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.
Our complete series of cold-weather cycling tips:Tweet Print
We’ve already covered a lot about proper cold weather riding gear (like jackets and footwear) for the high latitude areas where the dropping mercury effects our kit choices. But what about when your face starts leaking on those frigid morning commutes?
No worries friends, I got your back. What I’ve begun to understand is that there is a constant battle to arrive at your destination without strange excrement frozen to your face.Tweet Print
The secret to staying warm?
You knew that already didn’t you?
I’ll cover two different systems that work well for me into the low twenties.Tweet Print
In this installment of our cold weather riding series I’ll be moving up the body to talk about keeping one’s legs warm and comfortable as the mercury falls. The legs are an often-overlooked aspect of cool weather cycling considering they are our primary source of power. Keeping your knees warm is paramount to preventing unnecessary wear and tear of the joint, while keeping your muscles warm will help to prevent strains and pulled muscles, as well as torn ligaments. Sure, you can allow your legs to be chilly without your entire body feeling terribly cold, but it is far from a good idea.Tweet Print
In this installment of winter riding and how to enjoy it, or at least survive, I’m focusing on the all-important toes and feet. Keeping this area of the body warm and dry when the temperature drops below freezing can be a struggle. With the proper footwear though, a trail ride or commute to work can be as easy as slipping on a pair of socks.
As with any cold weather riding gear, the layers used should first block the wind, then provide warmth, while managing perspiration. The climate you live in will dictate the footwear and layers used, but here in the north a full range of options is beneficial for the fall and winter months and the huge weather changes experienced from day to day, or even from morning to night. Where you ride is also a factor, but I use the same footwear for both commuting and mountain biking.Tweet Print
When the temperature drops and daylight wanes, many riders confine themselves to an indoor trainer or hang up their bikes altogether for the winter months. True, winter riding presents unique challenges, but it also reaps great rewards. Aside from the physical benefits of riding all year long, winter riding opens up a world of opportunities for adventure, fun, and natural beauty.
Your winter ride begins with a single step outside. The mental decision to brave the elements is often times harder than choosing the appropriate gear for your ride. When you’re warm and cozy inside your bed/house/car, the prospect of getting all geared up and facing physical discomfort in the form of cold, ice, snow, and/or rain doesn’t seem like it would be all that much fun.
Indeed, often times the first 15 minutes of a winter ride are uncomfortable, but after a good warm-up the fun begins. I know this fact well, but on some foul weather mornings I still find myself rationalizing about why I’d rather drive to work or skip the trail ride and stay at home and drink coffee. The reason? Inertia or resistance to change your state of comfort. On one hand, you’re warm and dry. On the other, you choose to exchange those luxuries to be cold and wet.
When I think about it, I know I will be happier if I ride no matter what the weather. But the mental and physical preparation for the ride often times seems insurmountable. Obviously they’re not, and what it comes down to is that you just have to push on through and get on your bike. Below are a few tips that make it a little easier for me to get moving during the winter months.
- If you know you’re riding in the morning, get up a little earlier than usual so that you can fully wake up and get your body physically and mentally prepared.
- Before a ride, I try and warm up a little inside before leaving the house. Not so much that I break a sweat. Something as simple as climbing up and down the steps a few times or doing a few push-ups or sit-ups to increase my heart rate is all that it takes.
- Get enough sleep the night before a ride. This is sound advice all year long, but it’s especially important in the low-motivation months of winter.
- The more you ride during the winter, the easier it is to get motivated to ride. Again, this is true all year long, but more pronounced in winter.
- Get your bike and gear ready to go the night before you ride. Riding in the winter takes a little more preparation, so it’s best not to leave it until the last minute. That only gives you an excuse not to ride.
Once you get outside, your comfort level on the bike is critical so that you actually stay on your bike and enjoy the ride. The right preparation can make that happen.
Our complete series of cold-weather cycling tips:Tweet Print