It might be not that cold outside yet, but winter is coming. The extent to which we as cyclists suffer from this cold seems very individually determined. One claims that you just need the proper cycling gear, while the other only does indoor rides when it’s freezing outside. Apart from this subjective experience of cold, this weather type also clearly has an impact on the human body. We are often asked whether it is actually a good idea to train outside with temperatures around zero degrees Celsius. In this article we try to give a clear and scientifically based answer.
Temperature is not the only measure for cold
First, it is important to take a good look at how cold it actually is. The temperature is not a good measure for this. As cyclists, we know better than anyone what the influence of the wind is and also in this concept the wind is a determining factor. Because of the wind, the human body cools down faster. Therefore, the wind chill, which takes into account the wind force, is a much better measure of how cold it is. A temperature of just below zero with a clear blue sky and a beautiful sun does not seem too disturbing at first glance. However, with a wind from the east of wind force four, the wind chill is quickly set at -9°C and if you want to ride against it with a speed of 28 km/h then the wind chill temperature is still a few degrees lower at about -13/-14°C. Such temperatures can indeed be taken seriously.
What happens with your body when you train in the cold?
At a wind chill below -15°C, cold injuries may occur after an hour. At that moment, tissue is irreparably damaged by the formation of ice crystals (frostbite) and the death of fingers, toes, ears and/or nose can result. But before that happens, many more interesting things are happening in the human body. Vasoconstriction occurs to keep the core temperature at a constant high level at much higher temperatures. This protects the torso, where all vital organs lie, and constricts the blood vessels in the arms and legs. Cycling in the cold means that the leg muscles also receive significantly less blood and therefore less fuel and oxygen, but also the disposal of waste is considerably reduced. Therefore, in temperatures around zero degrees Celsius, you will never be able to perform as well as in warmer weather. More interestingly, it makes the load on your body heavier than at higher temperatures, while the heart rate monitor or power meter indicates equal values. It is therefore important to remember that the level of effort in cold temperatures has increased considerably.
Does training in the cold speed up your metabolism?
However, contrary to popular belief, the metabolism of exercise in the cold is not automatically higher than normal. The thinking is often that an increased metabolism burns more fats and carbohydrates and also logically releases more heat. Nice idea, but for an increased metabolism, humans actually have to make more effort through increased muscle activity. This is, for example, what happens when shivering. As long as the core temperature is not compromised, because you wear the proper clothes to brave the cold, you will not sit shivering on the bike. In contrast to some animal species, humans do not have the ability to produce more heat due to increased activity of tissue other than muscle tissue. Like a bear, who can just turn up the stove a little bit during his hibernation. By the way, it is the case that often the movement is complicated by wearing a lot of clothes, so you have to exert yourself more and therefore the metabolism is higher.
Why cyclists are the least capable of keeping their body temperature at a contant level.
As mentioned, the body does everything it can to keep your body temperature at a constant high level, at least above 36 degrees. We as cyclists actually have all the possible factors that can complicate this working against us. The elements such as rain and wind play an important role. In addition, a low fat percentage also significantly complicates this task and research shows that physically well-trained individuals are no better able to maintain their core temperature than less trained people. By the way, cyclists over 60 have it even more difficult, because the vasoconstriction works less. Women usually have it a little easier because the fat percentage is higher. But at the same fat percentage between a man and a woman, the woman has a harder time again because the ratio between mass and surface is lower.
What do you need to wear as a cyclist in the cold?
To help the body the best way is to create as many layers of clothes as possible. Although in cycling everything should always be as tight as possible in the context of aerodynamics, the opposite is now desirable. In this way, stagnant layers of air are created that take the temperature of the body. Often things go wrong when wearing too isolated clothing, so that the body cannot drain water vapour during exercise. This causes the clothing to get wet, which is directly on the skin. This way the clothes get wet after a strenuous block of exercise, riding back home with wet clothes for an hour can then really be a problem. These are precisely those situations where extra vigilance is required. Also an often underestimated element, is that one forgets to drink because of the cold, while through the harder effort quite a bit of water vapor escapes. In cold temperatures it is therefore very possible to dehydrate.
Adjust to the cold!
Finally, the effects of acclimatization to the cold in the physiological field are quite modest. There is a small acclimatization, that the body learns to apply vasoconstriction a little faster and also heat production by muscle contraction is lifted to a higher level. The most important advice is to use your brains when riding in the cold and adjust the effort and distance to the conditions.
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