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How to stay warm on a winter ride

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bicycle safety 13 Jan 2022 By Denis Voitenko

For many who enjoy riding outdoors, winter weather often means the end of outdoor activities. However, most regions have days that could very well be ideal for a winter ride—if you’re willing to put forth the additional effort that’s required.

Why body heat is a big deal

Knowing what kind of weather you’ll be riding in and planning accordingly are perhaps two of the most significant factors that shape the outcome of your ride. It can be the difference between rolling into your driveway feeling energized and having to wait for a friend to pick you up and take you to an emergency room.

Riding in the cold when you’re unprepared puts you at greater risk of injury, cold-related illness, and even mental duress due to the stress it imposes to your body. That’s because warmed up muscles simply perform more efficiently and are less stressed than muscles that are thrown into a physical activity without warming up in advance. Frigid temperatures cause a more rapid loss of heat and trigger a series of automatic defensive responses through the body.

cyclist in cold weather

If trails you used to breeze through on warmer days feel a lot harder, you have winter to thank for that. Your body will have to work harder than it would in warmer conditions in order to overcome its challenging surroundings. Cold temperatures cause muscles and joints to become tighter and less flexible, making movement more difficult, increasing the likelihood of pinched nerves or injury, and inflicting an overall greater amount of damage on the muscles.

What staying warm means

When most people think about staying warm when they exercise in cold temperatures, they usually think about their apparel. And while staying warm does include wearing riding apparel and accessories that will keep chilly winds out and trap heat in, it’s not everything. Knowing how to warm up before and after your ride are also two critical components that promote a safe, more enjoyable ride and more comfortable, speedier recovery. The importance of these variables increases with the intensity of your ride.

Warming up before rolling out

The purpose of warming up is to set yourself up for a great ride, so if you’re going to take the time to do it, be sure you’re doing it right. For some, doing it “right” means warming up indoors before even starting their ride. A brief indoor routine before starting an easy-spin warm up on your bike helps get oxygen and blood flowing, raises core temperature, and can help prevent certain injuries. It also makes for an easier, smoother warmup in the saddle.

Working through an indoor warmup should be quick and easy. Keep in mind that the objective is to get things moving and to ensure you aren’t overexerting cold muscles and joints, so no need to get creative. Any of the following exercises would serve well as a quick, indoor warmup:

  • Jump rope for 5 minutes
  • Stationary bike or bike on trainer for 5 minutes
  • Walk on treadmill or around your house for 5 minutes
  • 3 sets of 20 air squats
  • 3 sets of 10 push ups
  • 3 sets of 10 burpees

cyclist warming up

Warming up on the ride

Not everyone enjoys indoor warmups, so if you decide to skip an indoor warmup session, not to worry—as long as you commit to a solid warmup for the first 15-20 minute portion of your ride.

Start slow

Always start a warm up slowly, with only easy spinning. Pushing it too hard, too soon, can push you to the point of discomfort and set the precedent for a very uncomfortable ride.

Meditate

Consider using your warm-up time as an opportunity to do some valuable self-assessment. Taking that time to assess your current headspace, to determine how your body feels (any aches or pains?), and to visualize the ride ahead can help cultivate a more fulfilling experience. After all, riding a bike is a body and mind experience.

Make the time count

How long a warmup should last varies from person to person, but most experts recommend allowing your legs 15 to 20 minutes to wake up and warm up before attempting to tackle anything remotely strenuous. If you haven’t ridden in some time, are sore from a previous ride, or temperatures are particularly low, a 30 minute warmup might be more fitting.

winter group of cyclists

Warming up after your ride

Warming up your body post-pedalling is a significant step in the recovery process, its significance increasing as your body temperature decreases. The amount of time it takes to warm up is dependent upon several factors, including your body temperature when you return from your ride, the indoor temperature of where you are resting, and how efficiently your body warms itself under the current conditions. It also depends on certain decisions you make.

Changing out of your sweaty clothes is one of the first things you should do. Not only does it hinder the warming process, but it also puts you at risk of a friction-induced acne breakout. It’s best to swap the sweaty gear out for something cozy and loose, such as a bathrobe. The idea is to let your skin breathe and return to its normal temperature.

