Train Right in the Winter for a Winning Summer

You may be a super cylist when indoors, but that is no substitution for on-road training.

One long winter ride ruined the first half of my 1999 season.

After 60 miles, we were mostly soaked. By mile 75, my Powerbars had frozen solid and I seriously considered if I was chancing frostbite in my fingers and toes. Our training ride had started under reasonably tolerable January weather conditions, but by the end of this half-snow, half-rain drenched Saturday it was more akin to a death march.

When I finally stumbled through my door and straight into a hot shower, clothes and all, 95 miles had ticked past. My right quadriceps tendon was shooting hot needles into my knee with every step. But the most painful part was that I knew I could have avoided the injury.

Competitive cyclists spend far more time training than competing, and much of that training occurs in less-than-hospitable weather. For most of the country, cold winter riding is a reality. But winter riding doesn't have to be hell on wheels, and most definitely shouldn't chance your health.

The winter training road splits into two branches: on-the-bike (in and out of doors) and off-the-bike training.

The first and most predictable question I get from people when I mention winter training is why don't you ride rollers?

The answer is I do, and I also ride outside. Rollers and indoor cycling trainers are especially good for interval training, but neither can replace actual, rubber-to-the-road riding for training value.

Rollers force you to develop a smooth spin, while trainers allow you to set resistance levels to simulate climbing (create hills by placing a couple thick phone books under your front wheel. Your climbing muscles will get a better workout this way), flats (imagine long, wind-swept northern European classic races as you push a big gear) or sprinting efforts (fast and furious intervals). Always include a 15-minute warmup and cool-down spin.

A few things can help make the indoor ride more tolerable:

  1. Set up a fan to create airflow to keep you cool.
  2. Lug your DVD player and TV into the garage or wherever you set up and watch race videos--an easy motivation fix.
  3. Do interval efforts, which keep you mentally in the game with your workout and keep your weight off the saddle. (I hobbled off my trainer once after two hours of distance; never again will I try to ride long on a trainer.) Interval efforts don't all have to be at full-tilt; experiment with different lengths and intensity.

As anyone who has ridden inside can tell you, rollers or trainers breed incredible levels of boredom, not to mention a sore butt. Nothing simulates riding like the road, no matter how nasty it is outside.

When you're riding outside, the most important thing to consider is your health. Riding safety includes good bike lights and bright clothing. Quality warm clothes are a must, with a wind-proof layer if possible. Warm up your muscles (quads, hamstrings and calves) with a quick self-massage before you head out the door (stretch carefully if your muscles are cold). Use fenders if you ride in a wet climate.

Eat and drink. Cold weather burns lots of calories, so you can afford to eat more. Cold-weather dehydration is common, so don't forget to drink. Fill your bottles with hot tea before you hit the road, and you'll have a warm drink for the first hour.

In cycling circles, the feared T word almost always makes an unwelcome appearance come the start of the training season. Tendonitis is a muscle inflammation injury, signaled by its unmistakable shooting needles. It usually rears its ugly head in off-season training, when tight muscles, cold weather and premature hard efforts add up. Avoid tendonitis by starting out slow and staying warm. This injury is avoidable, but only if you take sensible precautions before tendonitis hits.

Keep it in the little ring. Long, slow and steady base mileage is the key to going fast later in the year. On long rides, do spin-ups, or short hard efforts (still in your little ring) to open up your legs. One day a week, consider a short set of sprints--a training method that Greg LeMond advocates.

Don't overdue your first few rides until you're firmly back in the swing of training. Hammering on a training ride might impress your riding pals, but it won't win races in the height of summer, and it might lead to injury if you go too hard, too soon.

Six months after my fateful January ride, when my tendonitis finally subsided and I had worked myself back into shape, my breakaway victory was sweet. But as I rolled across the line, hands in the air, I couldn't help but imagine how many races I might have won if I'd played it smarter during winter training.

Jeff Nachtigal is a Seattle-based cyclist and cycling writer.

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