In the past couple weeks, I talked about the value of riding indoors, not just in the winter but year round. For those who ride outside Hell or high water, or for those who want to ride outside a decent amount during the colder winter months, I wanted to follow up that post with this one. While I do not espouse riding in a blizzard, the right clothing and approach can keep you warm and comfortable so you gain more pleasure out of riding outdoors – and riding in general.
First things first. Roads need to be clear of ice and dangerous debris, especially if you ride outside in the early morning darkness like I do. The last thing you want is to hit some black ice and hit the deck. Also, set some ground rules. For example, in the early morning, if it’s below 30 degrees, then I stay inside. At some point, even if I’m bundled up and warm, the air I’m drawing in is too cold and creates a workout that is counterproductive. Better to ride indoors when it’s too cold, especially if higher intensities are called for.
What’s Most important to keep warm?
Believe it or not, it’s most important to keep your core warm rather than your hands and feet. If you keep your core toasty, your body will more freely pump blood out to the working muscles and extremities. If your core gets chilled, the body goes into survival mode to protect your vital organs and will pull blood inward for that protection. This means less blood pumping outward which causes working muscles to start shutting down and causes your hands and feet to turn into ice bricks.
LAYERS, LAYERS, LAYERS
You’ve heard it a million times: layer. Layering is very important for winter activities, especially high intensity ones like cycling or running because despite it being cold outside, you have the potential to generate a lot of thermal energy (a bi-product of our bodies inefficiency at turning food into mechanical work). Layering allows you to adjust your temperature based on changing conditions. For example, you can unzip a layer or two when climbing up a mountain, and then zip back up before descending. This reduces the amount of sweat and soaked clothing, too, which will allow you to avoid getting chilled badly on the descent. And, typically it will be colder when you start a ride than as the ride progresses. Couple your rise in core temperature with a rise in the outdoor temperature and it becomes critical to be able to strip off a layer so you don’t completely boil over.
The 3 Best articles of clothing – period
While everyone focuses on the core, arms and legs, and feet and hands, most people ignore the pelvic region. Below about 40 degrees, I recommend wearing a pair of thin lycra Under Armor togs to give your upper thighs, glutes and crotch extra insulation. You’d be surprised how much this helps! Another awesome piece of winter clothing is the neck gaiter. The gaiter covers the neck, and ensures cold air does not enter through the neck cuff of your winter jersey. I love my neck gaiter; it’s vital. Lastly, battery powered gloves. I’ve got a pair with 4 heat settings. I turn them off when I’m climbing and turn them on Medium or High when descending back down the canyons. It’s fabulous hitting the valley without icicles for fingers. Then I turn the heat off again (or keep it on but turn it down, if it is particularly brisk or windy).
Think in two’s
On your hands, wear a thin glove inside your winter gloves. On your feet, wear toe covers inside of your booties. You can even wear arm warmers underneath your mid-weight winter jersey/jacket. Sometimes I wear two jerseys beneath a vest rather than a thicker winter jacket (remember “Layering” up above?). I’m always surprised when I finish a ride and can wring the sweat from the layers closest to my body yet I never got cold during the ride. Multiple thin layers insulate so much better than one thicker one. Also, wear one hat or beanie and store another in one of your jersey pockets. That way, if you get one sweaty, you can take it off and put on a dry one halfway through your ride.
Know when to tap out
It’s great to think of yourself as a hardened, tough athlete who can brave the elements to complete a workout or enjoy the outdoors in winter. But when conditions deteriorate or you are getting too cold to continue safely, make the smart decision to shorten your route or find shelter and call for a ride home. Frostbite and hypothermia suck. And, there’s no shame in staying indoors. Riding indoors is extremely effective if you go into the ride with a plan and a goal for the workout.
Hopefully these tips help you get more out of your winter riding. With a little bit of planning and the right outlook, winter riding can be really enjoyable and rewarding. I love riding outside in the complete dark in the early morning (with a spotlight of a bike light, of course). The world is quiet, there’s no traffic and it really is a different world out there. It’s amazing how beautiful complete darkness can be when all you can see are stars, the moon, the lights of mountain neighborhoods and the silhouettes of the mountains beneath the moonlight. Very peaceful and it puts energy into my body and soul rather than sucking it out.
Stay warm out there!