How to train in winter: Intensity, fueling and more

How does training in winter differ from the rest of the year?

‘I can give two comparisons,’ says Jason Streather, head coach at PDQ Cycle Coaching ‘When a racer gets to the winter, normally they’re quite fatigued from both racing and maximal efforts. They’ll have a steadier build up to winter training. A regular cyclist, however, might not have been doing those high intensity efforts.

‘Both should be doing a little bit more zone 2 – an endurance pace that you can hold for two to three hours. You’ll get out of breath while still being able to talk to the person next to you.’

Jasmijn Muller, endurance cyclist and owner of Be The Egg Cycle Coaching, adds, ‘With most of my clients, the volume of training is gradually increasing over winter. Looking at traditional training models, we’ll start with aerobic fitness and then build in consecutive blocks of training with greater intensity as the season develops.’

With fitness, should people be looking to build it over the winter, maintain it or just rest?

‘I like people to have a mental break and freshen up. Most people have families and jobs,’ says Streather. ‘It’s good to tick over and maintain your fitness, but try to lessen the intensity.’

‘Some people who come to cycling later in life end up mad for it, but at this time of year I just want them to repair their body,’ says Rob Lee, a TrainingPeaks Level 2 coach at RLP Coaching, ‘For people aged 40 -plus, I’m big on thinking about where this goes for them in their later life.

Photo: Danny Bird

‘I’d like to see lifting weights become part of the equation so they can be a more rounded, fit and healthy person. It’s natural for us as humans as we get older to lose muscle, because our ability to process protein and gain muscle is lowering.’

When it comes to winter training, is there a particular old wives’ tale you’d like to debunk?

‘I think the biggest danger is taking one piece of advice and treating it as gospel for everyone,’ says Lee. ‘Even the advice that’s right for you this season may well be wrong next season. You’re not the same athlete – you’ve changed. Always think: where am I today? What do I want to achieve? What are the building blocks that make that happen?’

In general, what are some key adjustments to make during the winter?

Lee believes that one of the biggest obstacles to winter training is a lack of organization. ‘For lots of riders, especially people who are busy or have working lives and children, training in the morning is useful. To pull that off on a consistent basis you’ve got to be organized the evening before. I’ve got a box where everything goes: my kit, shoes, gels. Consistency is key for anyone who wants to get fit and attain a higher level than they are now.’

‘Keep your extremities warm,’ adds Muller. ‘Your fingers, toes, ears and head all lose heat faster than your core due to a greater surface to volume ratio. Maybe consider – with an extra advantage of not having to take your gloves off – tubeless tires for fewer punctures and thus spending less time fixing one.’

When on a ride, how does hydration and fueling change in winter?

Peeled bananas

Streather expects riders to be heading out on a ride with two water bottles if it’s over an hour and a half, plus a gel and a banana. ‘It’s colder and you’re going to be burning a bit more fuel. People forget the importance of drinking – your body is keeping warm and is sweating under layers of clothing.’

For some people, such as women experiencing the menopause, Muller says they can sweat more due to reduced levels of estrogen, which also reduces the thermoneutral zone – so the thresholds for sweating and shivering get lower.

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‘There can be hot flushes to deal with due to changing estrogen levels where the body is hot one moment and often followed by a cold chill afterwards. Hydration is important.

‘Consider your bra material too,’ she adds. ‘Some can be an issue because they might keep you nice and warm while doing your exercise but they accumulate more sweat than a polyester bra, which can result in a greater cooling rate and more shivering when sitting down during your mid-ride coffee stop or as soon as you get home and stop moving.’

How do you motivate yourself or your riders on those cold, dark winter mornings?

The importance of group rides, both for fitness and morale, is not lost on Streather. ‘Heading outside on a group ride is always good, if possible. Other than that, if it’s too cold or icy and wet, that’s when I tell people to go on Zwift and do a group ride instead. You need to break it up with some sweet spots or under-overs.’

Could you skip the outdoors altogether and ride through the winter indoors?

Justin Paget via Getty Images

‘Yes, if you can handle it mentally,’ Streather adds. ‘I have coached a few partially sighted people who can’t get out on the road and do all their training indoors. It’s harder than outdoors because you’re pedaling nonstop, so it’s very important to have rest and recovery days.’

What might a basic winter training program look like?

David Malan via Getty Images

‘You want to make sure the base is in place – to have recovered from last year both mentally and physically,’ Lee says. ‘Don’t start like a bat out of hell. Gradually increase the volume of aerobic levels. If we’re talking power zones, then zones 1, 2 and 3. A little bit of zone 4 – 80-90% of your maximum heart rate – but not a lot over the threshold. After that, we can then get stricter with zones and pepper in some zone 3, gradually looking towards longer blocks and push-out time in the zone specifically, rather than looking for more power.’

Lee tempers that with some final advice: ‘A big thing for people around my age – in their forties and fifties and so on – is that they can get isolated from their friends a bit. A club run is worth more to their mental health, I would say, than any damage it might do to some lovely training plan in winter.’

Read more great advice for the colder months at our winter cycling hub

Main image credit: Justin Paget via Getty Images

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