I’ve lived in Colorado for over 20 years, and I hate riding the trainer. So I’ve learned how to ride a bicycle in cold, often windy and/or wet, weather. In those conditions my metabolism revs up just to keep me warm! At any pace I’m burning more calories than I would be in the summer.
If you are commuting or riding for fitness for up to an hour, then nutrition isn’t much of an issue. Eat before you ride and drink on the bike and after the ride. But for longer rides – and for winter riding – nutrition and hydration requirements are different.
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|
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.
While your caloric requirements increase in the cold, your hydration requirements decrease, although you still need fluid. Some physiologists used to think that hydration requirements increased in the cold because you are exhaling moist, warm air; however, when you metabolize glycogen (from carbohydrate) that releases H2O, which more than offsets the water exhaled. The rule is the same year-round: drink to satisfy your thirst.
For more about eating and drinking during multi-hour rides see my eArticle Nutrition for 100K and Beyond.
What to Eat When It’s Cold
Sports nutrition products such as bars, gels and drinks offer no performance advantage; however, they may be more convenient than real food. However, bars that taste good when riding at 80° F (27° C) may be unpalatable (because of taste and/or hardness) at 32° F (0° C). As a rule of thumb, as the temperature drops go for softer foods. I like to eat banana bread, oatmeal cookies, soft bagels with peanut butter and jelly, boiled salty potatoes, and the occasional gel. I cross-country ski, too, and on winter rides I’ll often take the same food as I would skiing, food that’s crunchy whatever the temperature: granola bars, crackers or pretzels, nuts and dried fruit.
I drink hot beverages such as hot tea with honey or hot sports drink.
For recipes for homemade sports drink, gels and bars and other homemade nutrition ideas see my eArticle Eating and Drinking Like the Pros.
In the winter food and drink need to be protected from the cold; however, you also want them accessible. The more you cover up your nutrition to keep it from freezing, the less likely you are to eat and drink! Over a 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. I wear a windbreaker or coat over this with a two-way zip—by unzipping the lower part I have easy access to my pockets.
For fluids, if it won’t be too cold I carry a couple of insulated bottles, the kind designed to keep fluids cold (which also work to keep fluids warm, but aren’t the best solution for especially cold rides).If it will be colder or I want my beverage piping hot, I carry a Stanley thermos that fits in a bottle cage and can be operated with one hand (see photo). 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
This is important year-round for an enjoyable and successful ride. When the weather gets colder and wetter, your nutrition may be less accessible, but you still need it! Further, you may be wearing heavy gloves, which make it hard to grab food. I wear glove liners under my heavy gloves. To eat and/or drink something while riding I pull off the heavy gloves and my fingers are still somewhat protected.
If it’s too hard to eat on the bike, then you need to stop to eat. I coached a MTB racer who enjoys events like the Iditabike, well over 24 hours of biking (and hiking) in the snow. He’s learned that he needs to stop every 20-30 minutes to eat and drink or he’ll bonk.
Some days riding on the plains in Colorado with the wind blowing, 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, stopping 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!
My eBook Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food & Drink – Nutritional Insight from Pro Cycling Teams includes more information on what the pros eat for breakfast, on the bike, on the bus after a stage and for dinner. Although sports food products provide part of a racer’s on-the-bike diet they also eat real food. The 15-page Eating and Drinking Like the Pros has recipes to make your own drinks, gels and solid food that provide as much nutrition and taste better at a much lower cost than commercial products. It also has information on what to eat at a minimart.
In Your Best Season Ever, Part 1 I describe how to improve, by doing: The right kinds of workouts → At the right times → In the right amounts → Resulting in continuing progress. He walks you through how to create your own specific, personalized training plan and then get the most out of your training.
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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.