Winter Cycling: How Cold is Too Cold?

There's a train of thought that there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices. I'm usually in agreement with that sentiment, but that kind of rhetoric is often spouted by people living in places where it's seven degrees. Growing up in Vancouver and now living in southern Ontario, I've had more than my fair share of cold rain, deep snow and severe wind chill. This year we've had a few weeks of negative 15-degree weather in January, and some slightly milder days but with whipping winds of 30 to 40 km/h.

When it's that cold, there's simply no point in fighting the elements, because there's a fine line to play between building toughness and getting sick. And that doesn't count the built up snow and salt on the roads that makes traction hazardous. It also provides less room and visibility for drivers, and can corrode your bike's drivetrain fairly quickly. In those conditions, I'd much rather get in a time efficient 60-minute trainer workout rather than spend extra time cleaning my bike and bundling up. But within reason, exercising outdoors even in the extreme cold is both doable and maybe even enjoyable, as Andy Hampsten found on the Gavia in 1988.

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Most of the time, you can think of winter activities as "exercising in less heat," rather than being too different from exercising in warmer temperatures. That's because the body is still producing heat from exercise that will keep you warm. The difference is that you'll lose heat from your body quite quickly due to the colder temperatures. Therefore, staying warm during exercise in the cold is really about balancing how active you are, wearing the right clothing, and taking some common sense precautions.

Cold Air

Most people have no problems from breathing in cold air during exercise, even with activities such as during cross-country skiing that require rapid breathing. Your nose and airways are very good at warming up the air, so even very cold air is warmed up to nearly your normal body temperature by the time it reaches the more delicate lungs.

The main exception are athletes with asthma, as cold air might trigger an asthmatic episode. The same is true for athletes with exercise-induced bronchio-constriction. In this situation, heavy exercise can cause the muscles around the airways to react and make breathing more difficult. If this is a concern, one thing you might try is to wear a light bandana, scarf or mask. This will help warm up and add moisture to the air before it reaches your lungs.

Another way to help lessen the chance of breathing problems is to slowly warm up before beginning heavier exercise. Not only will this be better for your body as a whole, it will also help your breathing get used to the extra work that it's being asked to do.

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Blowing in the Wind

Wind chill is the biggest risk when exercising in the winter. Negative 10 degrees in calm air may not feel too cold, but zero degrees in a strong wind can feel extremely cold. This is because wind greatly increases the rate of heat loss from your skin. This can cause you to lose body heat much faster, so you have to take extra care. Environment Canada updated the Wind Chill Index in 2002. This new chart includes easy-to-understand colour charts giving safe (green), caution (yellow), and danger (red) ranges of temperature and wind speeds. You can also find a Wind Chill calculator and more information about the dangers from wind chill at the Environment Canada website.

Other Tips

1. Be extremely careful when it's cold and raining or when you're near water. Water conducts heat 25 times as fast as air, greatly increasing your risk of hypothermia. If it's a cold and wet day, consider doing something indoors instead, or make sure you have excellent rain gear. When it's cold and wet, also try to keep stops or rest breaks to a minimum, as the act of exercising is generating a lot of valuable heat to keep you warm.

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2. If you have the option, consider finding routes away from open exposure to wind. Ideally, find routes with lots of cover from trees or buildings and consider heading to the trails for something different.

3. Make sure you wear quality winter clothing with base layers. Wear garments closest to the body that wick away sweat. Trapped sweat that can't evaporate will also cool your temperature rapidly.

4. Layering definitely does work. Each individual layer acts as a barrier to the wind, and the sum of a few layers is usually greater than one single layer of the same overall insulation. Layering also lets you customize the degree of ventilation during exercise.

5. Last but not least, listen to your mom and wear a hat under your helmet, especially with all the super-ventilating helmets out on the market. I personally wear my snowboarding helmet on really cold days, because it doesn't have nearly the ventilation of cycling helmets, and the ear covers are an extra help in keeping them warm. It's also sized a bit bigger than my cycling helmets to accommodate a hat.

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