How to Ride Hard in the Cold

How to keep your pace hot even when the weather's not

Snow Cyclocross

Those first few cold rides or cyclocross races of year can be a shock to the system as your body goes, “Whoa! Shouldn’t we be hibernating with a nice cup of cocoa and a bag of chips?” Which isn't exactly the best scenario for rocking a personal best, whether you’re racing or just trying to keep up with some fast friends.

But you don’t have to hit the brakes when the temperatures dip, says two-time Olympic coach Gale Bernhardt, co-author of Become a Fat-Burning Machine. “Once you know how to prepare, you’ll see that you can not only perform well, but also actually enjoy cold weather riding and racing,” she says.

Here’s what you need to know to get—and keep—your engine running when it’s cold at the start.

Warm-up

Warm up better

A thorough warm-up is of the utmost importance when you’re riding or racing in the cold. Your body’s first instinct is to send blood to your core to keep your organs warm, and consequently your muscles will feel tight and stiff until you generate a little heat and increase your circulation back out into your extremities.

If you normally warm up for 10 to 15 minutes in mild temperatures, tack on another five to 10 when the thermometer dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. “The shorter the race or aggressive ride you have planned, the longer your warm-up should be when it’s cold,” says Bernhardt.

Keep Warm

Keep Warm After Your Warm Up

If you get all warmed up but then stand around in the cold waiting for the race or ride to start, you may end up feeling worse off the line than if you never warmed up at all. If you don’t stay warm after your warm up, you’re putting your body through rapid shifts in circulation as your skin cools and your blood gets shunted back into your core, leaving your muscles feeling like lead as soon as you start up again.

“I have a cheap XXXL sweatshirt that I pull on over my cycling clothes if I know I have to stand around and wait after I warm up,” says Bernhardt. “Then I just hand it off to someone or ditch it till later when it’s time to go.”

Layer

Layer Without Restricting

Cold weather makes your knees stiffer; they don’t have a ton of circulation to begin with, so you need to protect your hinges when the mercury dips. Ironically, some tights and leg warmers also can cause some knee problems by pulling too tightly and placing pressure on the joint while you’re trying to pedal.

Instead, “look for cold weather tights and/or leg warmers with articulated knees that give them room to work,” says Bernhardt.

Warm the air

Warm the Air

Suddenly sucking in a lot of cold, dry air can irritate your airways. Combat that with a light neck cover like a Buff that you can pull over your mouth, which will help warm the air and reduce any irritation.

If you’re concerned about getting too hot around your neck once you start riding in earnest, consider lightly fastening (but not actually tying) a bandana around your neck, so you can pull it off and stuff it in a pocket when you don’t need it any more.

Stay Hydrated

Stay Hydrated

Cold weather is more dehydrating than most cyclists realize. You lose fluid from your lungs to moisten the dry, cold air with every breath; you’re still sweating though you’re less aware of it; and the cold temperatures reduce your thirst mechanism.

If you’re going to be out in the woods, a hydration pack is a great option because the fluid will stay warm against your body, so it doesn’t freeze. Otherwise, insulated bottles work, especially if you’re only out for an hour or two.

To get bonus benefits from you bottle, fill it with a warm fluid like Apple Cinnamon Skratch to help warm your core and give you something you feel like drinking, which will prompt you to drink more and stay hydrated.

Fuel for warmth

Fuel for Warmth

You’re going to be sapping your glycogen stores more quickly in the cold, since your body is working double-time to keep you warm and moving. Proper nutrition not only keeps your energy up, but also helps you regulate your core temperature, keeping your body warm and providing fuel for your muscles.

The fix: complex carb-rich foods that won’t freeze solid are key for keeping the pedals turning. (Think whole wheat bread, beans and vegetables!)

Thanks to Rodale for the content.