Winter is one of the most challenging times of the year for the endurance athlete – in particular for the cyclist or multi-sport athlete who needs to train on a bike. Not only are we faced with the temptations of the holiday season along with the cruelty of wind-chill and short days that minimize available outdoor hours on the bike, but we are also faced with the reality of the next racing season being just around the corner. For these reasons, we have to avoid hibernating and get on the bike.
Depending on when your first race goals of the season fall on the calendar, the early season training period (December, January and February, roughly) should be geared toward the development, or deepening, of the cyclists’ aerobic engine. There is a reason why some coaches call this the foundation or base period of training; it is the sturdy base upon which all of your fitness will rely and rest. Think about it this way: If you were to build a house, once you had the proper materials and a blueprint to work from, you wouldn’t set out building the top floor first. You literally couldn’t. You need to build floor by floor from the ground up. Training is the same as building a house. Your blueprint is your training plan and race schedule. Winter aerobic development is your groundbreaking and bottom floor.
For most of us, laying this foundation takes an incredible amount of self-control and discipline. In the winter, we are faced with a catch-22: When we have the opportunity to go outside, or if the weather is unseasonably warm, we want to push ourselves and go hard. This is especially the case if we’re stir-crazy from indoor riding. When we have to be indoors on the trainer or rollers, we need to break up the ride and throw in some variety to alleviate the ennui and cabin fever lest our brain turn to mush. BUT, it is crucial that we avoid falling into the trap of doing too much too soon and becoming everybody’s favorite “January Champion”. In August, no one cares who won the state-line sprint or was first to the top of a climb on a ride in January or February. Remember, our training goal is progression toward our peak, not regression from it.
Speaking of indoor training, a few brief thoughts (just like my indoor sessions, brief); unless you are doing a spring Ironman, for most 90 minutes on the trainer is sufficient and only ride inside if you have no other choice. Riding on the road is almost always better than slogging away on the trainer or rollers. Of course, it it’s 20 degrees out, stay inside. If you can do an hour of riding outside and an hour inside, split it up and get your time in that way. And if you have never ridden rollers, I highly recommend getting a pair of high quality rollers and learning how to ride them. Not only do they provide a great workout and serve to dramatically improve your pedal stroke and bike handling skills, but they will also crack some of the indoor doldrums.
If you have not done so already, I would advise getting a pre-season lactate threshold or VO2 max test done to get the baseline for your training zones in order and use that information to structure your winter training. If you have a power meter, you can do some field tests outdoors or on your trainer to get your baseline for maximal steady state training. Watch your heart rate, listen to your body (Rate of Perceived Exertion) and if you have a power meter, stick to your wattage zones. Be strict about it. Invariably, your fitness will increase to the point where you can start giving it some stick come spring. While this training may feel easy at times, too easy in fact, this is where most of your fitness gains are made. Trust me, your patience will pay dividends. Without a sturdy endurance base, you might as well take up knitting. It is the cornerstone of a successful race season. This doesn’t mean you have to stay away from the hills, for example, just climb them slower so that you can do MORE of them and gain strength that way rather than blowing yourself on one climb and being cooked for the next 3 days. And it goes without saying that rest and recovery are as important in the winter as they are in the warmer months when racing is in full swing.
Now riding in the winter is not all about training in the right training zones. There is more involved, like appropriate clothing and equipment. You can ride down to some very cold temperatures if you are suitably attired (my cut-off is right around 25 degrees). If you come from a running background and are new to cycling, take heed of the following statement: When you ride, not only are you battling the pure air temperature and the existing wind chill, but the wind chill that you create as well. Proper layering is key to an enjoyable winter ride. At the same time, it is equally as important to not over-dress. Check the weather forecast; take note of the wind chill, and dress for how you think you will feel 10 minutes into the ride. You might feel a bit cool before your body warms up, but once you do, you’re golden.
Here are some key items for winter layering that will keep you warm AND dry (not necessarily all to be worn at the same time. Common sense rules apply):
Long or short sleeve base layer with wicking properties to keep you dry.
Long Sleeve Jersey
Thermal Jacket or Vest
Wind Jacket or Vest
Thermal Shorts w/Leg Warmers (many companies make thicker shorts for winter)
Tights (my advice is tights with no chamois and wear cycling shorts under).
I train in leg warmers in weather below 60 degrees. Once it dips below 50, my legs are fully covered.
Warming balm or oil to cover the joints. Many brands are readily available for purchase through catalogs or at bike shops now, or you can make your own sauce as well.
Rain Jacket (for those of you who won’t be deterred by the elements)
Booties or shoe covers (so, so, important)
Gloves (different conditions call for different gloves, have several thicknesses on hand…)
Head band, hat, or balaclava (you may need to take some of the padding out of your helmet to get the right fit)
Insulated water bottles. You need to hydrate in the winter, too (if you don’t have insulated bottles, there are a few tricks that I use to keep my liquid from freezing…).
Of course, this is just a partial list of items that will make winter more bearable. For many of us, there are some homemade tricks to keep warm that work as well. Remember too, if there is any moisture on the ground or in the air, being dry is a necessary condition for warmth, so don’t ignore waterproof items and don’t fear the rain (fear the ice but not the rain). Also, in the cold weather, your core will gather most of the heat to keep your body warm. Make sure that your extremities are covered. One of the biggest factors in cutting winter rides short are frozen feet and hands.
Winter is also the time – and perhaps the ONLY time – when you should be thinking about changing equipment and trying new things (like the new Look KEO pedals or even a new drink mix). Since you want your bike dialed in during race season, you want to make sure that your existing rig is in good shape. Go for a winter tune up and make any upgrades or changes earlier in the training calendar rather than later. Or, if you are getting a new bike for next season, buy it now. Get it fit properly and ride it through the winter so your body is one with the machine come race day. And don’t be afraid to slap on some heavy winter tires, bombproof wheels, and fenders. Being relatively flat-tire free and having a dry bum are both virtues when the weather is cold. I’d rather be warm and dry on my ride than freeze the aforementioned bum off for the sake of high cycling fashion. Plus, if you choose the latter option, your ride is bound to be a lot shorter than if you are smart and gear up for the cold weather. Plus, if you opt for fancy wheels it’s a near guarantee you’ll wreck the bearings and the breaking surface on your nice set of carbon race wheels. I’ve seen what road salt can do to even the finest sealed cartridge bearings and trust me when I say that it isn’t pretty.
One of the great things about winter, too, is that you don’t have to be married to your road or triathlon rig. You can play around on the mountain or cyclocross bike. If you have a mountain or cross bike already, get on it. If not and you’ve got an old road bike hanging around, slap on some cantilever breaks, knobby tires and a few fenders and you’ve got a machine that will blissfully take you on trails and through the snow. Be inventive with your training and as it is still considered the ‘off-season’ have fun with it!
Remember, if you are smart, resourceful, imaginative and creative, then winter can be one of the most enjoyable times of the year to train.