How I lost 45kg and Went from Beginner to National Champion

High protein diet and motivation took ex-rower to the top of the podium in cycling

Yesterday Hayley Simmonds became the National Time Trial champion, winning the British Cycling Elite women’s race by over a minute on a technical 33km course.

The Experimental Chemistry PhD student took first place ahead of Liv-Plantur’s Molly Weaver and Paralympic Champion Dame Sarah Storey (Pearl Izumi Sports Tours International).

The success has not been an overnight gift – the 26-year-old Velosport rider has been working hard to transform her body into a lean racing machine for almost five years. We caught up with the her to find out how she did it…

“I always did sport at school, I was always on a netball team or a rounders team, then in senior school I started rowing.

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“I’m blessed with a good set of lungs and a good engine, but my true potential didn’t really come out until I really got into shape and dropped the weight, even when I was rowing I was still bigger than really I should have been.”

Simmonds’ battle with her weight came to the forefront when she took a year out of rowing to concentrate on her Cambridge University degree – she said: “I didn’t really do any sport at all, I ended up getting out of shape. My other half said ‘why don’t you give cycling a go’…”

Simmonds at her graduation after a year out of sport

Mark Holt, Simmonds’ now fiancé, began cycling aged 13 and had a successful racing career behind him. She explained: “I happen to fit basically the same size frame as him, he lent me one if his old racing frames, I got a cheap jersey and a cheap pair of shorts and gave it a go.”

I just fell in love with it and my competitive nature took over

“I just fell in love with it and my competitive nature took over, I wanted to win things and get better so everything progressed from there” she tells me.

Simmonds’ journey has seen her lose 45 kg. As she says, “Someone joked yesterday [at the nationals] that it would have been like trying to ride the National course with another rider on my back almost… so quite a large amount when you think about it.”

As the weight dropped off, results started to shine. At the amateur RTTC National Time Trials in 2012, Simmonds was in the top ten over 10 and 25 miles. In 2013, she was fourth, and in 2014 she won both the 10 and the 50.

Simmonds racing to first place in the RTTC National 10 in 2014

Losing weight and continuing to perform is tough:“I’ve tried to do it sensibly, I’ve not done it really quickly. In the last couple of years it’s been pretty slow progress. From last year to this year I’m down another 5 kg, so not so much over 12 months, but it’s more progress.”

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Managing energy levels is paramount, she says: “I have to be really careful with making sure I’ve got enough energy to train. I make sure that after I’ve done a hard training session I get a quality protein shake in me as quickly as possible, so kind of the magic 20 minute window.”

What does she attribute the bulk of the weight loss to? “I’ve really cut back on high GI carbs, so I really don’t eat pasta, or white bread, or bread in general. Rice, and sweet potatoes are great.

“A lot of people for breakfast like to have toast or cereal, which from different advice I’ve had gets your body into burning the wrong thing to begin with in the morning… so I like to have something high protein for breakfast.

During one stage of my weight loss for breakfast I’d have eggs and nuts or maybe… a piece of steak and some nuts

“During one stage of my weight loss for breakfast I’d have eggs and nuts or maybe… a piece of steak and some nuts”, hurriedly she adds: “I know a lot of people can’t stomach something like steak in the morning but eggs are a good option. Or a protein shake with some high protein yogurt to bulk it out.

“I’m really big on the high protein, with lots of vegetables and very low on white bread and white pasta. That’s been the big change.”

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Sweets and cakes have been off the menu too, she adds: “I’ve been pretty determined about avoiding chocolate and cakes, I have a massive sweet tooth.  I’m big on baking cakes, so now I bake cakes and feed them to other people. A couple of my friends joke that I’m a feeder!”

Other girls would just power off and I’d be slogging away up the hill… and now I’m leading the pack

And what was the effect? “When I started riding, whenever we got to the smallest rise I’d just go backwards, other girls would just power off and I’d be slogging away up the hill… and now I’m leading the pack up the hills which is great.”

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Studying a PhD in Experimental Chemistry, Simmonds is usually in the office from 9-5, training on the turbo in the morning and evening, or starting the day early, to squeeze in up to three hours on the time trial bike in the evening now it’s summer.

She explains: “I try to do at least ten hours of training a week, so on an easy week, I’d do 10-12 hours, on a really hard week I’d do up to 18. We went on a training camp in January, and over 10 days I rode for 45 hours… that was insane.”

We have to ask how Simmonds gets on with sharing both a coach/athlete relationship and a romantic one with Holt, she says: “We bicker quite a lot! But it’s all light hearted bickering. It works really well. He is sometimes slightly tougher on me because he knows he can be a bit more honest with me I suppose. But I’m lucky because he’s always there, he’ll always answer the phone for me which is great. And he really knows his stuff.”

Now she’s achieved a National Champion jersey, how does it feel? “It’s incredible… I couldn’t quite believe it. I didn’t sleep that well last night, but I hung the jersey up on a coat hanger next to the bed in case I woke up thinking it was all a dream.”

I hung the jersey up on a coat hanger next to the bed in case I woke up thinking it was all a dream.

Simmonds, who now rides for Team Velosport, is planning to make the leap to full time, professional riding next year. Sharing her secret to success – she maintains that a goal is paramount, saying: “Pick a goal, find something you’re really motivated to achieve. Having a goal in mind really helps you focus and really helps with the training. It keeps you motivated at times when things are tough.”

Fun is important, too – she adds: “Keep enjoying it, if you don’t enjoy it, what’s the point? You need to love what you’re doing and even when things are hard you have to remember what you’re focusing towards.”

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