A post-ride hot shower might feel great, but heading in for a hot shower as soon as you get home can be extra damaging. Winter weather generally dries skin out, making it more delicate and susceptible to injury. Hot water on dry, winterized skin can result in skin inflammation, itchiness, peeling, and cracking and robs the skin of moisture. If there’s absolutely no way to avoid showering immediately, then begin with cool water and slowly increase water temperature until you reach lukewarm. If you haven’t done so already, consider adding a body moisturizer that’s been scientifically proven to soothe and protect winter-affected skin. It’s recommended that you take some time to warm yourself up a bit in other ways instead of taking a hot shower as soon as you get home.

Eating and hydrating after a chilly ride are also pretty high up on the priority list of things to do—especially if you were shivering during your ride. Research suggests that shivering during most of your ride can cause the body to burn up to five times more energy than usual. Soups and hot chocolate are deliciously warm ways to restore energy and hydration.

hot shower

Saunas and steam rooms are also great ways to warm up pre-shower. If you have access to either and are able to set it to a lower temperature, you’re encouraged to pamper yourself a little.

Some other tips

“Always check the forecast” and “always wear a helmet” are the golden rules when it comes to riding. Here are some less obvious tips to help you weather the cold.

Only take a break if it’s necessary

Unless there’s a heated facility nearby, taking a break from your ride usually means standing in the freezing cold as your muscles continue to lose heat. Depending on how much heat is lost, you might even find that it’s harder to ride after taking that break. If your breaks are limited to being outdoors only, it’s best to stick to rides that are shorter in nature so you can power through and avoid having to stop.

Longer rides in the cold are only recommended to those with the required experience and skills required to complete such a challenging ride. Taking a break during a longer ride is inevitable, as you will certainly need to stop for a snack.

Know your numbers

If you use a heart rate monitor or a power meter, then quantitatively gauge your efforts against your heart rate and/or power. Compare your heart rate to what it would be during a similar effort in warm temperatures, and then determine if any changes need to be made to your plan. Perceived exertion is the way to go if you don’t use any measuring devices. Think about how hard you feel you’re working and how it compares to how you usually feel. Extra high and low heart rates could even suggest illness or overtraining.

winter cycling

Eat and stay hydrated, but don’t overdo it

Nutrition and hydration are two important factors to keep in mind when planning for a cold weather ride. Even if you’re riding the same routes you ride in warmer temperatures, you should expect to burn more calories on winter rides. Remember that shivering consumes energy and make adjustments accordingly. While it’s imperative to replenish lost fluids and calories to avoid bonking, it’s also critical that you avoid overdoing it.

Dress well

If you reside somewhere that experiences all four seasons, then there’s a good chance you already have plenty of gear that you can use. If you have skiing or snowboarding thermals, you can use them as a base layer. Balaclavas are great for keeping your head (including your ears) and neck warm and you already have one for snowboarding or skiing. For especially cold temperatures, snowboarding goggles and helmets are great alternatives to the standard helmet and sunglasses.

Most should expect to purchase winter gloves, tights or arm and leg warmers, a jacket (particularly in colder climates), and decent merino wool socks. If the temperature is dipping below 20F (-6 C) you’ll need wind blocking pants and jacket, and shoe covers. Also be sure to account for wind chill by adding a layer that breaks wind, particularly on your chest and neck.

winter family cycling

Riding in the cold is serious business and requires strategic layering and planning. Make sure your first ride in new gear doesn’t take you far away from home, in case something simply doesn’t work. If you’re feeling even remotely cold or notice that a garment or accessory is causing some kind of discomfort, then you should probably make some changes. Swap out the source of discomfort with a more comfortable replacement and add another layer to compensate for the cold. You can always remove layers later if you start to feel too warm.

Expect some soreness

Just like any other ride or athletic activity, muscle soreness is normal and should be expected—especially if your body isn’t accustomed to riding in chilly temperatures. If you happen to notice increased soreness exclusively after your winter rides, it’s possible that your body is asking you for a longer pre-ride warmup session.

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