We pitched the advocates of the great outdoors against the supporters of the stationary bike — pros, coaches and sports scientists — to reveal the best of both worlds and explain how this time of year can become your most effective, enjoyable season for training.
Here are 11 suggestions for how to stay on the bike during the winter months, whether indoors or out…
1. Everybody out
“Right now training is more or less 100 percent outdoors on road bikes,” says Ed Clancy, TeamGB gold medallist and energy bar 9bar ambassador. “Endurance cyclists don’t tend to do much static bike training as it’s too far away from what riding an actual bike feels like. The gym still plays an important role in our overall training schedule, but for bike-based training getting outdoors is more effective.”
There’s plenty of science to back Clancy up. Research shows that metabolic changes in the cold weather mean training will increase fat burning and encourage the brain to release more mood-boosting serotonin. You’ll have to train harder to hit your goals in the cold too.
“Cold temperatures reduce exercise capacity. It can affect the amount of blood and oxygen being delivered to the muscles,” explains Professor Asker Jeukendrup, exercise physiologist and editor of High-Performance Cycling (Human Kinetics), which makes personal bests and King of the Mountains even harder to attain.
2. Enter the zone
Riders and coaches maintain that cycling out in the elements is essential to getting the miles in and building a solid foundation of aerobic fitness.
“Riding in bad weather is also good for developing mental and physical toughness,” insists self-confessed ‘old-school’ coach Dave Lloyd (davelloydcoaching.com). “I also get clients working a lot in the endurance Zone 2 through the winter, maintaining a steady pace, which forms the endurance base and supports those higher end efforts. If you’re riding this outdoors it’s about working at a comfortable pace — you should still be able to maintain a conversation — but it is purposeful and, especially towards the upper end of this zone, you would have to start concentrating to maintain it.”
Outdoor training drill
- 20 mins Zone 2
- 55 mins Zone 2 Endurance
- 15 mins Zone 3 Tempo (Intensity of a ‘spirited’ group ride, conversation may be halting)
- 55 mins Zone 2 Endurance
- 15 mins Zone 3 Tempo
- 20 mins Zone 2
3. Outdoor gear
The key to being able to sustain three to four hours in the saddle when there are more icicles than bicycles around is choosing the correct kit.
“Hats, gloves and layers are insulation designed to maintain an already warm body temperature,” says Clancy. “Start off warm and that insulation will work more effectively.” Before adding the top layers raise your body temperature on a turbo or by doing a set or two of press-ups and jogging on the spot.
“One area cyclists often neglect to cover on cold days is the face,” says Clancy. The wind chill on the road can be merciless and you’ll lose heat from your mouth, nose and cheeks if uncovered. A cycling bandana just below your eyewear will stop the cold taking your mind off the road.
See your breath
“Polypropylene fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin are more effective than cotton or wool and so more ‘breathable’,” suggests Jeukendrup, “Gore-Tex or Sympatex jackets that allow sweat to escape are ideal too.”
Get changed as soon as possible after your ride, especially if your clothes are wet with sweat. “You want to avoid rapid cooling in wet clothes, which can affect muscles and raise injury risk.”
4. Raid the winter stores
“You should plan your nutritional intake to combat the climate and boost your performance in the process,” suggests Tim Lawson, sports nutritionist with secret-training.cc. A few essentials for the winter larder include:
A protein-packed diet may have kept you lean though the summer but boosting your carbohydrate intake is crucial over the winter. “Even shivering will deplete your energy stores,” warns Jeukendrup. Research shows that raising glucose levels well in advance of cold exposure will keep energy levels up for longer — eating a slow-release carb meal (hot porridge and dried fruit for example) two hours before a ride, then snacking as you go, will achieve this.
Get some sunny D
“In the winter we tend to lack vitamin D, which the body uses sunlight to produce, so cyclists should ensure they are regularly taking supplements to keep on top of everything,” says Clancy. A drop in levels can affect immunity to illness, bone strength and the health and power of your heart.
“Getting your vitamin D levels checked is good practice for everyone this time of year,” suggests Lawson. Researchers from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh recently found that cyclists who took vitamin D supplements rode greater distances over shorter times than those taking a placebo.
“Fluids stored in insulated bottles are more appealing to drink and will reduce the risk of dehydration,” says Jeukendrup. “If that’s not possible fill a bottle three-quarters full with warm or hot water at the beginning of the ride.” And pack a thermos of hot chocolate milk as a recovery option.
5. Join the inner sanctum
“For me, indoor training is a must over the winter,” says Sarah Storey, TeamGB road and track cyclist, and Great Britain's most successful Paralympian. “In the velodrome or on the trainer I can work on technical elements such as pedal or torque efficiency, I get to use the data analytics to fine-tune those areas. Cycling outside on icy roads doesn’t aid your performance or progress, it just raises your risk of an injury.”
