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Offseason and Winter Cycling

By Racheal Wood

winter cyclingOffseason and winter cycling can be a really tough time for triathletes. Athletes are coming off training hard and trying to find ways to stay fit. The shorter days and winter months can appear very challenging depending on where you live. But rather than looking at it as less time to train the usual way, think of it as a great chance to try some new methods. Below are some FUN and DIFFERENT ways to train and possibly finding a new second sport!

Mountain biking

Whether it be on the local trail, fire road, in-city for an urban assault or in the snow, mountain biking is a great way to improve your bike handling skills, power and pedaling efficiency. It is very challenging, but the learning curve is steep. Warning: you have to be willing to fall especially in the beginning, but the fun is well worth it. I always look forward to the offseason so I can mountain bike. It not only gave me a way to get off the busy roads, but also kept me from getting burned out as a triathlete and opened up a love of a new sport.

Cyclo-cross is a combination of riding and running on various terrains. Athletes have to dismount and carry their bikes over obstacles then remount and continue on. It not only keeps you fit, but keeps riders from getting cold by keeping the numbness out of your feet from the cold wind and also keeping your heart rate up and body warmer. Typically there are cross bikes that resemble road bikes with knobby tires, but athletes also can doctor up their road bikes or use mountain bikes.

Fixed Gear Bike is a single-speed bike without a fly wheel, similar to a spin bike where there is no coasting. The benefits are that it forces you to improve your pedaling efficiency because you can’t coast. Your legs are forced to continue spinning at a high cadence. Athletes learn to smooth out their stroke as they become better. Be careful though, it takes some getting used to since there is only one gear, no brakes and you have to keep pedaling to move forward. Years ago, my husband turned an old $15 clunker he found at a garage sale into a fixed gear bike. He used it as his means of transportation. To this day I think he has one of the smoothest pedal strokes around.

How to Modify your Training

Colder weather can make it tougher to get your body going and focus. Know your tolerance level. Higher intensity will mean fewer layers since your body will heat up more. Lower intensity, more layers. Also, peel off a jacket after your warm-up and then put it back on during your cooldown. Shorten your training time so you don’t end up with hypothermia or frostbite. You should initially feel cold when you go out; allow the training to help warm up your body. This way you avoid overheating and sweating which can chill your body later.

Hydration and Nutrition

Be sure to properly hydrate even when it is cold outside. Athletes often forget to drink because they don’t see the sweat dripping off them, but they are still perspiring. Dehydration when it is cold can be even more serious. Your body is trying to stay warm and burning calories.

Be prepared by keeping an eye on the weather forecast on the days you are heading outside. If it is going to be a super windy and cold day, stay indoors. Avoid icy days. Don’t forget the sun block, especially if you are riding in the snow on super sunny days.

Riding your mountain bike in the snow

Wide tires with widely separated knobs work best on snow. Lower pressure (15 to 20 psi) gives you more traction. The trick is to pedal as smoothly as possible and stay relaxed especially when you hit soft snow or ice. If the bike starts to slide, avoid over steering. Try to make small adjustments and ride in a straight line. Also avoid riding too slow, the more you keep your speed up, the less effort it takes and less likely the tires will sink into the soft snow.

What to Wear

The key to riding outside is to dress in layers that you can remove. You should have three layers, the first should wick away sweat (polypropylene), then second should act as an insulator (fleece) and the third should be water/windproof with a zipper. The zipper can help regulate your temperature by lowering it to let in cooler air while you are working hard and zippering it back up when you are not (or descending).

  • Vest or windbreaker will keep you from getting chilled from the wind. Stow them in your jersey when you are not using them.
  • Keep your head warm with a skull cap under your helmet and/or head band around your ears.
  • Hands: choose cycling gloves that keep your hands warm but do not compromise flexibility in your fingers to operate the bike. Regular cycling gloves with the padding and then overgloves can be worn.
  • Feet: the extremities don’t receive good blood flow - protect your toes! Invest in an extra pair of cycling shoes that are larger to accommodate the thicker wool socks. Lycra toe or shoe covers or booties for not so cold days, or insulated and waterproof for cold days.  Plastic baggies within shoes can help keep wind off your feet, duct tape the mesh areas or ventilation holes. Disposable heat packs for hands or shoes can keep you warm in case of emergencies.
  • Cover your knees with leg warmers or tights, should be breathable and allow movement. It is really important to keep your knees covered to avoid problems (below 60 degrees).

Taking it indoors

Offseason is the ideal time to work on cycling skill because it allows time to learn the skill. By the time the season starts, the new skill should be part of their muscle memory.

  • Pedaling Efficiency Skills - Athletes should incorporate isolated leg drills and drills that focus on the various phases of the pedal stroke. The athlete can unclip one leg and place it on a chair while the other leg does all the work, or just focus on the one leg doing 80 percent of the effort while the non-working leg is still clipped in.
  • Cadence Work - High cadence puts a demand on your aerobic system, so offseason is the perfect time to work on it. Slowly try to increase your cadence. Practice spin ups: start out at a average cadence and bump up your cadence by 5 rpms every 15-30 seconds until you max out. Then back down a tiny bit and hold that cadence for 1-2 minutes. Repeat.
  • Bike Fit - Offseason is the ideal time, even if you had one the previous season. It allows you time to adjust or tweak the fit as needed. Make sure you have a professional fit rather than just using the eyeball method. It will pay off come race season if you train your body with the right fit.

Trainers or Rollers

Trainers are more stable and allow athletes to work on pedaling efficiency and cadence. Rollers require bike handling skills such as balance, riding a straight line and pedaling efficiency. A Computrainer can simulate riding on the road with access to a wide variety of courses. They are also an ideal way to work on your pedaling efficiency with the spin scan.

Group Trainer Classes

Another option is to find a club that may offer classes using trainers. Or get together with your friends that also have trainers and do a ride in front of a cycling workout DVD.

Spinning Classes can help you obtain a smooth spinning stroke. They tend to be more anaerobic workouts geared toward the fitness crowd. I often will sit in the corner and modify the workout if it starts to vary from what you do outside. Instead of doing excessive jumps or running on the bike, do pedaling work or intervals. Pick instructors that follow sound training principles and allow adequate recovery. They will give you an intense workout, but there is a limit to how much intensity you need this time of year. Spin classes tend to use SPD pedals. Convert an old pair of road shoes into spin shoes by putting on SPD cleats. Or use stiffer sole shoe if you are not clipping in. Another option is to use the spin bike when there is no class. Many bikes have power and distance which makes it a nice tool for training even on your own.

Staying cool and well hydrated when riding indoors. There is no wind to cool you down so keep your house cooler and use a fan. You will sweat a lot… make sure you drink!

The key to offseason and winter cycling is to strive for balance and try some new ways to train! Spend some time indoors at the gym, on your trainer and other days try to go outside to ride! You can also incorporate functional strength training, yoga and other cross-training machines (stair climber), all of which will also benefit you as a cyclist and should be part of your offseason program.

Racheal Wood is a Level II USAT AND USAC Coach with a Masters in Exercise Science. She has coached hundreds of South Florida athletes ranging from beginners to Ironman, Long Course World and XTERRA competitors. She was selected as a top SE Coach by Competitor Magazine (07-08). As an athlete she has been a member of Team USA for two World Championships with a 7th place finish in 1999/Montreal. She has completed 7 Ironman races with 3 Kona podium finishes including the 2002 Masters/Age Group World Champion.  You can contact Racheal at, 954.263.4588 or Racheal Wood Coaching on Facebook.