Kailey Kornhauser was on the cover of the September 13, 2019 issue of Bicycling magazine. Inside she wrote an article entitled, “I’m a Fat Cyclist, and I Don’t Need to “Fix” My Body: My Weight Doesn’t Need to Change. But the Bike World’s Attitude Towards Me Does.”
The second I saw this article, saw this cover, saw Kailey and her comments, my brain just started screaming….”YES!!! FINALLY!”
Not because I have ever been harassed by other cyclists about my weight. My cycling peers are amazing, wonderful, and supportive humans. Each and every one of them.
I was excited because I rarely see women who look like me in cycling magazines. And certainly not on the COVER. As Kailey mentions, fat women don’t see other fat women cycling in the media and therefore we often don’t think it’s something we really can or should do.
And, if we do take up cycling, it’s not supposed to be because we want to be athletic or competitive, but because there is something wrong with us and we need to lose weight and “fix” our presumably imperfect body.
To say that my weight has been on my mind, in some shape or form, my whole life, is an understatement. I have always wondered…is it genetics? Do I eat too much? Why don’t I look as fit as other girls?
Why are my arms, my belly, my legs so BIG? Why is it that when I work out I seem to get stronger, but I don’t really get any leaner? Will being heavy prevent me from being active and keeping up with my son? Will my joints fail quicker because they are carrying so much extra weight around?
In this article I want to share a little about what it’s like to be a heavy cyclist. I don’t want any women to ever feel like they can’t cycle because there aren’t people out there who like you.
I want you to know how I started to change my mindset about my body, and some of the realities that overweight cyclists might face.
I will share how I approach the sport, my fitness, and how I have finally found a way to be secure, and love my body for what it can do. Not what it looks like.
When I first realized I was fat…
I vividly remember the first time I realized I was bigger than other girls. I was riding the bus to kindergarten and was sitting with a boy on the bus. I was wearing shorts. Another kid said to the boy “Oh! You like girls with sexy legs!”
I looked down at my thighs spread across the seat in my shorts. I didn’t know what sexy meant (I mean thankfully…I was five), but I could tell by the way it was said that it wasn’t good.
I was embarrassed. I am sure my naturally red cheeks got a little redder. I was ashamed.
I started looking at other little girl’s legs, and realized they weren’t really like my own. That mine were a little bigger, heftier, and wider. I didn’t want to be different, but I couldn’t deny that I was.
Ever since then I have identified as fat or overweight. Kids would hurl “fat” insults at me whenever there was a conflict, because it was easy. I was once called a “fat cow” in middle school and dumped out of my chair by a boy because I refused to relinquish my seat to him.
I wasn’t able to keep up with other kids in gym class, so I stopped trying. In high school I actually walked the mile run during the presidential fitness test because I was too out of shape and disinterested to run it.
I acted like I was a rebel and was proud to walk around the field, but I was actually ashamed I couldn’t do it. Gym teachers could not stand me because they perceived my shortcomings as a lack of effort.
They weren’t wrong…at some point I definitely gave up. I was a very active child. I played baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, and was on the swim team, but by high school I just stopped.
I wasn’t excelling at any of these sports, so why bother? I was NOT athletic. I instead chose to focus on other things like academics, music, and theater.
It took decades (and a lot of personal development work) for me to discover that indeed I am athletic, that I want to be healthy, and that I can be both healthy and athletic in the body that I’m in.
My weight has fluctuated quite a bit in my adult life, and though I am currently on the higher end (in the 180s), and short (5’2”), I can honestly say I have never felt better about my body and what it can do. I don’t feel ashamed anymore. I feel proud.
I learned that my thoughts create my feelings. And slowly, over time, by really changing my thoughts I was able to change how I feel about myself.
How I feel about my body.
How I feel about the way I look.
To be blunt, I stopped caring about how other people saw me. I chose not to care.
I choose to feel strong, and that strength makes me feel more beautiful and confident than ever.
Some Tips/Realities of Being an Overweight Cyclist
So now that I have explained how I embraced myself, my body, and found confidence as a cyclist, I feel there are a few key things worth mentioning regarding cycling as a heavier woman.
Some are positive, others maybe not so much, but there are a few things to consider.
#1 You HAVE to Eat, and You Might Actually Gain Weight Cycling
I know. This is the last thing that someone who turns to cycling to be more fit really wants to hear, but it’s true. Well, the “might gain weight” part…who doesn’t love eating?
Last year I was in the best shape of my life, was cycling my shorts off, and managed to gain 20 pounds.
I have found that really and truly, the one way to lose weight if I am so inclined is to pay close attention to my nutrition.
When I am cycling like crazy I am HUNGRY and I have a tendency to EAT ALL THE THINGS. I also feel like I am entitled to eat things that I would normally steer clear of because I think I am burning it all off.
Spoiler: I’m not.
Also, I love all of the cycling gummy products and snacks like CLIF Blocs*, ProBar Bolt *chews, and Honey Stinger Waffles*. Have I mentioned I love food? And also, wine. So yes, all of this can certainly add up.
Now, I tell you this not to say that you should be super concerned about this (I certainly was not last year). It’s just something to be aware of if you tend to put on additional weight and would rather not. You do need to fuel properly for your rides.
Just be mindful of what you’re eating, and how much extra you are eating. If you are interested in losing weight you should shoot for no more than a 200 calorie deficit each day. If you eat too little, your performance on the bike will suffer because you aren’t fueled properly.
Oh, and you will probably be pretty cranky and not a lot of fun to be around!
One of my goals this year is to lose some weight, so I am a little more mindful of nutrition than I was before. I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to lose some weight while cycling as long as it’s from a place of love.
