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Toolbox: Staying Warm During Winter Riding

The best ways to stay warm during winter riding – here’s how to regulate your body temperature, ride in more comfort, minimize the risk of injuries, and improve cycling performance in the cold months ahead.

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Through the year and even within a single ride, riders can be exposed to a wide range of environmental conditions. Temperature and moisture levels can fluctuate significantly between seasons and even within rides, due to changing weather conditions or through the impact of altitude. Also, whilst we often think about staying warm in winter, with many riders spending increasing amounts of time on the turbo-trainer and with the abundance of winter clothing available, it’s also important to avoid getting too hot!

In this and my next article, we explore how environmental conditions can influence cycling performance, health, comfort, explain how to minimise potential negative effects and even use the environment to your advantage!

Milano-Sanremo 2013

Humans Are Inefficient
Biological systems, including our bodies, are notoriously inefficient. As our metabolism transforms the chemical energy stored in food and body tissues into the mechanical work of cycling, average efficiency may range between 20-25% but could be considerably lower (1). The remaining 75% of energy is released as heat. As work-rates increase (i.e. you ride faster or harder), more heat will be released. When exercising, body temperature rises through a combination of this metabolic heat production, environmental conditions (temperature/humidity) and wearing clothing, which may reduce your ability to lose heat through evaporation (e.g. non-breathable jerseys or rain jackets).

The human body works best when it’s operating in a fairly narrow temperature range. Our metabolism relies on a complex series of chemical reactions to perform well and stay healthy. These reactions can be compromised if body temperature gets too hot or cold. With the exception of the most severe and freakish weather conditions (think Milan – San Remo 2013), by selecting the appropriate garments, cyclists can ride in broad range of weather conditions and still maintain a temperature which facilitates both performance and comfort.

Individual Difference
It’s widely accepted that the best way to clothe yourself for outdoor sports, including cycling, is to use multiple layers. Using layers, you can ‘tune’ clothing requirements to your individual needs and the conditions, even adding or removing layers during a ride if the weather changes.

Riders with heavier builds have a smaller surface area to body mass ratio relative to cyclists with a ‘slighter’ build. This puts heavier riders at a disadvantage for heat removal, but may mean that they find it easier to stay warmer in winter and don’t require so much clothing. If you’ve ever wondered why pro-cyclists wear so much clothing when they’re training, it’s because their slight, super-lean build means that they feel the cold more than mere mortals! It’s important to remember this individual difference and select the most appropriate clothing for your needs, rather than relying on looking at what others around you have chosen.

There Are No Prizes For Wearing The Least Clothing
Even if you feel you are particularly resistant to the cold, there are no prizes for wearing the least clothing. Despite the fact that you may feel comfortable, if you don’t keep joints and ligaments warm, you may increase your risk of injury. A 2003 study (2) found that the season had a statistically significant effect on the incidence of A’chilles tendon injuries. This may be due to the fact that decreased temperatures increase the thickness of the fluid which lubricates the tendon. Consequently, it’s beneficial to conduct a specific, progressive warm-up before training in winter and to use clothing such as tights, long-sleeve jerseys, leg/knee-warmers and arm-warmers to protect joints and ligaments from cold conditions.

Dress For The Wind-Chill
Remember wind-chill: when cycling outdoors the apparent temperature acting on the body is decreased by the flow of air. Wind chill increases the body’s rate of heat loss. For example, if the ambient temperature was 15°C, but you were riding in a group at 20 mph, the apparent temperature would be reduced by 2°C, to 13°C. Consequently, it’s important to select clothing according to the apparent temperature (what you will feel with wind-chill), rather than the ambient temperature. It’s an old cliché, but it’s true; you can always take clothes off on a ride, but you can’t add them if you didn’t bring them with you!

GP Costa degli Etruschi 2012

General Guidelines For Layering

19°C-21°C
Base layer; short-sleeved jersey; shorts; racing mitts; socks

17°C-19°C
Add arm warmers

15°C-17°C
Add knee warmers or 3/4 length tights; swap for thicker socks; swap mitts for thin full-finger gloves

13°C-15°C
Swap knee warmers for leg warmers; add gilet

11°C-13°C
Swap warmers for full medium-weight tights, thicker full-finger gloves; add long-sleeved jersey; toe covers or over-socks; head-band

9°C-11°C
Swap to long-sleeved base layer; thin hat, add race-cape/packable water-proof for changeable conditions

7°C-9°C
Swap to full over-shoes or winter shoes; thicker hat

5°C-7°C
Swap for heavier-weight tights; lobster gloves or mittens

3°C-5°C
Add a second long-sleeved jersey; a midlayer sock

1°C-3°C
Add additional base-layer; knee warmers under tights

0°C and below
High-risk of ice on the road so consider an indoor session! (unless you are a hardy, well-equipped and highly-skilled resident of the Northern Hemisphere)

“There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather, Just Bad Clothing!”
For good reason, this quote, apparently of Scandinavian origin, has become the mantra for many a hardy cyclist. In contrast to the cyclists of yesteryear who were forced to choose between braving freezing, wet conditions in wool jerseys which stretched until they touched the rear wheel, or boil in a bag thanks to waterproof but completely impervious winter jackets, the modern cyclist is spoilt for choice when it comes to knowledge and technical clothing. We now have the opportunity to enjoy cycling in more conditions than ever before, but if you’re still looking for an excuse, remember this: cold air is more dense and creates more drag, so if you’re planning a Strava PB or world-record, wait until summer!

Top Tips To Regulate Your Body Temperature This Winter

1) Select appropriate clothing for the conditions.
2) Consider wind-chill and individual differences (body-mass).

Next article, I will explore the opposite possibility of getting too hot during your winter outdoor and indoor rides. In the meantime, stay warm!

References

1) McArdle et al. (2010) Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. Section 2: Energy For Physical Activity. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
2) Milligram et al. (2003) Cold Weather Training: A Risk Factor for Achilles Paratendinitis among Recruits. Foot & Ankle International May 2003 vol. 24 no. 5 398-401 https://fai.sagepub.com/content/24/5/398.short


About James
James Hewitt is Sports Scientist and Performance Coach with HINTSA Performance based in Geneva, Switzerland. In a previous life he was an Elite racer but now focusses on avoiding caffeine overdose and helping other people achieve their goals. You can contact James through twitter @jamesphewitt and find out more at his website www.jameshewitt.net

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