“I’ve never had to pull out of a race because I was overdressed.”
I was new to cycling, and as I listened to a local pro’s presentation to my club team, that quote stuck in my mind. Years later, it’s the one comment I still remember.
Maybe that’s because, after the presentation, when we all went for a ride with our presenter, he decided to wear nothing but shorts and a jersey. Since it was March in Upstate New York, it wasn’t long before snowflakes appeared, and I had to time trial home to get my car because the pro couldn’t continue. I guess he wanted to teach by example. But I digress.
Anyone who’s been to a winter group ride knows there are a wide variety of opinions on what’s appropriate cold weather clothing. Some will be dressed like the Michelin man; others will pose as the “strongman” dressed in nothing but arm warmers.
So why is it so important to stay warm on our cold autumn and winter rides? Cold temperatures affect our physiology right down to the muscles.
How cold temps affect muscle function
At their most basic level, muscles are made of tiny fibers called actin and myosin. Think of myosin like little hooks that grab the actin, and then pull together, causing the muscle to contract and shorten.
Interestingly, however, all that effort you put into your muscles isn’t to get the myosin to grab and pull the actin. It’s to get the myosin to let go. In other words, it takes energy for muscles to relax, not to contract.
It’s hard to believe, but think of it in these macabre terms: when a human dies, his or her body goes into rigor mortis; every muscle contracts and stiffens.
As with most physiology, it’s a little more complex than that. There’s an important step where calcium is released and then reabsorbed. But the basic concept remains true: It takes energy for a muscle to relax. And anything that requires energy in a physiological system is affected by temperature. The lower the temperature, the slower the energy-requiring reaction will occur. (It’s called the “Q10 effect” if you want to impress your friends on your next group ride.)
If you think that you’re tough and you can still ride well on your bike when you’re cold, you’re right. Studies show that submaximal aerobic power isn’t affected by cold.  But its relaxation that’s important and multiple studies have shown that in even moderately cold environments, it can take a muscle up to four times longer to relax. [2-4] With each pedal stroke the quadriceps have to contract and then relax. If the muscle takes too long to relax then it will be forcefully lengthened when it is still partially contracted. The result is increased muscle damage and a more rapid onset of fatigue. [3-5] But remember, its relaxation that’s important, and multiple studies have shown that, even in moderately cold environments, it can take a muscle up to four times longer to relax. [2-4]
With each pedal stroke the quadriceps must contract and then relax. If the muscle takes too long to relax then it will be forcefully lengthened when it is still partially contracted. The result is increased muscle damage and a more rapid onset of fatigue. [3-5]
And if muscle damage isn’t bad enough, there are other negative effects of cold exposure. Working muscles have an increased reliance on carbohydrates for fuel; that also means they have a reduced reliance on fat, due to decreased blood-flow to subcutaneous fat. You’ll also experience a drop in max heart rate and oxygen delivery, which increases your reliance on anaerobic metabolism.
How to train in the cold
There are multiple reasons to protect your working muscles on cold days. So, what are the best strategies for staying warm and comfortable? Simple: dress up. Easier said than done. But a simple and elegant philosophy to take: Try to stay as close to one temperature year-round.
Cover your legs
I always tell my athletes, “If you’re overdressed, you’re a little uncomfortable. If you’re underdressed, you’re doing damage.” Do an image search for pro team winter training camps. You will be hard pressed to find a single exposed leg.
Use layers for temperature regulation
By using one warm jacket, you’re more likely to end up cold and wet. What works during your 8 a.m. warm-up is very different from what you need at 11 a.m. as you’re throwing down for the next town line sprint.
The trick is to wear layers that you can remove as you ride. Thus, you can regulate how warm you get by shedding layers as needed throughout the day or as the pace changes. Conversely, you can throw that windbreaker back on if you start a long descent and anticipate the chill.
Wear breathable materials to stay dry
Clothing that prevents any air to pass through increases sweating and creates a moist micro-environment around the skin, which, on top of making you uncomfortable, draws blood away from the muscles and increases core temperature.