There’s no denying that trying to focus on a specific intensity can be hard on the road when it’s cold, misty and raining. “The big plus to indoor training is that you can dial-in a very precise and consistent level of effort that can be hard to replicate on the road,” explains Rob Wakefield ABCC Level 3 and Training Peaks coach (propello.bike). “On the turbo you’re in the zone, and not worried about your bike getting dirty either!”
That focus can have a major impact on your stats too. “When you’re outdoors, even in time trials, you tend to coast a lot,” explains Storey. “But when you’re indoors working on a trainer it’s relentless, there’s no letting up.” It’s easier to be distracted outdoors too, which can take your mind off your intensity.
6. Get intense
Greg Whyte, professor in Applied Sport & Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores University and trainer of Olympians argues that cyclists should use the benefits of indoor cycling to target fitness work over the winter.
“Forget thinking that winter has to be solely given over to strength and aerobic base training,” he explains. “Cyclists shouldn’t neglect the high intensity work because you risk making that transition to the next phase in the spring tougher.”
Devise a training plan for your winter sessions and build in high intensity sessions like these:
- 10 mins including 3 x 1 minute of fast pedalling in a soft gear spinning at 115rpm+
- 5 mins building to Function Threshold Power (FTP – maximum average power you can sustain for 60 minutes)
- 5 mins easy spinning
- 8 x 1 min hard efforts at around 110 percent of FTP or 9/10 perceived effort. Take 1 min recovery in between reps
- 10 mins bringing heart rate down to Zone 1 (low level exercise)
- 5 mins
- 10 mins Zone 3, tempo at 102rpm
- 3 mins easy spinning
- 5 x 1 min 115rpm+ with 1 min recoveries
- 10 mins Zone 3 tempo at 107rpm
- 5 x 1 min 115rpm+ with 1 min recoveries
- 5 mins
7. Indoor gear
If you’re investing in a turbo, or Wattbike or system like Zwift (zwift.com) for the winter, be sure to put it to the test. “It shouldn’t be something you just pootle on for 20 minutes on a rainy day,” says Matt Bottrill, coach and multi-National Time Trialling Champion. “These tools can improve all areas of your performance and fitness, especially over winter.
Get familiar with the workings — especially fixing your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) will form the basis for a training plan.”
Use power or heart rate monitors to measure intensity and once you know your own rate you can work to a predetermined percentage of it — that way you progress — and in doing so can raise your FTP by 10-15 percent.
Using a turbo also enables you to work on seated drills and leg strength without having to seek out specific types of road or hill. So while you may not want to spend as long on one as you do your road bike, you can use it to target weaknesses or areas you wish to strengthen.
8. Training packages
New training packages like Zwift — which use multi-player gaming technology to bring the outdoor cycling experience indoors — could take your workouts to another dimension. By synching your bike to a computer program and screen you’re able to cycle against other riders (real and computer-generated) in 3D-generated worlds.
“Studies do show that working in a virtual reality environment also enables greater retention of information and data,” explains Henry White, lead technologist for BAE Systems UK Sport partnership, who supplies VR training to TeamGB. “Athletes become more absorbed in their training and focused on achieving the targets.”
There’s also the Wahoo KICKRPower, a turbo with a Strava app that allows you to collect KOMs on simulated cols.
9. Are you in or are you out?
“Where possible vary your sessions — both outdoor and indoor on a turbo and if possible a track — for all-round benefits over the winter months,” insists Bottrill. “The key is being realistic with your time. I’ll aim to work with riders to a ratio of 60 percent outdoor/40 percent indoor, but only you know how much you can devote to road training where you can maintain base fitness and work on weaknesses, and riding indoors where you can focus on speed, intensity and doing those drills that the conditions outside won’t allow.
10. Check the weather
Eye up clouds along with the forecast:
- Nimbostratus clouds — Dark, grey, featureless layers of cloud, that when hanging low and heavy in the sky mean rain is imminent.
- Cumulus towers — Individual, cauliflower shaped clouds, that when become tower-like suggest showers later in the day.
- Cirrus clouds / Mere’s tail — When high (like streamers) and altocumulus clouds (like mackerel scales), point to bad weather within the next 36 hours.
11. Cold short-cuts
Alternative routes for those keen to keep pedalling…
Embarking on a winter sojourn into cyclocross will not only help with fitness levels but also develop technique and strength.
Stay on track
“Track cycling over the winter ensures you’re able to work on real riding technique without the risks that come on the roads,” says Sarah Storey. Tracks can offer taster sessions and bike hire.
Go for a spin
Gym-based spin classes are great for weight management, improving cardio, increasing your stamina and working the glutes and core.