Health and fitness | 13 MIN READ

How to train in the cold

How to train in the cold

Winter weather doesn’t have to put an end to your rides, but it does mean that you’re going to have to make a few adjustments to continue enjoying them year round. For many cyclists, winter is synonymous with “bike trainer season.” It’s the time of year when many bike trainers find themselves being dusted off and set up until warmer days return. However, unless weather conditions are “extreme,” it doesn’t have to be that way. And it shouldn’t be.

Health benefits of winter biking

Before writing off outdoor riding until next year, it’s worth knowing that there are quite a few health benefits that come along with this chilly hobby. It seems that winter bicycling has a profoundly positive impact on the mind and body.

Studies continue to link bicycling with a variety of benefits, but the fact that riding can help combat conditions like seasonal affective disorder, more commonly called the “winter blues” or “blahs” due to its higher prevalence during the wintertime, might be one of the most telling. Mental Health America (MHA) defines seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as “a subtype of depression or bipolar disorder that occurs and ends around the same time every year...when the seasons change” and estimates that five percent of the US population are affected in a given year. It can arise during any time of the year, but symptoms most frequently begin in the fall and prevail through the winter months when days are shorter and nights are longer. MHA describes symptoms as “typically consistent with those that occur with depression,” but identifies “carbohydrate craving, increased appetite, excessive sleepiness, and weight gain” as the symptoms that are more common in SAD than other forms of depression.

cycling in winter

Research has shown that winter bicycling can help prevent inactivity for those who struggle with SAD. This benefit is very specific to winter riding itself; winter riding gets people out of the house and outside where they’re exercising, breathing in fresh air, and taking in all kinds of scenery. For cyclists who experience the winter blues and often retreat indoors when cold weather hits, it might be worth reconsidering your decision. Just be sure that you’ve got the right gear for the weather in which you’ll be riding and that your bike is capable of whatever is out there.

Many cyclists describe a sense of peace and solitude on their winter rides and attribute that tranquility to so many trails and roads that are generally congested during warmer temperatures being nearly empty when cold weather hits. Others describe feelings of exhilaration and pure energy during their winter rides. Whether your winter rides bring you to a place of peace or take you on an exhilarating energy-packed adventure, it seems the end result is a good one.

If you’re an avid cyclist of any kind, then you know the challenges of maintaining fitness during wintertime. Winter riding is a great way to not only maintain fitness, but also establish a solid foundation for summertime riding because the tougher conditions force your muscles to work harder.

How the cold affects the body

Though some people may run a little lower or higher in comparison, the average internal temperature of a human being is 98.6 F (37 C). Maintaining your normal internal temperature—whatever it may be—is absolutely necessary if your body is to function properly. Cold weather causes your body to lose energy faster than it would in warmer temperatures, which means it has to work harder to somehow compensate for that lost heat. All that extra hard work puts additional stress on the body that’s probably already working in overdrive, just to maintain normal internal functioning. This kind of overwhelm can bring about all kinds of other involuntary reactions within it.

When exposed to cold weather, the body must defend itself on a variety of levels and involves your entire system. Blood automatically moves inward and away from extremities, a way the body prioritizes organs over extremities. The nose starts to drip and frequent urination is likely. When the heart works harder to keep you warm and your muscles moving, the result is an elevated heart rate and blood pressure.

Cold-induced muscle contractions are involuntary movements that occur with great frequency. When cold weather causes muscles to lose heat and contract, they will get tighter, and in the process so will the joints. Tense muscles and joints are often manifested by a loss of range of motion and make your ride feel even more strenuous. For some, it can even increase the likelihood of experiencing pinched nerves.

