Extreme Cold. What’s Your Limit?

By Coach MC Jenni

T’was the week before Christmas and all through the castle

Not a wheel was spinning, it seemed such a hassle

The trainer sat all alone by the tv

It’s so cold outside, “I’d freeze” thought the Cat 3

The draft and guilt creeping under the doors,

No sound of cleats clicking across floors….

Brrrrrr….there’s dry cold, wet cold, too cold, dangerously cold and that chill in the air that can make those visions of warmer-weather racing or touring distant enough to convince ourselves that skipping today’s training plan is okay. Today in Missoula, Montana, it’s -12 degrees. That would be dangerously cold for an outside ride. Much more than nose hairs would freeze. Rollers, wind trainers, fans blowing, music to jam to and a movie to boot are what are called for on a day like today. But, when the temperatures rise just enough, riding outdoors in the not-so-cold can be the ultimate energizing, motivating and fulfilling experience in your winter training plan.

What’s your limit? I discovered my personal limit for cold on a mountain bike trip in Mongolia in the month of September when a freakishly early snowstorm hit near the border of northern Mongolia and Russia. The snow was wet, sloppy and relentless. After hours of riding through it without knowing where the next warm place would be, I welcomed huddling in a “ger” (Mongolian word for yurt) with a family who stoked their fire with yak dung and served me yak tea, hard cheese, and mutton. More than adventurous, the tears streamed down my face as my feet and hands warmed. Mongolian faces watched me, surely wondering why I was riding a bike and not a horse.

“There is no precise core temperature at which the human body perishes from cold,” writes Peter Stark in his book The Last Breath. “The lowest recorded core temperature in a surviving adult is 60.8. For a child it’s lower. In 1994, a two year old girl in Saskatchewan wandered out of her house into a -40 night. She was found near her doorstep the next morning, limbs frozen solid, her core temperature 57 degrees. She lived.”

While you may not run into such extreme circumstances, contemplate as you venture to bundle up for a holiday pedal out of doors what Stark shares in his book: “Were you a Norwegian fisherman or Inuit hunter, both of whom frequently work gloveless in the cold, your chilled hands would open their surface capillaries periodically to allow surges of warm blood to pass into them and maintain their flexibility. This phenomenon, known as the hunter’s response, can elevate a 35-degree skin temperature to 50 degrees within seven or eight minutes. Other human adaptations to the cold are more mysterious. Tibetan Buddhist monks can raise the skin temperature of their hands and feet by 15 degrees through meditation. Australian Aborigines, who once slept on the ground, unclothed, on near-freezing nights, would slip into a light hypothermic state, suppressing shivering until the rising sun re-warmed them.”

Our athletic bodies lack such adaptations. In striving for our ultimate fitness, we are limited by our climate-controlled environments. Nevertheless, I recommend that you get out and ride. A rule of thumb for riding in dry cold is anything above about 25 degrees is do-able. Wet cold is more like 38-40 degrees. Notice the more committed and focused you are on your racing or touring potential, the easier it is to ride at these temperatures. And the fitter you are, the more heat you generate during a similar effort, so you may be able to handle colder weather now than when you were less fit.

Here’s your guide to bundling up for the cold. The theme is layer, layer, layer. Put on in this order:

  • Bike shorts or tights with chamois built in.
  • Wicking jog bra type layer for women
  • Now is time to put your heart rate strap on before you get tightly bound, sparing yourself the struggle of hiking up your layers later to get it on.
  • Merino Wool (there are great new natural fiber products on the market) base layer for a top. Or, if sensitive to wool, wear a synthetic material. You can pile on as many of these as you need, temperature depending.
  • A sweater-like thick layer
  • Tights over your shorts. Tight should have a lycra-type material outside and brushed, softer material inside.
  • Socks made of wicking material. Note if thick socks make your bike shoes tight, that can make your feet cold.
  • You may want an extra layer over your knees. Knee warmers under your tights work.
  • Cycling shoes. Some like to put a chemical-packet toe warmer in the shoe, under the ball of the foot.
  • Booties. Neoprene are cost effective and work well for dry cold. They are not water resistant or wind resistant. In wet weather, they can be heavy. So you may prefer a wind resistant material bootie.
  • By now, you may be getting sweaty as you prepare to exit.
  • Wind resistant layer on top, preferably a stretchy fabric so you can have your full range of motion on the bike.
  • Balaclava is great for the head as they are thin, cover the back of your neck, as well as allow you to filter the cold air as you breathe through the material over your mouth.
  • Glasses. Clear or brightening lenses may be in order for darker winter days.
  • And finally, the ever-so funny “lobster mitts”. A mitten with 3 finger spaces allowing you to maintain safety as maneuver your fingers for shifting and braking.

If you are going out on the road or trail at or near freezing you need to give a moments thought to ice and snow. Nothing can take a rider down quicker and less expectedly than black-ice, and a broken collarbone can really mess with your training plan. If you plan to ride extensively outside on snow or ice consider investing in or building a set of winter training wheels: “handmade” studded snow tires are a thing of the past and you can now get a variety of studded mountain or road/cyclocross tires at your local pro-shop or online.

Depending on your workout, give extra thought to your warm up, focusing on warming up very gradually. Warming down in the cold needs special attention too. If you are making hard efforts and breaking a hard sweat remember as you warm down it is easy to get really cold: wet + cold = really cold. Truncate your warm down or throw your bike on the trainer somewhere warm for the last ten minutes. If you have to throw your bike on the car after your ride bring a change of clothes and change quickly into dry clothes after your ride and before sitting in the car for 15 minutes and catching a chill..then a cold.

The body exercises best when core and muscle temperatures are around 101-102 F. Underdressing leaves you unable to warm up adequately, while over dressing leads to overheating and performance about as bad as on a too-hot, humid summer day. Efficient training in the cold requires annoyingly frequent addition and removal of layers and zipping or unzipping of garments.

Fill your water bottle with warm water or your favorite training drink, the heat might not last long but it will prevent your bottle from freezing for a little while.

Snuggle up after your ride with a book from my Winter Reading List with amazing stories about the human body and training in the cold and for the cold:

  • The Last Breath” by Peter Stark. Cautionary Tales from the Limits of Human Endurance
  • Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales. Who lives, Who dies and Why
  • Swimming to Antartica” by Lynne Cox. Tales of Long-Distance Swimmer