Cycling in the winter is very different than any other time of year, especially in colder environments. Not only what you wear will change, but what you eat, and drink will change, too. It’s important to pay attention to the small details, like how you store your food or the ingredients of the fuel you pack. The last thing you want to do midride is bite down on a rock-hard bar or drink an ice-cold beverage.

So, before you brave the cold on your next ride, make sure you pack foods and drinks that will meet your training needs for this time of year.

First things first: What you wear in the winter affects how you should fuel

What you wear has a big impact on how much fuel your body will need on a cold winter day, according to Namrita Brooke, Ph.D., R.D.N., sports dietitian and cycling coach at Velocious.

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“Your clothing [when riding in cold weather] is another thing that you want to really address in addition to the nutrition piece. It’s not a completely separate topic because it does affect how you feel, how much you’re sweating, and all of that,” she tells Bicycling.

Dehydration and increased energy utilization are two major areas of concern for cyclists on a cold winter ride, and both factors can be influenced by what you wear, she says. For starters, your body’s natural response to the cold weather will cause you to burn more energy. If you’re not properly dressed, Brooke says, you’re going to be shivering when you first go outside.

“It’s going to take you some time—even if it’s 15 minutes to 20 minutes—to warm up,” she says. “In that first 20 minutes, your body is just going to be releasing glycogen to keep your blood sugar up if you haven’t eaten anything.” Translation: You’re going to burn more energy on a cold winter ride than on a warmer day. Make sure you’re dressed properly and consider having a small snack and a hot drink before going out on a ride.

What’s more, Brooke says, your body’s natural response will cause you to lose more fluids through urination. When you’re cold, your blood vessels are going to restrict and your body will redirect blood flow to keep your organs warm. When that happens, your body goes through a diuretic response and your blood pressure increases, which causes you to urinate more and increases your chance of dehydration.

“It’s a lot easier—I think we can all agree—to drink more when it’s hot outside,” she says. But remember to drink year-round, even if you’re not feeling thirsty. After all, you’re likely sweating under all your layers and losing fluids.

And if you’re not dressed properly, Brooke says, it’s a double whammy because you’re spending more energy to try to keep your body warm by shivering, then you’re also losing sodium and potassium when you are sweating, and you’re not replacing any of those nutrients. To avoid this, layer up properly and wear materials that help wick away sweat. If you don’t have clothing with good wicking material, Brooke says, this can lead to shivering and exerting more energy on your ride.

“Cycling is unpredictable, and part of being prepared is the clothing and then absolutely the fueling piece,” Brooke says.

Once you’ve figured out the perfect outfit for your winter ride, then you can properly prepare to fuel your workout using the guidelines below.

Tips on fueling your winter rides

Proper hydration and fuel will allow you to sustain your rides. By meeting your energy needs, not only will you be able to power your muscles but you will see improvements in your overall performance as well. Yet, many athletes underestimate their fueling needs for a workout, and doing so can have some consequences, especially in cold weather.

Since not eating or drinking enough can cause you to become lightheaded, nauseous, or dehydrated, a good rule of thumb is to have 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of exercise if you’re exercising for an hour or more, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. And, it’s a good rule for winter rides as well if you’re riding for 45 to 90 minutes, Brooke says. If you’re riding for 90 minutes or more, bump that up to 90 to 120 grams of carbs per hour, she says. “To a lot of people, that may sound like a lot. But again, your fuel needs have increased [in cold weather].”

Maintaining proper hydration can be a bit trickier. According to a major report released the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, hydrated men drink about 3.7 liters a day and women about 2.7 liters per day on average. Your specific needs will vary depending on your health, activity level, and most importantly your environment, but those are numbers you can aim for.

“Warm fluids are key for outside rides, as they will encourage the athlete to meet their fluid needs. Another key is making sure the fluid is warm, not hot,” Kristen Arnold, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., sports dietitian and cycling coach, tells Bicycling.

Here are eight more fueling tips to consider on your next winter adventure.

→ Pack an insulated or thermal bottle with warm tea. “Because you’re less thirsty when it’s cold, you may not want your normally cold sports drink. You can do something like warm tea with honey and salt so the tea would be warm, and the honey would give you some carbs and salt for electrolytes,” says Brooke.

→ Arnold suggests, bringing soft foods that won’t freeze like brownies, sandwiches, oatmeal cookies, or dates.

If you’re going out for a short ride of an hour or less, fuel may be helpful but it’s not a necessity. Brooke suggests considering having a small snack or meal just in case you exert more energy than expected. If you’re going for a morning ride, Arnold suggests, you should have a snack beforehand like a banana or protein shake to avoid fasted exercise.

→ On short rides, keep a 16 or 32 oz bottle handy with an electrolyte drink mix and calories to give you a boost, Arnold says. You can also try warm sports drink mixes like hot apple cider.

→ For longer rides, Arnold says, start fueling within the first 30 minutes to ensure you have enough energy for the latter part of your ride.

→ Consider storing your fluids in a hydration vest. Brooke says, “I think the hydration pack or vest is a great idea in the winter because you can carry more fluid. You can wear it on your back like not right close to your skin, but maybe in between your layers so it keeps it warm. This keeps it from freezing and then you don’t have to stop.”

→ Pack your food in sandwich bags, which are easier to flip over the top and eat from than packaged wrappers if your hands are cold, Arnold says.

→ Store your fuel in a top-tube bag. Brooke says, she prefers to carry snacks on her bike instead of her body on for longer winter rides.

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Monique Lebrun

Monique LeBrun joined the editorial staff in October 2021 as the associate health and fitness editor. She has a master’s degree in journalism and has previously worked for ABC news and Scholastic. She is an avid runner who loves spending time outside.