When the green hues of summer give way to the vivid autumn palette of reds, golds and browns, the days shorten and temperatures become crisp.
The "peak" season for summer sports in the Northeast USA and New England winds down. We love mountain biking in early spring, late autumn, and right through the winter for that very reason. Not only does winter exercise help to manage health, weight gain and the mid winter blues, the trails are less crowded and those pesky biting bugs that always seem to zero in on me are all but gone.
Riding outdoors in-between seasons and dealing with schizophrenic weather patterns is a challenge and does require some preparation, but all you need to get ready for an exhilarating bike ride on a cold day is to prepare your bike, wear the right winter clothing for cold-weather riding, stay warm, dry, hydrated and fueled and learn basic snow cycling and maintenance skills, like what do for frozen bicycle cables.
With a combination of these few basic tips for cycling in cold weather, sound judgment, and a little help from your friends . . . well, what are you waiting for?
Winter Exercise Warm Up, Sports Hydration & Nutrition
Winter Exercise Warm Up
It's always a good idea to warm up before participating in any kind of physical activity especially if you plan to go biking during the cooler months of Autumn and Winter. When your muscles are cold, they are less elastic and prone to injury.
1. Begin your warm up by "stoking your inner core". Eat a small low fat, high carbohydrate snack an hour (or less) before your planned bike ride and pre-hydrate by drinking a little fluid.
2. Cycle a few laps around the block, a field or up and down a level stretch of the trail. No need for a short, high intensity workout that will cause you to break a sweat and get chilled. Start off pedaling slowly and work up to a moderate level pace. The increased blood flow generated by cycling will bring the necessary warmth to your muscles and help prevent muscle tears or over-stretching.
Note: Exercising in extreme heat or cold can be dangerous for those with known cardiovascular disease, pulmonary or heart problems. Consult with your physician first. While exercise is important, know your physical limits. You will get to where you want to be if you focus, practice and train. Start slowly and gradually work up to your objectives. In good health, but have not been working out on a regular basis? The same applies.
Besides wearing the right cycling clothing for cool weather, keeping warm on the trails also depends on factors such as hydration and nutrition. The science of sports nutrition is a complex subject. There is no "one size fits all" formula. The key is to achieve an intermeshed balance of fluid, food and energy that is right for you. How you achieve this state of cold weather cycling nirvana will depend on several variables including the type of sport, duration and intensity of exercise, your physiology, level of training, your environment and other factors.
Many cyclists have experienced, what is known in bicycling as "bonking". It means to become exhausted; hit the wall; brain freeze. You can easily avoid this unfortunate state by keeping well hydrated and fueled (without overdoing it). There are two forms of sports "bonking".
Electrolyte Bonk: Electrolytes (salt, potassium and other minerals), which aid in muscle function, become depleted through dehyration (sweat). Common symptoms include fatigue, headache, muscle cramps, dizziness or feeling light headed. See the following winter cycling hydration tips for prevention.
Energy Bonk: When glycogen stores in the liver and muscles are depleted (run out of blood sugar), a sudden attack of fatigue causes your legs to stall mid-pedal and your brain to scream "Stop!". Symptoms besides weakness, fatigue, and dizziness can include seeing "vivid colors" and sometimes hallucinations. See the following winter sports nutrition tips for prevention.
Winter Cycling Hydration Tips:
Dehydration is just as likely to happen while mountain biking in the winter as it is during the summer. Factors such as cold dry air, wind chill, inadequate fluid intake, sweating and even shivering all contribute to dehydration during outdoor winter sports. Dehydration interferes with body temperature regulation and impedes physical as well as mental performance. Be sure to ride well prepared with carbohydrate rich snacks and enough fluids.
- Easy access to fluid is half the battle to keeping hydrated. If you have to stop mountain biking often in the cold to drink, the odds are you will not be drinking as much fluid as you should. An insulated hydration system carried as a pack on the back with a "positioning" tube that allows hands-free hydration, helps to prevent fluids from freezing as well as provide easy access while you bike.
- To prevent "electrolyte bonking" Drink often and don't wait till you are thirsty. Cold weather suppresses thirst. Drink before you even begin your ride, during as well as after. Electrolyte-rich liquids which can be found in "Sports Drinks" like Pedialyte or Gatorade are necessary to replace lost electrolytes (salt and potassium). The key is balance. Overdoing it can lead to electrolyte dilution.
- Gulping a large amount of cold fluid at once will chill you to the bone. Smaller more frequent sips are better. This happened to Peter last night. He gulped down a glass of ice water and his core temperature dropped to 97.6. He almost developed hypothermia without even leaving the house.
- It is best to avoid excessive intake of fluids that have proven diuretic effects such as caffeine tea, coffee, or soda.
- Avoid alcoholic beverages. Not only does Alcohol increase the chance of hypothermia, it can cloud your judgment, impair your sense of direction and decision making ability in a cold weather emergency.
Winter Sports Nutrition Tips:
Think you burn less calories in cool weather? Wrong! You will be surprised at the number of calories you burn in the winter. Just the act of breathing burns quite a few calories as you use energy just to warm and humidify the cold, dry air you breathe. Always carry carb rich snacks and extra food with you. Besides providing your body with the fuel necessary to pedal your bike, eating helps keep your core body temperature warm by the increased metabolism and energy released when you digest food. It also helps to prevent fatigue ("bonking") on rides of longer duration.
Timing Is Everything:
Besides what you eat, the timing of when you eat in relation to exercise is crucial.
- An hour or less before you plan to go, drink fluid and eat a small low fat, high carbohydrate snack.
- Large meals are best consumed at least 3 hours before your ride.
- To prevent "energy bonking", eat small amounts of carbohydrates at regular intervals during your ride for fuel to maintain energy levels and help keep you warm, especially on longer bike rides. (Don't forget to replace lost electrolytes also). A trail mix consisting of raisins, peanuts and dried fruit is an all around good snack choice.
- Post-ride refueling with a low-fat meal consisting of a combination of fluid, lean protein and carbohydrates within 2 hours of your bike ride is important for recovery and necessary to replenish depleted muscle glycogen stores and replace lost fluid and carbohydrates.
The above tips on winter cycling hydration and nutrition are just the tip of the iceberg. The Montana State University-Bozeman: Sports Nutrition Science & The Winter Oympics feature provides a very good explanation of sports nutrition principles. Very educational with interactive quizzes.
Disclaimer: Bikekinetix uses reasonable efforts to include accurate and up-to-date information on this web site; it does not, however, make any representations as to it's accuracy or completeness. The Science of Sports Nutrition is always changing. It is your responsibility to consult with your physician if necessary and prepare yourself with the latest information.