Opinion: Ditch the trainer and ride outside this winter

It’s that time of year when my Strava feed is nothing but trainer rides and Zwifters. Meanwhile, people like my husband are going bikepacking in the single digits and couldn’t be more excited about winter. As the weather has been frigid for weeks here in Pennsylvania, my cycling friends and acquaintances have divided into two camps – those who love to get out in the cold and those who relegate themselves to indoor workouts on the trainer, claiming that below-freezing temperatures are no conditions in which to ride outside.

I’m solidly on the “ride outside” side. I don’t own a trainer. I’m a firm believer in getting fresh air, even in adverse conditions, and will always choose an outdoor versus an indoor workout any day. Here are a few of the benefits of bundling up and braving the cold:

1. Cold air is invigorating and intensifies the benefits of exercise.

Feeling lethargic and tired? Curling up on the couch might sound like a great plan but I guarantee you’ll feel better if you step outside and get your heart pounding. A ride outside, even if it’s just a short one, is a great way to cure the mid-afternoon slumps. Cold air not only is invigorating, it also intensifies the other benefits of exercise, from increased caloric burn and cardiovascular strength to mental ones like elevated mood and decreased stress.

2. Being outside helps prevent and treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a condition in which people feel more depressed in the winter due to lack of daylight and Vitamin D. Those with a proneness to depression and anxiety on a regular basis are more likely to suffer from harsher effects of SAD, but even people with a normally-happy demeanor are vulnerable, especially those living in environments that are cold and dark for part of the year.

Getting outside on a regular basis helps treat the symptoms of SAD and can even prevent it from occurring. Continuing to do your regular activities through winter helps maintain a sense of routine and combats the blues. A daily dose of sunlight, even if it’s cloudy, gives you that boost of Vitamin D that fights stress and depression. Even if most of your outdoor activities during the week are at night, feeling the wind on your face and fresh air in your lungs will help you feel happier.

3. It’ll make you stronger, both mentally and physically.

Having the fortitude to brave cold temperatures, snow, sleet and whatever else Mother Nature decides to throw at you will make you mentally stronger, while the unpredictable conditions of an outdoor workout will cause your body to become physically stronger as well.

Regardless of how hard you try to make your indoor workout, the natural environment will always have the advantage of unpredictability and conditions that just cannot be replicated–like slogging uphill in 6 inches of powder (aka lots of hike-a-bike).

Your body will also become more adaptable. It will have to work harder to maintain your core temperature and pump blood to your extremities, making your heart stronger and your body more hearty in general. You will burn more calories than you would by doing the same ride in more temperate conditions.

4. It’s not as prohibitive as you may think.

“But I don’t have the gear.”

“But I don’t have a fatbike.”

There are a whole litany of excuses you can make for not riding outside in the cold and snow. But there are also a lot of easy solutions provided you’re willing to think outside the box a little.

Fatbikes and bike-specific winter gear certainly help to make riding through snow and freezing temperatures a little more pleasant. But it’s far from necessary. Set of knobbier tires or studs are enough to get you through most winter conditions unless you live in an area that really gets a lot of snow. And whatever cold weather gear you already own is good enough to ride in. As long as you’re not in jeans and a cotton shirt, you’ll most likely be fine. Don’t have SPD-compatible winter boots? Switch to flats and ride in hiking boots for the colder months.

5. It makes for better memories and stories, and is way more fun! 

“That was a really amazing trainer ride,” said no one ever. Yes, it is helping you stay in shape for the rest of the year but by not getting outside, you are missing another important part of the equation – the experience of being outside in Mother Nature, seeing different places and riding with friends – and unless you’re a racer, those bits are arguably more important than being in shape.

So bundle up, get out there and make great winter memories on two wheels!

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2 Comments

  1. Actually, bellow freezing conditions are better than slightly above. Everything is dry and crisp instead of wet and mucky. The latter makes riding (and post ride cleaning) much more miserable.

    • Yes. I’d rather be riding in the snow below freezing than in the rain just above freezing. We ride all winter, but if it’s raining hard we’ll skip the ride and wait for less epic weather. If it’s snowing hard I am excited to get my mountain bike drifty in the white stuff.

      FWIW – I ride my normal bike with 2.4″ tires in the snow here on the wet coast. It works fine 98% of the time even when the snow looks too deep. I just go for it and I’ve had to turn back on one ride due to too much snow in the last 8yrs.

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