Winter is around the corner, and it usually has a pretty hefty sting in it’s tail. All of us know that from now on, in terms of temperature, it’s generally down hill all the way. As well as turning your feet into blocks of ice the cold can also have a profound effect on how your body performs during your ride. Add to this the wind chill that most of us experience onboard our favourite steed, and it can all add up to far more than we bargained for from our normal weekend ride.
Most sane individuals wherever possible try to avoid the cold. Even an Eskimos main form of defence against falling temperatures is avoidance. For us hardened mountain bikers however this simply isn’t possible as a strict winter training program just has to be followed.
There are many ways our bodies cope with exercise in the cold, shivering is perhaps the best known. This effect is basically automatic muscle contraction, which elevates heat production within the body by as much as 4 to 5 times. The body also redistributes blood from the surface of the body to the core in order to maintain body a balanced internal temperature.
When we are riding our bikes in the cold we tend to focus perhaps on the comfort aspect rather than the effect it is having on our body. In fact at low and moderate levels of exercise in the cold, oxygen consumption will actually increase to aid the shivering response. Some research also suggests that the amount of blood we are able to pump out of our heart per minute decreases as a result of reduced heart muscle effectiveness. This effect has been found to be true for other muscles in the body with both the speed and power of contraction being reduced
Perhaps the most important factor when looking at exercising in the cold on a bike is wind chill. On a bike the air currents magnify heat loss as warmer insulating air layers surrounding the body are continually replaced by cooler air. For example even on a calm day, if you were travelling at 15 Mph and the temperature was 10°F the actual temperature you would experience would be equivalent to -25°F. Now this is bloody cold in any bodies language.
Many riders seem to be able to keep going right through the winter without even noticing the sudden drop in temperature. There are a number of factors that may bring about this strange phenomenon. Firstly there’s good news for all of you out there who like myself are carrying a bit more fat into the winter months than we perhaps should be. This fat layer will act as an insulator during the following few months keeping us snug all winter long. If you also have youth on your side you are better equipped to tolerate the cold. Add to this a good level of fitness and your ability to deal with the cold by enabling you to shiver more and earlier is greatly increased.
When exercising in the cold dress becomes a vital factor to combating these extremes of temperature. The best advice, supported by research suggests the following basic steps.
- Wear lightweight clothing in layers. You can take layers off if you get to hot and put them back on when the temperature drops.
- Materials that “wick” moisture away from the surface of the skin to the outer layers of the garment are preferable, as the insulating capability of wet clothing is dramatically reduced.
- Waterproof shoes and gloves will help to keep hands and feet warm as blood is redistributed from the extremities to the body core.
- A significant level of heat is lost through the head, so investment in a hat to cover the head would seem to be a worthwhile investment.
There is evidence to suggest we acclimatise slightly to the cold, and investment in suitable clothing should mean there is little reason to hang up our bikes all winter. However when you look out the window and you can see the cold hanging in the air, it is very tempting to stay indoors and watch mtb videos. The choice is yours, good luck.