Top Tips for Base Training in the Cold

By Coach John Hughes

I live in Colorado and I Nordic skied on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then my buddy and I enjoyed our weekly ride on Thursday. As I write this, a fire in my wood stove is keeping me warm.

This is the time of year when I outline my clients' training plans for the year ahead. For the next 3 - 5 months I plan base training, whether the client lives in Boston, Colorado, Maine or California (in other words, regardless of the climate).

Base training has many important benefits. It increases:

  • The endurance of your cycling muscles by increasing both the size and the number of mitochondria. The mitochondria are subcellular structures in the muscles where aerobic energy is produced. These increases in mitochondria are the result of the number of contractions of the muscles, not the intensity of the contractions. This is why (relatively) high volume and low intensity riding is so important.
  • The efficiency of your heart so that it can pump more blood to your muscles. Base training increases the stroke volume, the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat.
  • The amount of carbohydrates you can store in the liver and muscles. Your body can store approximately 1800 calories' worth of carbohydrate as glycogen, which is converted to glucose to power your muscles. You can exhaust your glycogen stores during several hours of hard riding. Through endurance training you can increase your ability to store glycogen by 20% to 50%!
  • The capacity to burn fat during long rides. Through endurance training your fuel mix on endurance rides shifts to more fat and less glucose, sparing precious glycogen stores. Note that this doesn’t automatically result in weight loss; that is a function of calories in and calories out.

Because effective base training is low intensity, high volume riding, it’s mentally very tough to do on the trainer.  Here are some tips for outdoor winter training rides:

Choose Appropriate Clothing

Last fall there were two excellent columns in RBR on this topic. Coach David Ertl wrote about what to wear at different temperatures: What to Wear Across a Range of Weather. Elizabeth Wicks wrote about what she wears cycling in Massachusetts in the winter: Dial in Clothing Choices for Enjoyable Winter Riding.

These suggestions work well if you’re out for a relatively short ride in stable conditions. But what if the weather is changeable? I always carry (even riding in the mountains in the summer!):

  • Light-weight glove liners and balaclava
  • A motel shower cap as an emergency helmet cover
  • A dry base layer, preferably wool
  • A couple of plastic bags to pull over my socks

I use a seat bag from eogear, which offers varies sizes using a modular system.  I like my bag because I can put in my emergency gear and cinch the straps down when I start. Then as I (hopefully) shed layers I can put them in and expand the bag. The photo shows the expanded bag carrying the above extra clothing, tools, tubes, food, heavy rain coat, stocking cap and lobster mitts.

Tailor Eating and Drinking to Conditions

The key is to eat every hour even if you don’t feel like it. I particularly like my Stanley thermos perfectly sized to fit in a bottle cage; I can open and close the valve with one hand so I can drink warm liquids while I’m riding. When it’s really cold I stop, turn my back to any wind, eat and get back on the bike. 

For more tips see my column Nine Tips for Eating and Drinking During Winter Rides.

Buddy Up for Motivation

The best way to get yourself to ride in adverse conditions is to agree to meet a friend or friends at a certain time or place.  No one wants to be the one to wimp out.

Have an Immediate Goal

It’s hard to be motivated to ride when it’s cold, and especially when it’s rainy. It’s too easy to slack off if your goal is to do specific club rides next summer or a goal event months away.

Set an achievable near-term goal like riding five hours a week (outdoors and on the trainer). Many of my clients participate in Randonneurs USA P-12 program to ride a 100K every month for 12 months: http://www.rusa.org/award_p12.html. Some participate in the R-12 to ride 200K every month for 12 months. That’s a lot of time in the saddle in the winter! http://www.rusa.org/award_r12.html

Stop for Coffee or Lunch

My training partner and I ride year-round, and every ride includes a stop for, at least, coffee and usually for lunch. The planned stop gives us something to look forward to as we pedal in the cold, as well as a chance to warm up.

Combine Outdoor and Indoor Cycling in a Single Ride

I sometimes tell a client that I want the rider to do a two-hour ride, with at least 30 minutes outdoors and the rest may be on the trainer. The rider gets to choose whether to ride as much as two hours outdoors or as little as 30 minutes. It’s much easier to start with the time outdoors rather than starting on the trainer and dreading the outdoor segment.

Split Workouts If Necessary

Remember that the physiological adaptations from base training are the result of volume. I often tell a client to give me three hours of riding over the weekend. Depending on family responsibilities, weather and the rider’s motivation, s/he could do a three-hour ride, or 90 minutes outdoors in the morning and the rest on the trainer after dinner watching TV with her family, or three separate one-hour rides over Saturday and Sunday.

Ride Laps

A client had committed to riding a century every calendar month in the year! January weather was terrible, but she was determined to start. At the end of the month she rode 8 laps of a 12.5-mile loop from her house. She was never more than 30 minutes from home in case of a problem. To make it more interesting, she rode a different bike every lap!

Increase the Pace (Slightly)

Base training is done at the classic conversational pace so that you and your buddy are chatting comfortably the entire way. You can ride just a little harder and still get the same benefits of base training.  How much harder? You should still be able to talk but can’t whistle.

My eArticle Productive Off-Season Training has information on cardiovascular endurance training, cross-training, cycling indoors - including workouts and drills, resistance (strength) training, including exercises, and intensity training, including workouts. The material is then laid out in two 12-week programs: #1 for health and fitness riders and #2 for recreational riders.

Remember: there’s no such thing as bad conditions, just bad gear!


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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