose weight.
  • If you eat and burn the same amount of calories, you maintain your weight.

I have written about bike commuting and weight loss in this and this post.

Is IF going to make you hangry?

It’s hard to tell in advance how your body will react and adapt, but most people who try intermittent fasting report the opposite. They seem to be more alert and less concerned about what they’re going to eat next. 

It’s definitely a shock to your system especially if you’ve never gone without food for any length of time, so don’t be surprised if you feel cravings. Know that once you are up and running with the plan in full effect, it’ll get way easier, and it’s something you can follow long-term.

The body has a tremendous capacity to adapt to new and unknown situations such as cold, heat, physical stress, living with limitations as well as hunger. Moreover, there’s no need to completely shock your system, but you can ease into IF gradually. 

In fact, if you’re a bike commuter or an active person in general, it’s advisable to ease your way into IF. 

Should you bike commute and do intermittent fasting?

Having seen the benefits of both bike commuting and intermittent fasting, one thing is very clear: they are super powerful when combined.  

When you make radical changes to your life overnight you should come prepared because you will face some difficulties. Some of them are more obvious than others, but anything that you experience as a difficulty can jeopardize your success.

Just knowing of three of the main obstacles and difficulties, and being prepared to deal with them will increase your chances of succeeding.

Hunger

If you’ve been used to having breakfast first thing in the morning your entire life, you will experience hunger trying to delay your first meal. This is normal, and it will be so for some time. 

Maybe you need to deal with more than just the feeling of hunger, and your body may actually need food sooner than you intend to eat. For example, I know someone who used to faint if she didn’t have something to eat within 1-2 hours of waking up. She now follows the 16/8 plan and her first meal is after 12pm. 

Add a 30-40 minute bike commute which requires energy to IF, and you can be dealing with serious hunger levels by the time you get to work. 

The good news is that our bodies have fantastic capacity to adapt to new situations such as IF or bike commuting. Even if you can’t get started with the full 16/8 plan and riding to work 5 times a week overnight, you can eventually get easing into it step by step.

Friends, colleagues and family

Maybe this comes to you as a surprise, but the fear of the reaction of those who are close to us can be an obstacle to getting started.

What will they think of me if they find out I’m having my breakfast at 11 am? What will they think of me if they see me arriving on a bike?

These reactions are quite common and to be expected. I get my fair share of comments at my workplace for both my eating habits and my method of transportation.

The truth is that you can be proud that you’ll have done more for your health by the time you get to work on a Monday morning than most of them will during the entire week.

Portions

Portion control is closely related to hunger and it’s a very personal issue that affects different people in different ways. If you generally have problems with portion control, you need to have a strategy in place.

I have found it most difficult to keep my first meal in check and the best tool to keep this under control has been preparing my breakfast the night before and leaving it in my pannier bag. That way I know exactly how much I will eat, because I don’t keep snack food in my bag or in the office. 

Certainly, if you move, you will need to eat more in order to replenish your body, so don’t go crazy with tiny portions, but if you struggle with stopping, it’s a good strategy to have in place.

Remember that this is a long-term game and a lifestyle change.

How to get started?

As with every great achievement, a little planning yields great dividends and as the saying goes, fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

New to both

If you’re at a pivot point of your life and want to make a serious lifestyle change, you should always proceed with caution. In every case you should consult a medical professional who can give you guidance and clear directions.

For someone severely overweight or obese, getting into both bike commuting and intermittent fasting cold turkey is just too big of a shock to the system. It doesn’t mean that he or she can’t get there eventually, but it’s better to ease into it gradually and start with one.

My recommendation is to get started with Intermittent Fasting first, and get ready for bike commuting in the first few weeks. 

Even if your end goal is to follow the stricter protocols (5/2 or OMAD), start with the 16/8 first, since it’s the easiest to implement.

New to bike commuting

If you already do intermittent fasting and want to get into bike commuting, the main hurdle you have to overcome is dealing with an increased appetite. Since your body is already used to not having meals as you once did and you delay your first meal until later in the day, this isn’t going to be a big difficulty.

Unless you train seriously on a regular basis (in which case you probably wouldn’t be reading this article), riding 30-40 minutes each way 5 days a week can lead to a burnout, which is made worse if you don’t nourish your body properly. This will quickly result in you hating your bike commute.

Get your body used to riding to work by starting with one or two days initially, and gradually building up to 3-4-5 days a week. You can be a “full-time” bike commuter within 4-5 weeks.

If you feel that you couldn’t even do a single day of riding to work and back, you should start preparing for the first commute by going out for brisk walks in the evening. Start with something you can manage, and build up to a 30-40 minute walk without making any stops. A simple plan such as the one below can work great:

Week 1: 15 minute walk every other day

Week 2: 25 minute walk every other day

Week 3: 35 minute walk every other day

Week 4: first bike commute

In terms of nutrition and fasting, you should pay attention to your body and the feedback it gives you. You may have to adjust your feeding window to suit your new energy demand, especially if your current feeding window starts too late in the day.

New to intermittent fasting

If you’re currently a bike commuter, the best way of getting started with IF is by gradually pushing out your meals.

Some people adapt to intermittent fasting very quickly, but most of us are used to having something to eat before leaving the house. As bike commuters, having sufficient energy to fuel our rides is very important. 

To make sure that you don’t ‘run out of gas’ during your ride and you can keep your focus at your workplace, try skipping your meal before the ride and plan to have something as soon as you get to the office. To be on the safe side take something with you that can give you a boost of energy in case you’re feeling depleted.

Don’t feel bad about having to grab a bite in the first days or weeks. It’ll get easier.

Conclusion

We’ve seen how you can combine two powerful tools, namely Intermittent Fasting and Bike Commuting, and forge them into a Secret Weapon that can help you be the fittest version of yourself in a short order.

I hope you’ve found something that inspired you and you’re ready to give it a try.

Happy Pedaling (and Enjoy the Fast)!

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