The nose and airways do a pretty good job of warming up even the chilliest of air so that it’s warm by the time it reaches the lungs, but breathing in cold air for an extended period of time can eventually take its toll and cause a shortness of breath. In some situations, cold air can lead to bronchoconstriction, a condition that occurs when the smooth muscles of airways constrict and can make it difficult to breathe. Pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, increase both the severity and likelihood of developing cold-induced bronchoconstriction.

cyclist walking next to bike

Goosebumps, which are caused by many tiny muscles flexing under the skin, are also a response to chilly temperatures but are pretty useless if you don’t have fur. Knowing when it’s time to end a ride is key to being safe. Shivering is an involuntary muscle movement and it’s your body’s desperate attempt to warm itself. Once the shivering begins, it’s time to end your ride and find the nearest place where you can warm yourself because at this point, you are at risk of developing hypothermia.

Since cold weather affects the body on so many levels, warming up before rolling out is a good way to set yourself up for a successful ride. While you may be eager to get out there, warming up helps get you ready on a full-body level. Your muscles, airways, and lungs are given a chance to slowly increase in temperature, making the transition of temperatures easier on your entire body.

Cyclists beware

With so many variables to consider as you get ready for your chilly ride, it’s easy to accidentally overlook a detail or two. Even if you take every precaution possible, there are some situations that are simply beyond your control. For one, you don’t know what you don’t know, so you can’t prevent a pothole-induced flat if you don’t know there’s a pothole ahead. While no one can predict every situation, there are ways to protect yourself against certain negative outcomes and to promote the possibility of a successful, enjoyable ride regardless of the season.

Check the forecast

The absolute first thing you should do before heading out for any bike ride is check the weather forecast, and always plan for the worst. This is especially true if you’re going to be riding about in winter weather because conditions can change at the drop of a hat and it’s rarely for the better. It might be the most beautiful winter day of your life with a temperature reading of fifty degrees when you roll out, but thinking ahead is the only way to survive winter bicycling. That means looking at the daily highs and lows, anticipated hourly changes, weather warnings, and even wind chill. If you have to drive to a trailhead, then be sure to check the weather conditions of where you’ll be riding because they could turn out to be significantly different from what you’re experiencing at home. Avoid making assumptions and overcome the itch to be lazy: just check the weather forecast.

mtb in winter mountains

Temperature

Unfortunately, cold air is a frequent issue during the winter season and there’s no way to combat it. Cold can trigger certain conditions, such as an asthmatic episode or bronchoconstriction, which is why you must always know the anticipated temperature of where you’ll be riding. You can’t change the air temperature, but warming up before a ride means your body won’t have to work so hard once you’re out in the cold, which means your ride won’t feel quite as hard either.

Air density is affected by temperature, pressure, and humidity, but the effects of temperature are most profound. As the temperature of air becomes lower, the air itself becomes denser. Denser air is harder to breathe and will therefore make your ride harder.

Humidity

Humans are very sensitive to humidity since it’s directly linked to perspiration. Our skin relies on air to evaporate sweat. The majority of people find the relative humidity level of 30-50% most comfortable. While your body will not sweat in the cold, the humidity from the air can cover your skin in moisture which will have a similar cooling effect as sweating in a hot environment. If the humidity levels are high, the moisture can be absorbed by your clothing, putting cool water molecules against your skin, making it feel even colder.

Clothing made out of merino wool is very popular with athletes training in the cold because it’s softer, more flexible, and a lot less itchy than regular wool. Wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water while still remaining dry to the touch. In doing so, it pulls moisture away from the skin to the surface, where it evaporates.

Wind Chill Factor

Perhaps one of the most significant risks of exercising in the winter is that of wind and wind chill. The temperature outside might be 40 F (4 C), but if you find yourself riding somewhere where you’re exposed, you might have to endure sub zero wind chills which can put you into dangerous territory. Always carry along wind protection because super cold wind chills cause the body to lose heat at a more rapid rate and can quickly put you at risk of hypothermia or worse. If winds are a possibility, try sticking to a route that leaves you less exposed; trees and buildings offer great protection from freezing wind gusts. A wind blocking jacket or an outer shell can be the most useful layer here. Since roughly 7-10% of body heat is lost through the head, a beanie or a skull cap can help deal with the chill factor even more.

