It’s Okay to Take It Slow in Winter

By Andrea Champredonde

Winter’s cold temperatures make it hard to get motivated to go riding. Pushing yourself on the bike in frigid temperatures is a challenge when you’re repeatedly tempted to stay in bed or plunk down on the couch with a hot drink and a good movie or book.

While it’s true riding outdoors in wintertime isn’t ideal, you can still get out and enjoy it because I’m here to tell you it’s okay to take it slow in winter. Riding at a lower intensity has many benefits for your fitness and mental health as you prepare for better weather.

Embrace the season

Before the onset of power metres, metrics, onboard computers, and smart home trainers, cycling used to be a seasonal sport. Winter was the downtime when roadies gave their bodies a break from riding. They hung up their two-wheels and did other activities like swimming, running or skiing to complement their cycling until temperatures and the roads became more inviting.

Of course, you don’t have to take it slow all the time. That’s up to you. But instead of hitting it hard outside in the cold, save those one or two high-intensity sessions per week for the indoor trainer and your online favourite app. But when you are outside, make it a point to enjoy the scenery, the crisp fresh air, and an extra coffee stop or two.

We ride slower in winter

Any cyclist who rides in winter has felt slow from the first pedal stroke. It’s a confusing sensation since you aren’t really doing anything different, so what gives? It’s a proven fact that most cyclists ride about 4 kph slower in the winter for a handful of reasons. One explanation is that the air is naturally denser in winter and it takes more effort to cut through it on your bike.

Lots of cyclists ride on wider tyres in the winter too to avoid flats. That increased width of cold rubber also contributes to the loss of speed. And winter is likewise the season for heavy wet chain lubes that attract road crud. It eventually builds up and adds weight to your ride. The extra layers of clothing you need to stay warm can make you feel like a stuffed sausage and further decrease how aerodynamic you are on the bike.

Injury reduction

When you go easy on the bike in winter, you reduce your chances of injury. Frigid temperatures cause muscles and joints to restrict, which makes them prone to strains and tears under powerful efforts. Yes, riding hard will warm you up, but that defeats the point of taking it slow. And any heavy sweat you develop may turn into a deep chill on a long descent.

Do you need to ride hard all the time to be a successful cyclist? No. Roads can be slippery in winter and reduced daylight hours make it difficult to see and avoid hazards like potholes, wet leaves, and debris on the road. When you ride at a moderate pace, you’ve got more time to react.

You may need a rest

Cycling has morphed into a year round sport. Do your muscles feel sore and tired from months of high-intensity workouts? If you’ve been riding hard up to now without a break, it’s possible you are overtrained and may need a rest. If you need a breather, but don’t want to stay off the bike completely, taking it slow in winter is ideal.

Taking it easy helps you recover faster while still getting some time in the saddle. Low-intensity workouts promote recovery by increasing blood flow to tired muscles fibres and evacuating any lactic acid that has built up over time that causes soreness and fatigue. If your usual route is too long, find a shorter loop to do in a series to remain close to home so you can bow out when you want.

And speaking of rest, wouldn’t it be great not to get up early in the winter to join that group ride? It’s dark and extra cold during those early hours as well. Enjoy a bit more time under the cosy covers in bed and plan on an easy ride later. When the sun is up and out, it’ll be warmer, too.

Find new motivation

It’s already hard to stay motivated to get out and ride in freezing temperatures. If you choose to ride at a lower-intensity, don’t think you aren’t reaping any benefits. Taking it easy on the bike will maintain your fitness base throughout the winter months without the need to push yourself too hard. You’ll avoid burnout too and be ready with fresh motivation when the warmer weather returns.

When introducing new riders to cycling, I stress the idea of putting the bike away while you still want to ride. They come back more excited and energised for the next outing. The same principle easily applies to taking it slow in winter. Go on a ride, but put the bike away before you want to. Spring is coming fast and you’ll be more motivated than ever.

Winter cycling
When riding in frigid temperatures, a certain amount of mental preparation is required that you simply don’t have to reckon with in the summer. © Profimedia

Hit the brakes

More things seem to vie for our time; family, friends, work and more. There is a silent push for more efficiency, productivity, and results. We want instant returns and may feel an invisible pressure to beat the fastest rider or take that KOM segment, for example.

Just say stop and take the pressure off yourself when riding in winter. Balancing life, work, family, and training isn’t easy. We aren’t machines and need to shut out distractions and say no to the pressure of keeping up the pace, figuratively and literally.

Riding slower can make you faster

Riding at lower intensities may not feel constructive, but it is. What do we mean by lower intensities? We’re talking Zone 2 efforts which can be described as being able to speak, but not holding a steady conversation on the bike. They represent about 55 to 75% of your max heart rate. If you’ve had an actual lactate threshold test in a lab setting, this is your ideal reference point.

All muscles are composed of fast and slow twitch muscle fibres. To be a successful rider, you need to develop both, as each type serves a purpose in our success as cyclists. Riding hard and intense intervals train the fast twitch fibres but produce lactic acid as a by-product.

It’s the slow-twitch fibres that evacuate lactic acid from our muscles to prevent soreness and fatigue. Zone 2 riding three days a week is ideal for focusing on improving slow-twitch fibre function. Taking it slow in winter helps you build a solid aerobic base, and the endurance needed for higher intensity intervals too. If you are on a weight loss journey, Zone 2 training burns more fat as well.

So for mental, physical and physiological reasons, it’s okay to take it slow in winter. You may get some much needed rest, stay motivated, reduce your chances of injury, build on your base, and develop those important slow-twitch muscle fibres. Next time you are out on the bike, concentrate on the positive aspects of your ride and enjoy the moment. Focus on yourself and don’t worry about the rat race going on around you.