Sunday, January 27, 2013

Chillin' ...

Dried out in a cold wind
And I'm soaked to the very bone ...
- Halfway Homebuoy

Winter hit back with a vengeance this week. It was almost as if, after the non-winter we had last year, and the relatively mild (if somewhat wet) early season this year, all that pent-up deep freeze came flowing out at once. I saw a graphic on the news this morning that said there were only 7 hours all week where temperatures got above freezing, and I don't find that hard to believe at all.

I don't really mind winter all that much. I would prefer warmer temperatures in general, but for the most part, I don't hibernate indoors when the mercury drops. I'll still get out for regular rides, and if the trails are unrideable, I can always grab my snowboard and head to the mountains for my outdoor fix. My only issue with being outside in the cold is that I have a tendency to get frozen toes and fingers because my blood vessels constrict very quickly. It pretty much always means that about ten minutes into a ride in the winter, I'll have to stop and get blood flowing to my extremities again, and as anyone who has been there knows, once your blood vessels start to open up, blood rushes back in and creates that really painful pressure that can take your breath away for a few minutes. I've been going through that since I was a little kid and I've never gotten used to it. But if a few minutes of discomfort is the price I have to pay to be outside at this time of year, I'll take it. Staying inside the whole winter is just not an option for me for a lot of reasons.

A frozen night at Wissahickon meant few other cars in the lot 

 My wife would probably roll her eyes as she agrees with me on this, but I don't generally do well with down-time. The term "stir crazy" doesn't even come close to it. I usually get antsy if I have to sit still for more than a few minutes without something specific to do, so being a shut-in all winter would be a disaster. We'd be lucky if the house was still standing by the end of February.

I think it's healthier to get outside in the winter, too.  I don't have any hard data to support this, and I may be setting myself up for a karmic blast of bubonic plague by saying it, but I've noticed that almost all of the people I work with have spent most of the winter with colds, coughs and/or the flu. I work for a pharmaceutical company, and we all get free flu shots, so I kind of figure we're all starting from the same place. But I very rarely get sick. I have persistent sinus "issues" which I'm getting addressed pretty soon, but beyond that, if I have days when I'm not feeling well, it usually passes very quickly. With a lot of the people I work with, they'll be down for the count for a few days at least. My point is that the only real difference between us seems to be that I spend more time exercising outside. Of course, I realize that staying illness-free can be as much about luck as anything else, and like I said, I have no hard data to support the benefit of spending time outside in the winter, but I think it makes sense: human beings didn't develop in confined, filtered air. We are designed to be active, and that doesn't stop just because it's cold outside. 

At any rate, I won't pretend it's always easy or even fun to ride outside in single digit temperatures with a sub-zero wind-chill. And, sure, it can definitely be as uncomfortable as it must look to all those motorists who pass by me shaking their heads every morning. It definitely takes more consideration and prep than a typical spring, summer or fall ride. And when that first blast of wind bites into your exposed face - well, that certainly wakes you up. But truth be told, it's really not all that bad. 

Riding outside at night is a fashion show - it's all about what you're wearing

Riding in the cold is really all about being prepared - dressing the part, recognizing that conditions will dictate the tempo and effort of the ride more than I will, and being smart enough to know the difference between discomfort and danger. Discomfort, as I said above, is when your fingers and toes need a break to get blood pumping once again. Danger is when your core gets cold. And that really only happens when you aren't prepared. There are two ways, as I see it, to put yourself in danger when riding in the winter. If you don't respect the cold, and under-dress, you will not only never get warm, but you will in all likelihood get steadily colder as your "internal fire" burns lower and lower. Spending time outside like that and trying to "tough it out" is a great way to put your life in danger. Because hypothermia is never something that just suddenly happens. Its much more insipid in how it develops. It gets steadily worse and worse and by the time you realize it's upon you, it may be too late. And starting a ride under-dressed is one way to invite it in because you may think you can ride your way warm, and that is true to an extent, but it's a fine line between chilly-but-prepared and under-dressed. On the other hand, if you over-dress, it can be just as bad. That's the one most of us are actually guilty of from time to time, and it's the one you are constantly warned about when you deal with experienced outdoor professionals. The problem there is the sweat factor. Overheating in your core makes you sweat, and the goal of sweat is to cool you off. In cold temperatures, this becomes a problem when you stop moving because all that cooling effort now starts to work against you. For me, I always try to find the balance here I'm a little cold at the start of the ride but know I will warm up as I go. This is probably why I have the problem with cold extremities - being cold at the start makes my body pull blood toward my core to keep me warm, sacrificing the fingers and toes in the effort. But once I start to feel warm in my core, I usually stop for a few minutes to get the blood flowing in my feet and hands again, and once the blood vessels (often painfully) open up again, I find I don't often get cold there again if I've dressed properly to begin with.  And after quite a few years of doing this, I've kind of gotten a pretty good idea of what "dressing right" means on any given day or night ride. I use about three layers on my core, one of them usually a fleece-lined Under Armour shirt or else I drop two layers altogether and replace them with a fleece-lined winter jacket. If there is a strong wind, I may wear a very thin wind jacket as a barrier layer on top of my base layers, but thats about it. I imagine "what's right" differs from person to person, but I think the key is to lose the "more is always better" notion that a lot of people would automatically go to. I believe that if you're completely warm the moment you step out the door before you ride, you're probably over-dressed. Feeling a little bit cold in general before you get moving is perfectly normal and fine -- but if you start to ride and notice your core is not warming up and you're shivering after a few minutes, then you've probably under-dressed and should turn back. If you're dressed properly, starting out a little cold shouldn't be an issue because the movement itself should be enough to warm you up.

