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Fueling that Cold Winter Ride

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

As you would expect, cycling in winter requires different fuel for your body than when the weather is more temperate. For starters, you need more calories and less fluid, because you’ll be perspiring less, and therefore losing less water, and you’ll be working harder, because when you are out in the cold your body burns calories just to keep you warm even when you are standing still. But you must still follow the golden rule of hydration: Drink when you are thirsty – but drink. And in winter, drink something warm.

You probably knew that. But did you also know that if you are planning to ride later on that cold Saturday in December, you should have a breakfast that specifically prepares you for strenuous exercise in the cold? A morning meal of mostly carbohydrates, with some protein, a few hours before you hit the road will set you up nicely. We recommend whole-grain bread or bagels, muesli or oatmeal, and non-fat Greek yogurt or an egg (poached or boiled, never fried) for protein, all of it washed down with fresh-squeezed juice or a fruit or berry smoothie.

It is important to avoid fatty foods (try margarine instead of butter on the bagel, and absolutely no bacon or cold cuts) and anything else that is hard to digest and will slow you down. Then, before you climb in the saddle, have a snack for quick energy, like a banana or even some mashed potatoes, and something hot to drink, such as green tea.

One note of caution: If you’re not dressed properly for the winter ride, it won’t much matter what you eat. Riding when cold will eat up calories very quickly. That’s why that pre-ride snack and warm drink are so important, especially if it takes you 10 to 15 minutes to warm up. So dress in proper layers and make sure you wear materials that help wick away perspiration. Sweating in the cold will cause you to shiver, and thereby expend more energy.

Chia smoothie
Have a quick and nutritious snack before the ride.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour of exercise. For a ride longer than 90 minutes, increase that to 90 to 120 grams of carbs per hour of riding. (The ACSM is an excellent source of information for data on fueling your body for physical activity,) In winter, you will want to be towards the top end of those ranges – though it also depends on the rate at which your body burns calories. People with a slow basal metabolism will need to eat a little less than people who burn calories more quickly. Only you know how your body works.

By the way, if you know the day before that you will take a long ride the next day, you might consider having pasta for dinner. It will provide lots of slow-burning carbs that will be a stable fuel source and maintain blood glucose concentration during the ride.

You will also want to eat and drink during your winter ride. Here are a few suggestion about what to pack. A thermos bottle with warm green (or other) tea, sweetened with honey (NOT sugar!) is essential. Soft foods such as brownies, sandwiches or raisins are ideal because they won’t freeze. Warning: Don’t take power bars because they will freeze and therefore become inedible.

To carry the food and drink you take along on a long winter ride, you might think about using a top-tube bag, just because it will be less encumbering, especially with the layers of clothing you will be wearing. And remember that it is better to be a little over-fueled rather than under-fueled on the ride. A good way to find out how well you fueled your body is to see how hungry you are when you get home after the ride. If you could eat a horse, you will need to eat more before and during your next ride.