How to Survive Cycling in the Winter

There might be snow out there, but that's no reason to hibernate  Credit: Mike Powell/Allsport

With winter upon us in most of the country, some cyclists just don't believe how easy it can be to ride outdoors in the winter on singletrack trails or roads.

During the first few days you will be bothered by the cold weather, but after a few weeks it won't bother you as much. 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.

However, watch the wind.

Exercise into the wind on the way out, and with the wind at your back on the way home. The wind will help you when you are tired at the end of the workout, and the "wind chill factor" will be higher and your body will not become as cold if your underclothing is damp.

"One of the most common, and serious, cold weather injuries is hypothermia, in which the body's core temperature starts to drop," says Rocky Reifenstuhl, a Fairbanks, Alaska, resident, and multi-year winner of the 105 Iditabike race held in February in Alaska.

"It is brought on by a combination of fatigue, damp clothing and wind chill. The best thing you can do to avoid hypothermia is to keep cycling and get the wind to your back. If you stop riding, get indoors. As soon as the ride is over, head into the house, take a warm shower and put on dry clothes."

You can lose up to 40 percent of your body heat from your head and neck if not properly protected.

Wear a lightweight knit cap under your helmet. The best types are those that convert into a facemask and can extend down to your neck. On very cold days, wear a helmet cover to keep the wind off your head.

A useful mnemonic to use during winter cycling is VIP: Ventilate, Insulate and Protect.

Ventilate excess water perspiration. Insulate particularly high blood flow areas such as the neck and head. Protect yourself from wind and wetness with appropriate outer clothing.

Cover your cycling shoes with an insulated pair of shoe covers. Some cyclist have a second pair of shoes for winter cycling that are one size larger that normal so they can wear an extra pair of socks.

Use a CamelBak hydration system for carrying your water or sports drink. The back-mounted hydration should be worn under your jacket so the water stays warm.

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 on colder days. 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 mid-day. The sunlight will help you stay warmer during the day, and it will be easier for drivers to see you in daylight—not to mention better visibility for you to watch the surfaces you are riding on for snow, ice or puddles.

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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