The result is a more rapid onset of fatigue  6. Wicking under-layers and breathable clothing will keep you comfortable. The best materials contain natural fabrics such as linen or wool that aren’t too tightly knit. Clothing that is over 50-percent polyester has been shown to increase sweat rates and even cause muscle desynchronization, which is a fancy way of saying your muscles actually work harder and less effectively  7.
Choose the right gloves, booties, and head coverings
Most winter cyclists will tell you that as long as you keep your head, hands, and feet warm, you can tolerate most weather. Booties keep your feet warm and dry. I personally recommend booties with a Velcro seal instead of a zipper. Mud gets kicked up on wet days and can clog a zipper.
How to stay warm and dry when it’s wet
Rain adds a whole new element to staying warm when training. While the above recommendations will help on a wet day, here are a few more suggestions that will keep you dry.
They may lack style points but ask anyone who rides in Seattle: Show up to a group ride in November without fenders and you’re sent home. “Fenders are 90% of the battle,” claims pro Rob Britton, who has spent many winters training in the Northwest. “If it’s raining at a camp, we usually don’t ride because no one brings fenders. If you get wet, there’s no staying warm. You have to have fenders or you freeze.”
Bring back-up gloves
Thick, neoprene gloves will help you survive a cold, wet day. But no glove will stay dry forever. In the Northwest, there is a way you can always spot the experienced riders. Halfway through the ride, the group will stop, and the veterans will pull a second set of dry gloves from beneath their protected jersey to buy themselves a few more hours of comfort. The new riders will watch, and do their best to wring the water out of their single, soaked pair.
Tips for racing in the cold
There’s a significant difference between racing in the cold and riding in the cold. To an extent, in a race you just have to deal with any inclement conditions and find the quickest path to your dry, warm vehicle after the race.
However, the biggest difference between racing and training is that, in a race, you are going much harder and, therefore, you will generate more heat. It’s a good idea to wear fewer layers when racing. One trick is to bundle up during your warm-up and have someone at the start line to grab your extra layers just before the race starts.
A note on embrocation
Embrocation is just a cream that is rubbed onto the skin. Some embrocations, most of which contain either capsaicin or wintergreen, can cause a warming sensation in the legs. Embrocation causes this sensation by activating thermoreceptors in the skin and increasing local blood flow.
Many athletes put embrocation on their legs to stay warm when training or racing. Multiple studies have looked at embrocation and none have shown that it increases muscle temperature. [8-9] So embrocation likely does not reduce the risks of riding with cold muscles. However, some of the same studies show that the sensation of warmth alone can improve performance and the increased blood flood aids lactate clearance.
Clothing has come a long way
Cycling clothing technology has come a long way from the plastic raincoats of 20 years ago. It’s now possible to stay warm and comfortable in some of the worst winter weather.
However, there are still some days where no clothing is going to do the trick. On those days, one of the oldest strategies used by cyclists may help. “A lot of coffee stops. That’s the key,” Britton says. “Don’t leave home without the Visa.”
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- Hou TT, Johnson JD, Rall JA. Effect of temperature on relaxation rate and Ca2+, Mg2+ dissociation rates from parvalbumin of frog-muscle fibers. J Physiol-London 1992;449:399-410.
- Oksa J, Ducharme MB, Rintamaki H. Combined effect of repetitive work and cold on muscle function and fatigue. Journal of Applied Physiology 2002;92:354-61.
- Rissanen S, Oksa J, Rintamaki H, Tokura H. Effects of leg covering in humans on muscle activity and thermal responses in a cool environment. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 1996;73:163-8.
- Kuchler G, Patzak A, Schubert E. Muscle elasticity – effect of muscle length and temperature. Biomedica Biochimica Acta 1990;49:1209-25.
- Zhang P, Gong RH, Yanai Y, Tokura H. Effects of clothing material on thermoregulatory responses. Text Res J 2002;72:83-9.
- Zimniewska M, Krucinska I. The effect of raw material composition of clothes on selected physiological parameters of human organism. J Text Inst 2010;101:154-64.
- Stephens DP, Charkoudian N, Benevento JM, Johnson JM, Saumet JL. The influence of topical capsaicin on the local thermal control of skin blood flow in humans. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 2001;281:R894-901.
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