How to Train and Race in Extreme Conditions
As racing starts picking back up around the world, you might be looking ahead at the race schedule or even just a biking holiday. Whether you’re heading to your local hill, to a different state, city, or even a different country, you’ll likely be riding in a different climate and elevation. Here are a few tips and tricks that you can use to prepare for racing, training, and riding at the extremes.
How to Ride and Race in COLD Weather
In cold temperatures, the body tries to hold onto its heat by reducing the blood flow to the extremities (hands, arms, feet, legs, nose, ears, etc) to keep the warmth centred around the vital organs. We also start shivering to generate heat. But in cold weather, especially if it is wet or windy, your body can lose heat faster than it produces it. In this instance, your performance drops as you become slower and more clumsy because there is less blood and oxygen going to your extremities and muscles – not ideal for racing. Then the worst-case scenario is hypothermia which can lead to death if not addressed. On the bright side, there are plenty of ways to prepare yourself to keep warm so you can comfortably train or race even in the harshest and coldest conditions.
- Warm up with warm liquid before heading out. A hot drink or soup will help maintain your core body temperature when you first hit the cold – a great excuse for that pre-ride coffee!
- Wear appropriate clothing. Having several layers means that you can strip them off when you get too hot. A base layer goes a long way especially if it is moisture wicking to stay dry. Wearing something on your head and neck helps if it is extremely cold. I often ride with a buff around my neck in the winter and pull it over my mouth and nose to breath in warmer, humid air at the start of my ride to give me a break from the cold air throat burn.
- Keep your hands and feet warm. Because blood and warmth are pulled away from the extremities first in order to keep the core warm, your hands and feet are the first to feel the cold. I use merino socks and winter gloves for cold days, and I wear shoe covers when riding my road bike. During one of the Enduro World Series races in France it was so cold one of the team mechanics gave me some latex gloves that I put on under my riding gloves for the first climb. It gave me another layer of insulation and windproof to keep my hands toasty warm, I took them off after the first climb and my hands stayed warm for the rest of the day. I have also heard of riders putting plastic bags or clingfilm between two layers of socks to help keep their feet warm and dry.
EWS Orlargues, France 2018.
How to Ride and Race in the RAIN
Riding in the rain and wet can be very unpleasant or fun depending on your preparation. I used to see myself as a ‘fair weather rider’ until I had a whole race season where it rained at every single race. I was a slow learner, but each race got better as I picked up more hacks that would help make me comfortable and perform better.
- Wear a rain jacket. Similar to riding in the cold, layer up. A decent rain jacket will be your best friend when it’s bucketing down. (See other tips for keeping warm above)
- Zip Lock Bags. Use your waterproof bag for keeping things dry. I use a ziplock bag for my phone, to carry tissues to wipe my goggle lens, and to carry spare gloves for when my gloves get too wet and slippery.
- Change of clothes. If the race of ride allows you to stop for lunch, make sure you have a spare change of clothes to change into to hit the second half of the day fresh and warm. If I’m wet and cold I change everything – jersey, shorts, gloves, socks, chamois and even shoes.
- Remember to hydrate and fuel for your activity. When we are distracted by the wet and cold it is so easy to forget to drink and eat. But the fuel we need for our activity is still the same and the athlete that fuels for what they are doing will last the day and recover well.
- Bike Gear. A tire fender will help reduce the water and mud splashing and flicking up into your face from the tires. If the ground is super muddy and there aren’t many rocks and roots, a pair of mud tires can provide extra traction and clearance.
EWS Tasmania 2017. It rained all day with the occasional thunderstorm.
How to Ride and Race in the HEAT
In hot temperatures, the body tries to cool itself down by sending the blood away from the core to our skin to dissipate the heat (opposite of when it is cold). Your body also regulates temperature through sweating which cools the skin as the moisture is evaporated. Here are some things that help:
- Arrive at the venue two to three weeks before the event. This allows time for your body to adapt and make physiological changes for the heat by increasing blood volume. This means your blood flow to the muscles and skin have improved, and your body starts sweating more and earlier to cool itself off. Once you have arrived, start small by going on little walks or runs or bikes and build up every day so you can adapt to the heat stress gradually and efficiently.
- Heat Acclimation. For many of us, it is not realistic to arrive two weeks early, but we can train the body to handle higher temperatures from home. This is done by mimicking the heat to get you sweating either by wearing more layers when training, not using a fan during your indoor training workout, or going to hot yoga or a sauna. One of my favourite techniques I do is sitting in a sauna after exercise which also helps stimulate adaptations for heat acclimation.
- Hydration is key. Increasing fluid intake helps boost plasma volume and fluid available for sweating. The body can then push more blood towards the skin to off load heat, and to sweat more to cool itself down. Pre-race hydration is just as important as during and after. I always keep a bottle filled with my favourite electrolyte so I am constantly reminded to drink.
- Wear sunscreen. Protect yourself from sunburn which amplifies the heat stress and dehydration.
- Cold water dips. Cold water immersion helps to drop your body temperature and help with recovery. 10-15min in a cold river, pool, lake, ocean or even a cold shower will help.
- Drink cold fluids. A slushy or icy drink again helps lower core temperature.
EWS Madeira 2019, a very hot race reaching 34 degrees celsius
How to Ride and Race at ALTITUDE
As luxurious as riding in the European Alps or the Colorado Peaks sounds and looks, the high altitude can take a toll. If we are not acclimated to the altitude there is a significant drop in performance as the air thins and can commonly cause headaches, fatigue, lack of appetite and altitude sickness. I live at sea level and used to really struggle any time I was at altitude until I started implementing these tricks:
- Arrive early. True adaptations can take weeks as the body learns and adapts to the limited available oxygen. Arriving at the venue 2-3 weeks before the event allows time for the body to adapt by making red blood cells to carry the oxygen more efficiently to your tissues, and the cells mitochondria multiply to take in as much oxygen as possible.
- Altitude Acclimation Techniques. Often it is not possible to arrive several weeks early for an event so this is when altitude acclimation helps. I will often do this by using a sauna for a week if I have a race at altitude coming up. Sauna training is great for both heat and altitude because the adaptations are similar for both. Going into a sauna while dehydrated (after exercise) so there is already reduced blood flow and adding the heat stress from the sauna will encourage the body to cool itself off by bringing the blood towards the skin's surface to dissipate and by sweating. This means there is less blood and oxygen at the core and around the organs. Because of this reduced blood flow some of the organs (kidneys) stimulate the production of EPO and plasma volume allowing your body to have a better oxygen-carrying capacity and efficient delivering system.
- Hydration: Not only is your body working harder at rest but the air at altitude is often a lot drier therefore the need to hydrate is even greater. Keep a bottle of water with electrolytes with you throughout the day and sip often.
- Avoid alcohol. Removing the post-ride beers and evening wines is going to reduce the risk of altitude sickness. Alcohol is dehydrating and can exacerbate the effect of altitude.
EWS Northstar, California 2019 up to 8,610 ft. High altitude and hot conditions made hydration key.