How Long Will You Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions
by Scott Saifer, M.S.
This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine in December 2006.
Bicycle racing does not favor whiners. Competition requires willingness to do what needs to be done even if it is hurts, as it often does. Muscles and lungs burn during climbs and sprints. After a hard race, muscles may ache for days. Road rash is an inevitable part of bike racer life. Most racers will eventually work through a sore back or knees. Even waking up in the middle of the night to drive to a distant race venue can be painful. True racers accept that these hardships are part of racing but don’t dwell on them. They don’t seek the pain, but don’t avoid it either.
Racing and avoiding pain are incompatible. When racing, competition must be the priority, with avoiding pain a distant lesser goal. Pain is part of racing, only avoidable by quitting, which is not an option for the true racer. The pain is not confined strictly to the time spent racing and recovering. There is also pain on and between training rides. During the racing season it’s easy to see the connection between training and success, so serious riders don’t ponder not training then. In mid-winter, with racing several months away and when many riders face a choice of riding indoors or braving foul weather, it may become easier to ponder a few weeks off the bike. Cross training has its place, but on-bike training at least a few days per week this time of year is absolutely essential to success next season.
Don’t pursue the daydream of avoiding winter training, unless you are ready to pass on being competitive in the coming year as well. On inspection, riders can be divided into two groups each winter: those who are going to ride stronger the following spring than the last and those who will not. It’s easy to tell the difference: The ones who accept the discomfort and inconvenience and get down to the business of training despite the weather, short daylight hours and long wait before the racing season are going to do well in the spring, assuming they are following an appropriate training plan. Those who think that their distaste for the indoor trainer or for cold weather somehow exempts them from the laws of physiology and who skip training for a few weeks, will ride about as well next year as last, if they are lucky. One can’t take breaks of much more than a month per year and still get stronger year after year.
You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to train through a cold winter. Depending on where you live, you may have to deal with the choice of snow, ice, freezing rain or at least cold winds outside, or endless monotonous hours on an indoor trainer. But guess what: When it comes time to race the referees won’t give you a head start for living in snow country or hating the trainer. After all, who doesn’t hate it after four or five hours? The guys and gals who do their time are going to start the season fitter than the ones who spend the winter atrophying and getting fat. Then they’re going to be leaner, ride faster, get into the breaks more often, stick with the lead pack and generally do better. Sometimes being crazy pays.
Some people say that suffering is part of bike racing, or that you have to know how to suffer to win. I disagree. Suffering is what makes people whine, moan and complain. Suffering is the combination of pain or discomfort with how one deals with it. Pain is part of bike racing, but suffering is a choice. Suffering is what happens when you have pain and choose to focus on it. Greatness is what happens when you have pain and still focus on your goal. Many great riders have come from the snowy and rainy countries of Northern Europe. This was true as much before the invention of indoor trainers, training camps in the Mediterranean and high-tech clothes as it is today. In the old days, training through the winter was a sign of champions because it made champions. With today’s equipment for indoor and outdoor winter riding, training through the winter has been made tolerable to This article Training through the cold months no longer is enough to make one a winner. So many racers do it so well that it is a requirement to simply be competitive in the Spring.
Riding outdoors through the winter can be great psychological preparation for early season racing. If a race gets rained or snowed on, riders who rode outdoors through the winter know how to prepare for it and, if conditions are miserable, the majority of riders can tell themselves that that they are better prepared and less miserable than others in the race. On days that are merely chilly, the winter-trained rider glories in the beautiful conditions, while the weather-wimp wonders if he’ll be okay in the cold. Extreme weather riding can be dangerous, but proper clothing and equipment can make riding in almost any conditions both safe and comfortable. (check out www.icebike.com for some examples).
I wintered in North- Eastern China one year. To visit friends in the next town, I rode several times in temperatures down to -15F (-26C), weather cold enough that my beard and eyebrows froze solid behind my bandana. I wore simulated rabbit fur long underwear up to my chest with wool work pants over and similar extreme weather gear over the rest of my body, but I was never cold while riding. Other years I’ve ridden in drenching thunder-storms that did chill my feet, but I finished my rides, I lived, I didn’t need medical care and I rode strongly in spring races. I also learned a lot of tricks for dealing with extreme weather. With a bit of effort, you can find the combination of clothing, bike, ride schedule and accessories to make riding tolerable or better under most conditions. I don’t recommend training outdoors in a whiteout blizzard or frozen slush or with black ice on the roads, but short of these situations, I suggest getting out there.
When the weather is truly dangerous, you can always ride indoors. While indoor riding is boring and can be painful, with the right combination of entertaining videos, changing positions and a good cooling fan, multi-hour training session can be tolerable. If you want to win bike races, tolerable has to be good enough. After several years of trial and error, you can accumulate enough gear and enough tricks to make most winter riding actually enjoyable. Meanwhile as you accumulate tricks, you also have to accumulate miles. Following are some tips to help make winter training less unpleasant. Make use of the ones that seem most appropriate to you and the conditions where you live.