Slippery surfaces

When dealing with winter weather, it’s likely that snow, sleet, and ice are going to be a part of the deal. Black ice is a thin, transparent ice glazing that forms on riding surfaces, especially those exposed to winds, such as bridges. Because it’s transparent, the road can be seen below, often leading motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians to thinking the surface is safe. Unless you’re fortunate enough to live in a place where the sun quickly melts everything away, these types of frozen precipitation tend to stick around for a while. Add salt to the mix and conditions become more dangerous because those little granules significantly compromise tire traction.

cycling winter crash

While your bike is designed to operate as intended in cooler temperatures, if you plan on riding through snow and slush, switching to winter-specific tires can make your ride a bit safer and as a result, more enjoyable. Winter tires are normally wider, have bigger knobbies with specially designed tread to improve grip on slippery surfaces, and are made of thicker rubber, which offers additional protection from punctures. The rubber compound of winter tires is designed to retain its elasticity in colder temperatures, greatly improving both traction and braking.

Riding posture is always important, but in cold weather it becomes even more so. While it’s natural to tense up in the cold, learning to relax can make the ride more enjoyable and a lot less strenuous. Since muscle fibers become a bit brittle when they become cold, be sure to keep a relaxed stance; in the event of a surprise slip or crash, a relaxed posture helps absorb impact.

Water or wet weather

Whether it’s riding near water or in wet riding conditions, always proceed with the utmost caution because water conducts heat 25 times faster than air. This means your body loses heat much quicker in cold, wet riding conditions than it does in dry ones, which also increases your risk of developing hypothermia. If there’s a chance you could wind up wet during your ride, it’s best to take training indoors. If riding outdoors is the only option, then make sure you’re fully equipped with reputable rain gear that’s sure to keep you dry. Avoid taking a lot of breaks, as doing so causes the body to unnecessarily lose lots of valuable warmth.

Daytime visibility

Unpredictable weather conditions that result in reduced visibility, such as snow squalls and fog, can lead to all kinds of scary scenarios. Mountainous regions and those that are near large bodies of water are more likely to experience these kinds of unexpected weather intrusions. Make sure that you’re seen from afar by using bright colored reflective gear and have both front and rear facing lights on the bike, even during the day. Daytime running lights have proven to greatly improve safety by making a cyclist visible in low light conditions, which are prevalent during the winter months.

Night riding

For many, winter means shorter days. Depending on your regular summertime riding routine and how you use your bike, you might find yourself riding in the or even complete darkness. With daylight savings time, it’s not unusual to find yourself riding in the dark by mid-afternoon. Being properly equipped becomes even more critical since the risk of a serious mishap or an injury goes up significantly in low visibility conditions. It is your job to ensure that both you and your bike are visible to others. Lights, bright colored reflective clothing are a must. Bright lights (at least 500 lumen) maximize visibility for you and for whomever you’re sharing the road. Also consider that temperatures drop quickly and significantly at sundown and it truly is one of the worst times to be unprepared.

cycling at night

Obstacles

Throughout the winter riding season, you’re bound to encounter all kinds of obstacles and obstructions: debris from car accidents litter roadways, snow banks and ice piles collect along roads, curbs, and trails, narrowing the available riding and driving space. Subsurface dangers, including potholes, tree branches, and tree roots become impossible to see under layers of snow. Even the normally empty no-parking zones become riddled with cars, oftentimes obstructing access to designated bike lanes.

Cars

While making yourself more visible isn’t exclusively related to cars, the possibility of being hit while riding is perhaps one of the greatest reasons why being unavoidably seen is absolutely necessary. With variables such as limited visibility, slippery surfaces, and unexpected obstacles, it’s critical that you not only make yourself visible, but that you make certain considerations on behalf of others. Remember that drivers are experiencing the same hazards and unexpected conditions as you. Assuming that you’re not seen is the defensive riding mindset that saves lives. If you are commuting on roads, learn how to avoid the most common car-bicycle accidents in our article “Most common accidents when riding on the road.”

