In cold weather you not only have to perform your best but your body also has the added task of thermal regulation, trying to keep everything at the optimal temperature. You can lose body heat faster if you’re cycling in wet or windy weather as well as if you’re female. Not only is being cold downright uncomfortable, but it can weaken your immune system, and getting sick can take training off the table for several days while you’re recovering. Let’s talk about what you can do before, during, and after your race to minimize the cold as a detriment to your performance.
Before Your Race
You may not be as aware of your hydration as you would in hot weather, but it is still very important. You want to have an elevated blood volume because blood plasma includes red blood cells which carry oxygen to working muscles as well as white blood cells which fight infection. On very cold days, use warm liquid such as broth to stay warm from the inside out. Holding the cup helps keep your hands warm, too!
Do your warm up closer to your starting time than on hot days, and ease into it. Standing around waiting for the start with a wet underlayer can mess with your nervous system’s ability to regulate body temperature.
Plan your clothing layers ahead of time and eliminate any cotton in your kit! Remember you’ll warm up considerably once you start riding, so don’t dress like the down-clad spectators who are just standing around. Your base layer should be a moisture-wicking fabric of polyester/tech fabric so that it can evaporate easily. Ladies, your sports bra and undershirt should both wick moisture. If the elements include precipitation and wind, wear a breathable outer layer such as a water-resistant windbreaker with pit zips. The looseness of this outer layer will trap warm air near your torso rather than letting the cold air blow right through you. Opt for knee warmers, leg warmers, or tights for your lower body.
In very cold conditions, blood will abandon your hands and feet to warm your organs, so wear full finger gloves and toe covers or at least thermal socks. Depending on the temperature, consider using a light neck gaiter just to keep the cold air out during your descents.
During Your Race
Keep hydrating. Cold temps may make you pee more since your body is moving more fluid to your organs. You are also losing body water through your breath as well as sweat. Fill your bottles with lukewarm water instead of cold as it will cool down to “room temperature” as you ride and help keep your internal temperature optimal.
Breathe through your nose except on those most difficult climbs when it’s not possible. Nose breathing warms and humidifies the air coming in. Air entering the nose at 42.8*F will be warmed to 86*F by the time it reaches the back of the throat and about 98.6* by the time it reaches the lungs. Nitric Oxide (NO) is a molecule that is produced inside the nasal cavity and is delivered to the lungs and blood vessels to maximize body oxygenation.
After Your Race
Get into dry clothes ASAP and use a hairdryer if at all possible. Any wet item left on will suck the heat right out.
Stay moving if possible (a walk to a warm building to change clothes and dry your hair is optimal) and keep moving for 10-20 minutes as your post race cool down. (See recovery techniques article).
Imbibe in more hot drinks like broth for the sodium content, soup for your recovery nutrition, or hot cocoa.
Finally, get into a hot shower, bath, warm blanket, or snuggle up with a hot pack. Use any and all methods to help your body with thermal regulation if you’re really feeling the chill.
Cold weather racing is not so unpleasant if you know how to mitigate the performance-diminishing factors. Remember, it's the same temperature for everyone at the starting line, so planning your layers, keeping hydrated and staying dry may make your thermal regulation superior to your competitors. Racing in the cold temps doesn't have to be a suffer-fest if you know how to plan for it!