Keep Your Cool While Riding This Summer
To ride, commute, train, and compete at your best all summer, it is important to understand how your body copes with heat, and what you can do to keep cool. Here are suggestions for preventing heat stress and adapting your program to the demands of summer riding, commuting, training, or competition.
Warming up is essential to prepare your body and mind to perform at its very best, especially when you are facing a hard effort such as a race or an interval session. Not doing so will normally compromise your performance. A good analogy is allowing your car engine to warm-up on a cold day. Moving parts glide past each other more smoothly and the whole engine performs far more efficiently than if you’d just pressed the accelerator to the floor immediately.
A very important aim of the warm-up is to “switch” your aerobic energy system on prior to you starting your main effort. Doing so means you use energy more efficiently and you are less likely to fatigue prematurely as a result. Your heart rate should be increased progressively, enabling more oxygen to be transported through your blood to and used within the working muscles. With increased body temperature, the range of motion around your joints will also improve and you will get close to your optimal efficiency very quickly. If you will be doing sprint efforts or preparing for very high-intensity race, neuromuscular activation is also very important. That means that signals will be sent from your brain, through the nervous system to your the muscles to tell them to switch on rapidly. That means doing very short efforts to prepare for these demands.
Having a planned warm-up routine will help you prepare mentally for your race or training session. Ideally, you should be relatively relaxed and focused on the task in hand rather than worrying about what the competition is doing. You may choose to think about your process goals or race strategies while warming up. High levels of anxiety at the start of a race wastes energy and often leads to poor decision making such as starting off too hard. Many riders like to listen to music through headphones during the warm-up as it helps them achieve the appropriate level of arousal and enables them to shut out what others are doing.
There is evidence to suggest that static stretching may be detrimental to the rider. A warm-up should prepare the body for the range and type of movement that the activity demands. A rugby player may use bounding and dynamic twists but, for a cyclist, the most appropriate type of warm-up is on the bike.
Typically the first 10-20 minutes of a sport will be spent progressively building up to your intended pace or intensity. You may benefit from a systematic warm-up as it will help prepare your mind for the event. For example, it may help relax you, reduce adrenaline levels and help prevent you starting too fast.
A cool down helps return your body to its pre-exercise state and will aid recovery and adaptation processes. It should be viewed as the first step to preparing your body for your next training session, race or event. A progressive cool-down will help remove metabolic waste products from your muscles. If you don’t cool-down, these metabolites will ‘sit’ there and potentially inhibit recovery. A cool-down will also minimize the likelihood of you feeling dizzy, nauseous or fainting post exercise. It will also allow your blood to redistribute around the body, preventing blood pooled in your lower extremities.
A cool-down allows you to mentally wind down after a hard workout or event and gives you time to reflect on your performance.
As with warming-up, higher intensity efforts require longer cool downs to return the body to its pre-exercise state. As a rule, enough time should be taken to progressively bring the heart rate down to near resting levels while still turning your legs over. This will typically take 5-10 minutes and should ideally be factored into the end of every ride.
What flexibility work does address is a heightened sensitivity in the muscle to ranges of movement beyond those which you experience when sat on your bike or at your desk. This perceived tightness, if left unaddressed, can easily lead to imbalances, poor muscle function and potentially pain or injury.
You may find that your body has become stiff after being in a fixed position on the bike for hours and stretching may help your body return to a normal range of movement. The ideal time to spend 5-10 minutes stretching is as soon as you get off the bike, as your muscle temperature will still be elevated and they will be ‘more open’ to stretching as a result.
A sunburn does more than just “fry” your skin. It contributes to fatigue and increases your metabolism. The latter might sound like a good thing, but it also increases fluid needs, which can be a problem on a hot day when you’re already struggling to stay hydrated. Do everything you can to prevent sunburn: Always wear sunscreen; choose jerseys, shorts, and arm skins with built-in sun protection; and wear a cap under your helmet to shield your head.
Excessive heat strain during exercise usually does not occur unless temperature and humidity are high, the air is stagnant, you do not rehydrate effectively, or you are not adequately acclimatized to the heat all of which happen during the summer months.
Sweating is important to help regulate body temperature during hard training. As sweat evaporates, heat is removed from your body. However, humidity impairs this cooling mechanism, since air is already saturated with water and sweat doesn’t evaporate as easily.
Choose a Time of Day to Ride
A very obvious way to avoid the severity of the sun’s rays is to avoid the hottest periods of the day for your cycling trip. There’s plenty of daylight in the summer months, so heading out early or at the end of the day can still mean you are riding in the warm, but without many of the hazards.
While it may be tempting to toss ice cubes down your jersey, don’t. Ice against the skin causes blood vessels to constrict, which shoots hot blood back to your core. If your core temperature climbs too high, performance and health can suffer. Instead, pour cool water over your neck and forearms, or wipe them with a cool, damp towel.
Don’t try to maintain the same pace or power you’d put out on a milder day. If you’re racing in steamy conditions, cut your warm-up time in half or more.
One of the biggest obstacles with cycling in hot weather is maintaining adequate hydration. You will sweat more as your body naturally tries to cool itself down, but that sweat will evaporate quickly, meaning that it is hard for you to gauge exactly how much fluid you are losing. Drink little and often when riding, and make sure that you have plenty of drink with you or know of places on your route where you can obtain more drinks – as if a mid-ride café stop needed an excuse.
To ride, commute, train, and compete at your best all summer, it is important to understand how your body functions and copes especially with heat, and what you can do to keep cool. Ride on!
Dr. Amy LaTendresse Glaser is an avid triathlete, Ironman, cyclist, and runner. She is on a local cycling team, on which she competes and participates in local cycling races.