Check your bike

It’s easier to fix your bike in your garage than in the freezing cold, so take the extra time needed to ensure that everything is working as it should be. Always check the shifting, brake pad condition, and tire pressure before leaving your house and remember to pack necessary bike tools—just in case. Knowing how to fix a flat or repair a broken chain are two bike issues that should be expected at some point during your winter riding season, so be sure to brush up on your basic bike maintenance skills, again—just in case.

Dress for success

Some people like to think of riding in the winter as simply riding in “less heat.” While that certainly may be the case for many, it’s important to realize that you are not only exercising in less heat, but that the cold temperatures can actually wreak havoc on your body if it isn’t properly protected and that some body parts are more vulnerable than others.

There’s a classic saying about training in the cold: “There’s no bad weather—just bad gear.” And while it’s mostly true, there are certain temperatures where no amount of gear will suffice and it’s best to stay indoors. On days where a winter ride can be safe, staying warm during your ride will really boil down to three things: balancing physical activity, suiting up with the right gear, and knowing what safety precautions to take.

Layering

The best thing anyone can do when getting dressed for a winter ride is wear layers. Layering provides greater overall insulation, offers greater protection from wind, and allows you to customize the degree of ventilation best suited for your ride. Trapped sweat can actually cool your body down, so be sure that base layers are made of a material proven to wick away sweat. If you find that you overdressed for the occasion, you can always remove a layer and just tuck it into a pocket or your hydration pack. When it comes to arctic adventures, it’s best to overdo it.

winter cycling clothing

Knees

Unlike muscles, tendons are harder to thermoregulate because there’s no direct blood supply. Make sure you have a good bike fit, wear a pair of quality knee warmers or bib tights, and avoid unnecessary stress by sticking to lower gears to avoid the unnecessary stress on your knees.

Fingers and toes/hands and feet

Hands and feet are especially vulnerable in the winter because they’re on exposed contact points.

Insulated gloves that are thick enough to keep heat in and slim enough to ensure you’ll never miss a shift or brake are your best bet, but you might find that doubling up on glove layers or opting for lobster mitts might be the solution. Others swear by the pogies, neoprene handlebar mitten covers that are designed to keep hands warm in temperatures below 40 F (5℃). With so many options out there, you might find that you simply have to experiment a bit until you figure out what works best for you. Chemical hand warmers used for skiing or snowboarding can also be used for those extra chilly days.

To keep your toes warm and frostnip free, remember to focus on materials and fabrics that will help trap in heat or block wind. Good socks and overshoes should be the minimum. Wool socks are known to be particularly warm, but cyclists tend to specifically prefer merino wool because it’s warm and less prone to stretching and sagging. Some cyclists even go so far as to wrap a layer of plastic wrap or foil around the toes to trap in heat! What it boils down to is doing what’s necessary to avoid cold-related ailments.

Numbness isn’t only associated with cold fingers and toes, so before pedalling out for your ride, there’s one more thing you must do: the toe test. Once you’ve layered your feet up in everything you plan on wearing during your ride, wiggle your toes around and assess how tight it is. If you don’t have enough room to wiggle your toes, you may need to consider buying a wider pair of shoes for winter riding. Riding with shoes that are too tight will limit blood circulation and can result in numbness and even injury.

Head & neck

The head and neck are two parts of the body that lose more heat than most people realize. Because the scalp is networked with blood vessels, a great deal of warmth ends up being lost through the head. Wearing a beanie or skull cap under your helmet is always a good idea—especially if it’s super cold outside and you’re wearing a well-ventilated helmet.

If you already have a snowboarding helmet, it could be a good winter riding helmet. Snowboarding helmets work well for super cold days because they usually offer less ventilation than a normal bike helmet would and often come equipped with ear warmers. They’re also a good option for those whose bike helmets are a bit too snug when wearing a hat underneath; snowboarding helmets are roomier because they’re designed to be worn with a hat underneath.