Dressing for a 5 am commute is always fun.

And on another point ... let's face it, as cold as it may get around here, this isn't Alaska or even Wisconsin. Sub-zero temperatures aren't a daily thing here in the winter, and they never will be. What we consider a memorable deep freeze is what those folks call "Tuesday". So I don't want to sound like I am the authority on cold here - I am well aware that when it comes to winter, "cold" is relative and we're actually pretty tame by comparison here in the mid-Atlantic region.

One small problem with riding in the cold ...  keeping your bottles form freezing can be a challenge!

That said, cold temps like we had this week do happen and I believe that's no reason to stay inside and day dream about the (still) far-off arrival of spring. It's perfectly fine to get out and enjoy the clean, frozen air if you are willing to put up with a little discomfort as your tax. I got out to Wissahickon a few nights this week for a frozen 20 miles, and I have to say that I actually prefer it to the muddy, sloppy mess that it feels like during the earlier wet months of November and December or the thaw-out that'll come later on. The trail was rock solid and pretty fast. 

And Saturday, after Friday's snowfall, I had a fantastic ride in the well-packed snow.

 A few shots from an awesome Saturday ride in the snow.

I also commuted to work just about every day this week. On Wednesday, I had about a dozen people - from my brother to several co-workers - tell me I was crazy for doing that. But aside from the temporary feeling of tiny bee-stings all over my face from the icy wind a few of those mornings, it was really not that hard at all. And I promise you nothing will ever wake you up in the morning quite as well as pedaling a bike into a sub-zero headwind at 5 a.m.

Of course, there are limitations, and I think this speaks to that whole idea of respecting the conditions. Some may disagree with this, but one thing I will not do in the winter is ride when it's raining and the temps are in the 40's or lower for any length of time. For me, that's asking for trouble. Winter and rain don't mix for me because the longer you go, the colder you have to get as you get wetter. Even with rain gear, eventually you risk losing heat in your core and if your ride is any kind of distance, that becomes a recipe for hypothermia. Short rides in the rain? Maybe, but when it comes to commuting or training, if it's raining when I plan to start, I'll usually bag it and find some other way to work out. I suppose I may be overly cautious in my thinking, but I've suffered hypothermia before and I'd just as soon never go there again. That's about it, though -- cold alone never stops me from saddling up.

But in the end, I guess it's all about preference. Like I said, I feel a greater pull to be doing something outside than I do to being warm and comfortable, but I certainly understand that not everyone will agree with that, even among those of us who love to ride. I admire those who can spend hours on a trainer in the basement, completely focused on their workouts. I don't have that level of focus - I sometimes wish I did! The image of the lone rider toiling away in the corner of a basement, nothing but a set of headphones to keep them company, is kind of a classic "winter training" image. But it's just not something I have the discipline to do. 

Ultimately, the one thing I would say in response to all the people who shake their heads at the idea of riding in a deep freeze like the one we've had here over the past week is that you shouldn't dismiss it outright just because it looks unpleasant. That stuff is all temporary. And as with any new and perhaps potentially dangerous activity, as long as you have a proper respect for the difficulties you will face and have the humility to recognize that when it comes to you against nature, nature will always win, you might find that you really enjoy being out outside while others hibernate indoors. What have you got to lose? 

Get out and ride in the cold ... you never know where it'll go

And, of course, if you find it's not for you, you can always take a lesson from those with lots of experience when it comes other ways to pass the winter hours ...

The K demonstrating perfect off-season form


  1. The K knows a thing or two about a thing or two.

  2. When someone tells me I'm crazy for riding in less than idyllic conditions I ask them if they are offering me a ride to work.

  3. Check it out - a recent article about exercising and the cold. It's not super-scientific, but it highlights your point that getting outdoors may, in fact, be beneficial in preventing a cold.

  4. Great post. Riding in the cold, equipment definitely matters. I made it out the last time it snowed at the Wiss but missed this time. :( Unfortunately, with the warm weather coming up this week, I'm thinking I missed my opportunity to ride the frozen tundra.

    Oh, and I don't usually encounter many positive things on the road riding to work but this past Friday, a guy in a work truck going the opposite direction gave me a quick honk and a waved the peace sign at me. That was a little boost for the day. :)