I love my body just the way it is. It does amazing things. At the same time, I want to give it the opportunity to function at its best, cycle faster, and get up those hills a little quicker. Therefore, I am more mindful of what I eat (and drink).
I don’t count calories per se (I have tried, but I truly don’t have the patience for it). I am simply trying to make healthier choices and if I ride a lot one day, I eat more and fuel properly. If I ride less another day, I eat less.
You can get pretty intense about nutrition and that’s just fine, I simply choose not to, and choose to be flexible. Rigidity has never worked for me (see snacks/wine above).
#2 The Heavier You Are, the More Power You Need to Get Up That Hill or Keep Up With the Group
One of the ways that cyclists are sometimes encouraged to get faster is to drop weight. The less you weigh the less power is needed to propel your body up that hill. So yes, the reality is that you may need to put out more power than a lighter cyclist to get up a hill or keep up with the group.
Since I have always been on the heavier side for someone of my height, I just know I am going to have to probably work a little harder, train a little harder, and put out a little bit more power than someone lighter than me to keep up. I have made peace with this. I have embraced this.
I always, always cringe when I see mention of encouraging athletes to drop weight, lose weight, slim down, etc. This, to me, is a potential path to an eating disorder if one isn’t extremely careful. My love for food has always outweighed any desire to be thin, so it hasn’t been a problem for me, but it has certainly happened to people I love.
If you do choose to lose weight, make sure that you do it mindfully and give yourself and that awesome body of yours some grace.
#3 However, the Heavier You Are, the Faster You Will Be Going DOWN Hills!
Wheeeeee!!!! This is the up side! You can certainly get more speed going down hills than someone who is lighter than you. I am assuming it’s basic physics, but I am a history teacher who never took physics so that’s about as far as I can go with this one.
Now, this only really works if you have no inhibition going down a hill (I sometimes get a little panicky if I am going too fast). And, I should probably also mention that for some reason the benefit of being faster down the hill doesn’t seem to completely even out the extra effort needed to climb up the hill, but still, it’s a bonus!
#4 Comfortable Cycling Clothes Can Be Harder to Find
There are some awesome cycling companies out there that make clothes especially for women, and make clothes for bigger women, but the reality remains that like with other articles of clothing, finding cycling clothes that fit can be a challenge. With a little effort though, you will be cycling happy and comfy.
My First Piece of Clothing Advice = Get Padded Bib Shorts: When I first started cycling I got a padded seat instead of padded shorts. HUGE mistake. This never works, trust me. Also, I would definitely go with bib shorts (the ones that look like overalls) instead of just cycling shorts. The shorts alone might bunch up and get stuck under, your, ahem, rolls. Not comfy.
The last thing you want to be doing while riding is yanking down your jersey because you’re afraid your butt is hanging out. So far Pearl Izumi bib shorts* are my favorite. They run mostly true to size from my experience. And sadly, but not too surprising, the more expensive the Pearl Izumi bibs the more comfortable they are.
My Second Piece of Clothing Advice for Girls With Big Calves: Be wary of higher cycling socks. They can REALLY dig in. I have some but some tend to be uncomfortable and cut off my circulation.
#5 Cycling is a Great Sport For Heavier Women Because It’s Zero Impact
My first foray into being fit was actually running. I was overweight, and a friend suggested we do a run/walk program. We completed the program, and then I downloaded the C25K app and actually ran 2 5K’s!
Running felt great at first. It’s so easy! You put on your shoes, grab some headphones, and go!
The problem is though, that my knees are crap. And then I started to develop plantar fasciitis. The fact is that I am heavy, and that I am not getting any younger, and my joints and feet were struggling from the impact.
Enter cycling. Not only was it more awesome than running because I can cover more ground and see more things, but more importantly it is also zero impact. Like your feet don’t touch the ground impact. It was awesome! My knees have actually stopped bothering me altogether!
Well except for that walk where I hyperextended one of my knees trying not to fall when my dog/child tripped me up. Accidents happen. And despite my efforts to blame others; I truly have no one to blame but myself.
I also highly recommend getting a bike fit to help with this, especially if you struggle with the occasional aches and pains. With a bike that is the proper size and fitted to you it will ensure that you aren’t putting undue strain on your muscles and joints.
So…What Are You Waiting For?
Get on out there, get on your bike, and love your body and what it can do. This is an amazing mindset to have regardless of whether or not you are overweight.
Please understand that I fully acknowledge that you don’t need to necessarily be overweight on the scale to feel unhappy with your body or to feel overweight.
I have found that the rush that I feel from riding up a tough hill, doing an extra long ride, or sticking it out on the trainer and putting in more miles and time than I thought was possible just feels so good.
When my husband, an avid cyclist, first suggested I try it and offered to buy me a bike I legitimately thought he was nuts. Cycling is for athletic people like my husband. For people who are fit. For people who effortlessly pull on cycling kits.
It’s not for overweight people like me.
Turns out, I was wrong. Cycling is for everyone and anyone.
That includes me.
Though admittedly, sometimes pulling on that kit can be a struggle, it’s worth it. So, what are you waiting for?
Get on your bike, and ride!
About The Author
Stacy Ann Smith is a New England-based cyclist who strives to stay upright on her bike. She is the founder of Sascy Cycling, and her mission is to encourage women to love their body and focus on what it can do, not what it looks like. When Stacy’s not cycling she is teaching high school history and eating pizza with her husband and son. For awesome women’s cycling tips and to learn more about Stacy, visit Sascy Cycling at www.sascy.com.