Nine Tips for Eating and Drinking During Winter Rides

By Coach John Hughes

We have snow in the mountains! I live in Boulder, Colorado, and I love long cross-country ski outings. I also enjoy riding outdoors even when the temps are in the 20s. How do I keep fueled? First, I know my nutrition requirements:

Caloric Requirement

For rides of more than an hour in temperate conditions, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming every hour 0.3 gm (1.2 calories) of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (0.7 g per kg).

For a better guesstimate, use this table, which assumes that you are riding a road bike without a lot of extra gear on a flat road with no wind and not drafting.

Approximate Calories Needed While Riding

Average Speed (mph)

Calories / Lb. / Hr.

Average Speed (km/h)

Calories / Kg/Hr.

12

2.5

19.3

5.6

13

2.8

20.9

6.2

14

3.1

22.5

6.8

15

3.4

24.1

7.4

16

3.7

25.7

8.1

17

4.0

27.4

8.9

18

4.5

29.0

9.8

19

4.9

30.6

10.7

20

5.4

32.2

11.8

Example: If you weigh 150 lbs and ride at 15 mph, then you burn about 150 x 3.4 = 510 calories / hour. If you weigh 70 kg and ride at 24 km/h you use about 70 x 7.4 = 518 cal. / hr. These are guesstimates – rounding, you burn about 500 calories / hour. You’ll burn more going uphill and fewer spinning downhill. On my website you can download a Calorie Estimator spreadsheet to estimate total calories for a ride based on the length of ride, total climbing, riding speed and your weight.

In colder weather, add 10% to 20% to your caloric burn rate.

For rides lasting more than several hours, you should consume every hour about 1/2 of the calories that your are burning, primarily from carbohydrate, with a bit of protein and fat.

Your body can store limited amounts of glycogen (from carbohydrate), enough for a few hours of hard exercise. When you run out of glycogen you hit the wall and your legs feel dead. Your brain also needs fuel and can burn only glycogen. When you run out of glycogen, you bonk and your brain feels fuzzy. Even if you start eating carbohydrate immediately when this happens, recovery takes time. You can probably suffer through these on a summer ride, but running out of glycogen in the winter can make for a very long, unpleasant outing.

Hydration Requirement

While your caloric requirement increases in the cold, your hydration requirement decreases because you aren’t sweating as much, although you still need fluid. Some physiologists used to think that the hydration requirement increased in the cold because you are exhaling moist, warm air; however, metabolizing glycogen (from carbohydrate) releases H2O, which more than offsets the water vapor exhaled. In the winter you may be tempted to drink less than in the summer because bathroom breaks are harder when you are wearing multiple layers. Don’t. Follow this rule year-round: drink to satisfy your thirst.

According to the table above, I’m burning about 500 calories per hour riding and probably about the same XC skiing. How do I do get these calories in cold weather?

Eat Breakfast

I start with a breakfast of mostly carbohydrate to make sure that my stores of glycogen are full. I eat multi-grain bagels or toast or cereal or oatmeal, fruit, and non-fat yogurt (for a bit of protein). I might eat an egg (poached or boiled, not fried) instead of the yogurt. I usually eat several hours before I start exercising and then wait for the day to warm up.

Eat a Snack Before Exercising

Since breakfast was a couple of hours before I throw my leg over the top tube or click into the skis, I eat a carbohydrate snack of several hundred calories. Also, research shows that it will be easier to maintain or lose weight if you eat the same number of total calories spread across three meals plus snacks instead of just three regular meals.

What to Eat

Sports nutrition products such as bars and gels offer no performance advantage; however, they may be more convenient than real food. Bars that taste good when they are 80° F (27° C) may be unpalatable at 32° F (0° C). As it gets colder, you may want to change what you eat. I often take food that’s crunchy whatever the temperature: granola bars, crackers or pretzels, dried fruit, perhaps with a few nuts. I like to eat banana bread, oatmeal cookies, fruit newtons, soft bagels with peanut butter and jelly, boiled salty potatoes and the occasional gel. Bananas are also good early in a ride but get brown in the cold.

What to Drink

In the summer I usually carry a bottle of sports drink and a bottle of water. I make my own sports drink, which is quite similar to commercial products but much cheaper:

  • 1/3 cup (80 ml) orange juice
  • 12 teaspoons (50 g) sucrose (table sugar), glucose or maltodextrin (a starch)
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1.2 ml) salt
  • Water to make 1 quart (0.95 L)

In the winter I use hot water and in my second bottle I carry tea sweetened with honey.

Carrying Nutrition

You need to protect your food and drink from the cold; however, you also want them accessible. The more you cover up your nutrition to keep it from freezing, the harder it is to eat and drink! Over a wool long-sleeved jersey I wear a thermal vest or jersey with a windproof front and pockets in the rear where I can keep my food protected from the wind. Over these I wear a windbreaker or coat with a two-way zip—by unzipping the lower part I have easy access to my pockets. If it’s colder, I carry the food in my jersey pockets under the heavy jersey.

Carrying Fluid

For fluids, if it won’t be too cold I carry a couple of insulated bottles, the kind designed to keep fluids cold. I fill them with warm drinks: sports drink and tea with honey. If it was colder, I used to put each bottle inside a heavy wool sock before putting them in their cages. I now have a couple of steel Stanley thermoses that fit in my bottle cages, which are available on-line. Their design works well for cycling; it takes one finger to depress a button to open the valve, allowing you to drink one-handed.

If it will be even colder, I wear a small hydration pack under my coat or even under my thermal jersey. Mine has an insulated hose. You can get a bladder with an insulated valve as well; I just blow back into mine after drinking so that there’s no water in the valve to freeze.

Eating and Drinking Regularly

Eating and drinking regularly is important year-round for a fun, successful ride. It's easy in the summer. You pull out a bottle or something from a jersey pocket and drink or eat on the bike. When it is colder and wetter, your nutrition may be less accessible, but you still need it! You may be wearing heavy gloves, which make it hard to grab food. I wear thin glove liners under my winter gloves so that my fingers are more dexterous but still have some protection if I remove a glove while riding.

If it’s too hard to eat on the bike, then you need to stop to eat. I coached a MTB racer who enjoyed events like the Iditabike, well over 24 hours of biking (and hiking) in the snow. He learned that he needed to stop every 20-30 minutes to eat and drink or he’d bonk.

Some days riding on the plains in Colorado with the wind chill, it’s too hard to try to eat on the bike. I stop, face away from the wind and eat and drink something. On longer rides, I eat like I do on a bike tour. In addition to hourly snacks, I stop every few hours to go inside a store or café to get something hot to eat and drink and to warm up. Some riders do laps from the house so they are never more than an hour or two from hot chocolate and a warm-up!

In the winter, you should be doing base training, the classic long slow distance, so follow these tips, take your time to eat and drink, and enjoy riding outdoors instead of grinding away on the trainer!

For recipes for homemade sports drink, gels and bars and other ideas see my eArticle Eating and Drinking Like the Pros. The eArticle, which includes recipes for both homemade cycling food and drink, is available for only $4.99 ($4.24 for Premium Members after their 15% discount).


Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.

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