Cycling in Cold Weather: How to Dress, Fuel, and Hydrate

Cycling in Cold Weather: How to Dress, Fuel, and Hydrate

Don’t let the cold keep you indoors all winter. These tips will keep you warm and energized while cycling in cold weather.

Winter is one of the most beautiful times of the year to ride, but it can also be downright miserable. Get it wrong and I guarantee your legs will feel like lead. However, there are a few key rules that you can follow to make sure you enjoy the ride. From clothing to food and hydration, here’s what you should keep in mind for the winter cycling season. 

Tip #1: Dress in Layers

One of my go-to rules is to dress to be cold for the first few minutes of your ride. In other words, if you’re warm when you start, you’re setting yourself up to overheat. The reasoning is simple: our bodies generate heat during exercise which is why you feel hotter after climbing just a few sets of stairs. The harder you push, the warmer your body gets, which is why winter riding is so tricky. You need to dress to stay warm, and doing so with layers (to remove as you heat up) is the answer. 

Start with a light base layer to help wick away sweat. Layer on your jersey, bib shorts, leg warmers, and arm warmers if it’s especially cold. A thermal jacket or winter cycling jacket should top it all off. 

If it’s extremely cold outside, you might need thermal bib tights and another vest to keep your chest area warm. Try to avoid sweating by peeling off layers before it’s too late — sweat will freeze and make both you and your clothes wet and cold. 

Tip #2: Keep Your Extremities Warm

As important as it is to keep your core warm, it is equally important to take care of your arms, legs, fingers, and toes. Your legs are obviously important for cycling, but you also need your arms to steer and control your bike as well as your fingers to brake and shift. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a rider’s fingers freeze, and suddenly they’re using their entire palm to push on the brake and shift levers. Admittedly, I’ve done this as well. It’s a dangerous situation that you don’t want to find yourself in, so try out different gloves at various temperatures to see what keeps your fingers warm and mobile without leaving you with sweaty palms. 

Shoe covers are a game-changer when it comes to foot warmth. Your toes are in the wind for 100% of your ride, and sometimes even a pair of thick socks won’t be enough. Shoe covers or overshoes will protect your toes from the wind and keep you dry without adding any significant weight or bulk to your winter cycling kit. 

Tip #3: Consider Ride Speed and Wind Chill

Fat biking at 6 mph is a lot warmer than doing a road ride at 20 mph because of the differences in wind speed and wind chill you’ll be experiencing on the bike. Even with a wind speed of 5 mph, a fast road ride can feel like riding into freezing 25 mph winds. But at lower speeds — such as during a fat bike ride — your work rate will keep you warm without the additional wind speed. 

Think about where you’re riding as well. Road rides are typically exposed to the wind, whereas fat bike or mountain bike rides might take place on a wooded trail with plenty of trees to protect you from the breeze. My favorite tarmac for a winter road ride is a local bike path which is completely protected by trees on both sides (and therefore much warmer than the open road!). 

Tip #4: Bring Food That Won’t Freeze

Despite muted physical sensations, your body needs as much or more fuel when riding in the cold as compared to riding in warm weather. Studies have shown that our bodies burn more energy in the cold because of the constant need to keep our body temperature stable and our organs warm. That means that, given the same cycling intensity, you need to increase your food and drink intake to keep up with your body’s demands in the cold. 

Make your ride food easy to eat and unaffected by extreme cold. That means soft foods like fruit, oat bars, cookies, rice cakes, sandwiches, and even potatoes. The softer the food, the better it is for winter cycling. Avoid hard or dense foods, especially those that are prone to freezing. There’s nothing worse than trying to bite into a frozen energy bar during a winter ride.

Tip #5: Don’t Forget to Hydrate

Winter cycling does weird things to your body’s hydration levels. On the one hand, respiration goes up which increases your hydration needs because colder air is drier than warm air. On the other hand, lower temperatures decrease perspiration rates, which lessens your hydration needs. 

In summary, there’s no cut-and-dry way to tell if you need to alter your hydration needs when cycling in the cold. The answer varies from individual to individual and depends on the intensity of your ride. During a cold-weather endurance ride, for example, you might not need to drink as much because you aren’t really sweating. But during a road race in 30°F conditions, you’re going to be sweating a lot and will need to hydrate more than usual because of the dry temperatures. 

Here are a few basic rules for hydrating in cold weather:

  • Know your normal hydration rate (for most people, this is around 12-16 ounces of fluids per hour — the equivalent of one cycling water bottle)
  • Increase your fluid intake during sweaty, high-intensity rides
  • Decrease or maintain your fluid intake during low-intensity, non-sweaty rides

Winter is one of the most beautiful seasons of the year, and it’d be a shame to spend the entire thing indoors. To get outside to ride or race in cold weather conditions, remember to dress appropriately, be flexible with when and where you ride, and modify your hydration and nutrition strategies.

References

Brychta, R.J. & Chen, K.Y. (2016, November 23). Cold-induced thermogenesis in humans. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6449850/ 

Kenny, G.P & Flouris, A.D. (2014). The human thermoregulatory system and its response to thermal stress. In F. Wang & C. Gao (Eds.), Protective Clothing: Managing Thermal Stress (pp. 319-365). Woodhead Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9781782420323500132

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