In the depths of winter, triathletes in Northern climates have to adjust their training to the weather. Some stay outdoors (minus the swim) as much as humanly possible for their training, while others tend to take it inside at a health club or gym for several months. While we are fans of being outdoors as much as possible, and think that there are many reasons to keep training outside even in cold weather, occasionally there is a day that is too nasty or workout that you just can’t do outside in the cold.
While Running in winter is pretty straightforward – you just layer up and pick your path carefully, and you can usually stay outdoors for most if not all of the winter, cycling training is a little more complex in cold weather. When it comes to cycling in winter, we have experimented with a little of everything, and see pros and cons in several approaches. As with all things training-related, the answer is probably a thoughtful blend of a few different approached to keep yourself in great bike shape until Spring. Here are three winter cycling training approaches, along with our thoughts on each.
Option 1: Stay Outside Year-Round. If you live in Southern California or Florida, this one is probably pretty easy. You just do in January what you were doing in June. For those of us in the Mountains, Midwest, North, or Northeast, however, it isn’t so simple. Being outside on your bike at a minimum requires changing your setup and adapting some of our routes. Many cyclists move to fatter tires in the Winter or change bikes altogether to something that is made less for speed and aerodynamics and more for stability and lower-gearing. There are really two things to consider for winter riders in the North – one is temp, which can often be mitigated by the right clothing. The other is surface, which can only be safely mitigated by helping your bike adapt to ice and snow. Keep in mind that road shoulders may be much narrower as a result of snow, and what shoulders exist just might be covered with road salt which can create unpredictable soft patches.
Regardless of what you decide to do outside, make sure you are dressing for the weather. This includes protecting yourself from cold as well as making sure your footing is good on ice. We recommend using layers, including outer windbreaking layers, middle thermal layers to keep you warm, and base layers which may include compression gear just to make sure the blood keeps flowing to your joints. Once you have the gear, simply layer up or down for the weather — and don’t forget about covering your head and hands!
Option 2: Spin Classes. Many triathletes swear by spin classes in winter, as a good spin class can give you leg strength as well as keep your heart rate high for an extended period of time. The sense of community in a spin class can be a motivator as well – where else can a husband and wife who might be of two different fitness levels sit side-by-side and enjoy the same workout. We are fans of spin classes, from the fat they burn to the sweat that they can give you. We also like that they require no investment in additional equipment, just a health club membership (which we know can add up quickly). Keep in mind, however, that a spin class can be highly-dependent on the instructor, and some instructors are a better fit for an individual than others. In the end, thought, a spin class is what you make of it, and if you want it to be an “A” workout, you can make it so.
Option 2a: Get Your Own Spin Bike. You can bring the spin class to the comfort of your own home if you invest in a spin bike. While it will be an additional cost of $1,000 or more for a quality bike, you might find that the dedicated piece of equipment sitting in your basement or workout room can motivate you to squeeze in an extra workout or two per week. We have a thorough review on the best stationary and spinner bikes, but in short we are big fans of the Livestrong 9.9 indoor upright model. Is has a high degree of adjustability and its feel resembles a real road bike.
Option 3: Inside on a Trainer. We like cycling outside in winter and spin classes, but personally have gravitated to working out at home on a trainer. A good cycling trainer is not cheap (a good-quality one like our favorite, the Cyclops Fluid 2, will start at just under $300) but if you use it regularly it will be an investment that you get high value from. Set it up in your basement, or bring it into your living room when using it and then store it away again, and you will have brought a gym-quality workout to your home. To make a trainer workout more valuable, we like to use a Spinervals DVD to inject some intensity and structure to it. There are dozens of different workouts available, but choose 2-3 that you might be apt to do regularly. We suggest one longer one for fat-burning days, a shorter one for when you have less time, and one that is high-intensity for those signature workouts. Each DVD is rated with a difficulty score (10 being highest) to help you choose.