Illustrations courtesy of the National Institute of Health
There is a panoply of excuses we can choose from when wimping out of cold weather riding. Some of them have more validity than others—but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be overcome. I’d like to address a couple of physical limitations that can be good reasons to bow out of a cold ride, but that don’t necessarily need to stop you, especially in their milder forms.
Asthma and Raynauds are two such ailments that affect many cyclists, but become even more of an issue in the cold.
Asthma is basically what happens when your lungs try to reject some air they don’t like by swelling their bronchial tubes and making extra mucus. This constricting of your airways can be triggered by a wide variety of things, but cold air is one possibility, along with pollution, allergies, and others.
The tag “exercise induced” is applied to a slightly different kind of asthma that happens during aerobic workouts. This one is interesting in that it’s apparently more prevalent among athletes, especially those in biking and other aerobic disciplines. A study done on the 1996 Olympic participants found that many more of them (15 percent) had exercise induced asthma than the general population.
Is this because of all the dirt and smog and pollen in the air that we athletic folks are breathing at higher rates than couch potatoes? Or is it because the medications used to treat exercise induced asthma (inhalers with corticosteroids) can also give the user a speed-like boost, and some of the research subjects may have been fibbing? Tough to say. (“Trucker speed,” or ephedrine, used to be a common asthma medication but is no longer common.)
One thing is for sure—if your doctor has prescribed an inhaler for you, bring it with you on all your rides, not just the cold ones. An asthma attack is inconvenient at best, deadly at worst, and nothing to trifle with. And a bad case of asthma might indeed be grounds for avoiding exercise in the cold air altogether—only your doctor can tell you.
My experience is with the mild kind. Riding in any weather often involves some mouth-breathing, which means the air isn’t getting filtered, warmed and humidified by your nasal passages. If the available air is cold and dry it can irritate your lungs that much more. Apparently though, it’s not so much the cold as it is the dry—another research study (where would we be without them?) found that dry, room-temperature air had just as much negative effect as cold and dry air.
The solution is to breathe through a piece of fabric, so that moisture is trapped on the exhale and added back in to the air on the inhale. I like to use a Buff, because it’s thin enough that it doesn’t restrict airflow on its own and it doesn’t leave lint stuck in my teeth. I’ve also used a thin balaclava or even a bandana. I don’t cover my nose, since the trapped moisture then fogs my glasses. I’ve had two asthma-free winters so far with a good face covering, that and taking steps to keep my allergies in check.
Just like cold air can make some people’s air passages constrict, it can make some people’s blood vessels in their fingers and toes constrict. Of course one of the healthy body’s natural responses to cold is to reduce bloodflow to the extremities to conserve heat at your core, but Raynaud’s is a peculiar kind of dramatic version of this. The typical distinguishing symptom is a pronounced skin color change from red to white to blue, along with pain and numbness. I shot the photo below on my cellphone—note the white tip of my ring finger.
Blood loss is bad, mkay, particularly when it’s cold and the flesh not being warmed properly can freeze.
This can also be a very serious condition leading to such nasty things as gangrene, so if you think you’ve seen your fingers change colors and you haven’t been fingerpainting, talk to your doctor. If one of your parents has it ask your doctor about it as well, as this condition is most likely genetic.
Since my mom has it, and I have seen some finger-colors going on, I made the appointment. There are some medications to alleviate the symptoms, but they all lower your blood pressure, and since mine is already pretty low, they were ruled out. Plus these medications (usually calcium-channel blockers) have some nasty side effects. Interesting side note—another one of those helpful studies found that Viagra works pretty well against Raynaud’s.
What I do is simply be careful to protect my hands and feet well when riding in the cold. Sometimes this means wearing big heavy winter stuff in the fall when nobody else is yet, but so be it. Currently I use Lake CX Zero gloves, which are sadly discontinued, and Lake MXZ302 boots, both of which have served me well.
On a day down in the low twenties or below, I’ll wear a pair of nylon stockings underneath thick wool socks for an extra degree or two of warmth. (Guys who’ve been wanting to “experiment,” here’s your chance.) My hands often get painfully cold before my feet. I’ll probably look into some good silk or wool glove liners soon. One thing that helps my hands tremendously is to make sure my wrists are also adequately covered, and not constricted by too much elastic.
Road riding is more of a challenge than mountain biking, since the speeds tend to be higher with less work, and I’m more exposed to wind. Pogies are a great invention from the far northern frozen lands to help keep your hands warm. The serious long-distance winter specialist types generally go with the mountain bike setup, with flat bars and pogies, as well as flat platform pedals and hiking boots—something to keep in mind if I want to tackle any truly cold days.
One thing I’ve noticed is that my finger-colors and numbness are less likely with exercise. For instance, the above photo was actually taken after sitting most of the day, while I was a passenger in a car that hadn’t warmed up yet. I haven’t found any scientific evidence to back up the exercise cure, but it makes sense, since it’s all about blood flow. It’s a catch-22 for sure—go out in the cold to prevent its effects. But getting in a proper ride sure beats a boring spin on a trainer no matter the weather.
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