Cold-Weather Riding: Winter Doesn't Mean Just Staying Inside

How you approach winter cycling depends upon whether you are in Miami or Detroit.

If you live in the south, cycling remains a simple endeavor: pump up the tires and hit the road. If you live in the north, however, things get more complicated. Wind-chill factors, ice and snow on the roads, layers of bulky clothing and winter colds are just some of the difficulties to be faced.

The mere thought of training when it is cold and windy may discourage many riders from cycling during the winter months. But with appropriate adjustments for climatic conditions, training during this season can be both beneficial and enjoyable.

When adequately protected, a cyclist can tolerate environmental temperatures ranging from 58 degrees below zero to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, but can only withstand about a seven-degree variation in body-core temperature. The most important physiological adjustment to the cold is the maintenance of body temperature; fortunately, even cycling at slow speed raises body metabolism to an adequate level to maintain body temperature in subzero weather.

In addition, reduced peripheral blood flow from constriction of surface blood vessels, and lower skin temperature greatly increases the insulative capacity of the body. These adjustments effectively minimize heat loss at lower ambient temperatures.

You will be bothered more by the cold during the first few days of very cold weather than you will after a few weeks. Your body acclimatizes to the lower temperatures by producing increased amounts of heat. But to become accustomed to the cold, you must exercise in the cold.

Early research has shown that after six weeks of exercise in the cold, exposing fingers to the cold for four hours results in less temperature drop, less numbness, and not as much reduction in blood flow as occurs without such adaptation.

Temperature is not all that determines the harshness of a winter day. There are inviolable limits to sensible and useful winter cycling. The wind-chill index probably is the best guide; however, wind direction is critical. A side wind has but a fraction of the impact of a head wind. A tail wind is only important if you have to return into it.

Worth noting, too, is that to ride into the wind at, say, 5 mph increases wind-chill appreciably. It might not be a bad idea on very harsh days to divide your workout into two shorter rides which will not expose you to the cold for extended periods of time.

Clothing is of crucial importance to the cyclist in a cold environment. Wear a knit cap under your helmet. The best caps are those that convert into a face mask and can extent down to your neck. You can lose up to 40 percent of you body heat from your head and neck if not properly protected. If riding into the wind, pull the facemask down over your face for extra protection. Lastly, wear a helmet cover on very cold days to add additional protection to keep the wind off your head.

Wear mittens, not gloves. Mittens are much warmer than gloves for the simple reason that they trap all of the hand's warmth in a single compartment. Wear a pair of full-fingered thin liner gloves underneath your mittens to promote extra warmth. If you like to have greater finger mobility for shifting or breaking, try wearing a pair of "Lobster" style gloves while cycling.

Exercise during the midday. The sunlight will help you stay warmer during the day, and it will be easier for drivers to see you in daylight and easier for you to watch the surfaces you are riding on for snow, ice or puddles. Your hat and helmet cover also may cut down on your hearing and visual acuity, so be more cautious to cars approaching you from behind. Make sure to ride defensively and cautiously.

Lastly, tell yourself that you are tough. It may be easier to stay indoors riding a wind trainer and watch an old movie or football bowl game. But, embrace the winter for its beauty, and you may find winter the most enjoyable season of all.


Dr. Edmund R. Burke was among the pioneers in applying scientific principles to endurance sports training, especially cycling. As an exercise physiologist, he was responsible for several advances in sports drink formulation and almost single-handedly developed the subcategory of performance recovery drinks. A former director of the Center for Science, Medicine and Technology at the U.S. Cycling Federation in Colorado Springs, he worked with the U.S. Olympic cycling team during the 1980 and '84 Games. Dr. Burke is the author of 17 books on fitness, training and physiology, including the best-selling Optimal Muscle Recovery.

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