A MTB with fat, soft tires and an upright position lets you get a workout at a lower speed than you would on a road bike. That means less wind-chill so try the MTB to avoid getting cold in cold weather. If you don’t want to train on a mountain bike, at least use wheels with fat tires and lots of spokes. In the rain, fenders with a flap that will keep the cold water from running down your legs and into your shoes will do more to keep your feet warm than the world’s fanciest booties. Get some. You may need a second bike to use them. Serious racers have second bikes.
Winter cycling clothes don’t have to be cycling specific or close fitting, except at the pants-cuffs. The point of close fitting stuff is that it lets you cut through the wind efficiently, which really doesn’t matter during training, so feel free to use what keeps you comfortable, even if that is wool sweaters, anoraks, parkas, balaclavas, ski gloves or work-boots. Do take advantage of the cycling specific cold weather gear too though: Wind-front fleece jackets and tights are wonderful when needed. Don’t be afraid to wear several pairs of cycling tights at once. In very cold weather try insulated or electric boots or heated insoles (yes they exist, get larger shoes to allow blood to circulate when you use thick socks or insoles).
On rainy days there is no fancy cycling gear that will keep you dry during a real workout. Between sweating and leakage, you are going to get wet to the skin, so dress accordingly. Wear or carry enough clothing that you are a bit hot when dry and will be just comfortable when soaked. That way you’ll be glad to get rained on. On cold days be sure your clothing is set up for ventilation: Un-zip or take off jackets on climbs to avoid getting soaked in sweat, then bundle up again on descents. Covering more skin keeps you warm more effectively than wearing heavier garments on some body parts while other parts remain exposed. On cold days, wear a hat or bandana under your helmet, wear a neck-protector, be sure your socks are high enough to reach your tights and wear a balaclava or bandana to cover your face. If your face will be exposed, a thin layer of petroleum jelly will do as much to keep it warm as a much thicker layer of fabric.
Warm up on a trainer when you ride outdoors on very cold days or if you need to start your ride in the dark to get all your time in. If you get chilled on a ride, warm up when you get home by jumping on the trainer. Generating internal heat will warm you much more quickly than a warm shower, soup and a blanket. Get a powerful lighting system so you can train before sunup or after sundown. Find a way to train at mid-day to avoid needing lights.
Compare your training plans with the weather report for the next few days. If storms are predicted, rearrange your plan to put the longer rides on the better weather days. If there is going to be continuous bad weather, make a plan that will keep you riding through that as well. On slippery roads, don’t use the rear brake, especially in a corner. If the front wheel skids, and you can get the bike upright, the bike will go approximately straight. If the rear wheel loses traction it tends to pass you as you fish tail out of control. When cornering on slippery stuff, keep the bike more upright than you would under better traction conditions.
Consider visiting somewhere warm for a training vacation, but remember that conditions back home are going to feel twice as awful by comparison when you return home, so schedule training vacations for the end of winter, not the beginning.
Much of the misery of indoor training, and all of the higher heart rate for the same power output is caused by the inability to dissipate the heat generated during exercise. A really big, powerful fan and a source of cold air can make indoor riding much less unpleasant. Combine that with good tunes or videos (emphasize action over dialog) and frequent changes of position and most can enjoy many hours of indoor workouts. Rollers require focus which can keep indoor riding interesting for a while, but eventually you’re going to need some external stimulation, so if you plan to use just one device, get a trainer that will let you do other stuff while pedaling. If you’ve got the budget and the space, get rollers as well.
Avoid the temptation to spend more time analyzing your ride data and less time training. Even if you take all this advice, you still won’t be 100% comfortable on all your wet or cold winter rides, but training will be tolerable, and that’s what matters. No doubt even if you master the art of winter training, there will be days when you are not excited about getting soaked again or about another long session on the trainer. That’s a good day to call your coach for a pep-talk and a good time to remind yourself what you are training for and that you have a chance to get a leg up on the competition. Many years ago, I was avoiding going out one morning because the wind was whipping trees against my house. I sat down to read one more article before riding. Serendipitously, it was an interview with Chris Boardman who expressed the opinion that the reason that his former club in Paris turned out so many professional riders was that their coach made them train long miles, and in particular that talent or no talent, any rider that came through that club knew how to ride in the wind. As I finished the article I couldn’t wait to get outside. That whole afternoon I was hoping for stronger headwinds, wondering if the ones I was experiencing were strong enough to help me turn pro.
With the right attitude, any conditions are tolerable but even the worst conditions don’t have to trigger suffering. Happy New Year!
Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching advocate year round training, indoors or out as appropriate, to optimize fitness for racing or other endurance challenges. We provide our clients with individualized training plans and the moral support to do what needs to be done. We are currently accepting new clients. For more information, please visit www.WenzelCoaching.com or call 503-233-4346.