Icy winds hitting your neck at any angle is also going to increase the rate at which you lose heat, so protecting it is of the utmost importance. In real wintertime temperatures, turtlenecks just might be the way to go. Some prefer neck warmers and gaiters or balaclavas that can be thrown on with ease. If the delicate skin of your neck becomes irritated, using lube cream before future rides could help.

Before riding out, don’t forget that your delicate eyes also need protection from cold temperatures and gusty winds. Extra large riding glasses or snowboarding goggles are great options for keeping your peepers safe.

long winter ride

Long rides

Unless you’re riding in fair weather, long rides in cold temperatures of 20 F (-6 C) or below are not a good idea on a multitude of levels. Your body’s ability to maintain normal internal conditions is one, but the cold affects more than just you; it affects your bike, too. Bicycles are designed to withstand a certain amount of ruggedness, but many make the mistake of assuming that because their bike can endure rough terrain, it can endure excessively cold temperatures, too. This is not the case.

In extremely cold temperatures, all kinds of bike features become impaired. Viscous oil in suspension, hydraulic fluid in the brakes, and the sealant in tubeless tires won’t work as well. Tire rubber loses elasticity and loses its gripping and braking performance. Even the chain lube hardens, making it less effective at doing its job. Knowing that your brakes and tires aren’t performing optimally should be all the reason you need to take your training indoors. However, if you absolutely must go for a long ride, be sure to take some basic precautions.

Basic precautions

Make sure your cell phone is charged and keep a spare/backup battery onhand. Pack an emergency radio or beacon if you don’t have service in the area you’ll be riding. Always bring a day or two’s worth of calories with you; it’s best to go for protein bars and other calorie-dense snacks. It is recommended that you don’t stop riding unless you have to, because that rest time actually results in your muscles rapidly cooling down.

What to do when you realize you rode unprepared

If you happen to notice that you’re unprepared once you’re well into your ride, then all you can do is focus on getting home as quickly and safely as possible.

If you have extra layers of clothing, put them on. Wearing layers helps block external wind and trap internal heat. Aside from stopping to put on additional layers, don’t stop riding unless you absolutely have to. Each time you stop riding, you’re allowing your muscles to cool down, a negative when you’re outside in the cold and have nowhere to warm up. If you continue pedalling, your muscles will continue to generate much-needed heat. Be sure to hydrate and consume calories as you ride to avoid becoming dehydrated or bonking due to insufficient caloric intake.

This is not a good time to be a hero and there’s no shame in “throwing in the towel.” Evaluate your abilities and the situation you’re in and make a judgement call. If you have hours to go and you’re starting to shiver, it might be best to call a friend, Uber, or maybe 911.

Pre-hospital treatment

Once you get home from your surprise extra long and chilly ride, it’s imperative that you tend to yourself immediately: remove any wet garments and warm yourself up. You can use warm but never hot water or warmer creases of the body, such as the armpits or groin, to relieve hands and fingers. Always avoid anything excessively hot because when fingers get extra cold, they begin to lose sensitivity.

Whether or not a visit to a medical facility is necessary will depend on how long you were outside in the cold and whether or not you were sufficiently prepared to endure it. Inspect your fingers and toes, if they continue to look bluish-white, purplish or brown, you might have frostbite and might require medical attention. When in doubt, consult medical advice.

mtb in winter

Cold-induced injuries and illnesses

In most cases, cold-induced injuries and illnesses are preventable.

First and foremost, never ride in sub-zero temperatures. By simply staying in when it’s frigidly cold outside, the risk of injury or illness due to exposure is entirely eliminated. Also avoid riding if you aren’t sufficiently prepared; if you’re not riding with gear appropriate for the weather conditions, haven’t adequately eaten and hydrated, or can’t perform necessary mechanical tweaks, it’s best to sit the ride out.

When the conditions are right for you to ride, always warm up beforehand; cold muscles increase the likelihood of suffering a strain or tear. When you start riding, begin with a higher cadence, gradually increasing pace. Always cool down and stretch at the end of a ride. A session of yoga at your favorite studio or in your living room can work wonders.

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