Cycling in the heat
There’s an old saying from a Noel Coward song that only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Really that has to extend to cyclists too. We often set out early but many rides take us into the heat of the day. Environmental strain can have a dramatic effect on our cycling.
We need to prepare both our body and kit to deal with conditions of extreme heat and the potentially damaging rays of the sun.
After the hardships of riding through winter a great summer day’s cycling ride can really put a smile on our face. As we speed along we create a current of wind to cool us adding to our comfort. Still, we need to be aware of the risks of dehydration, sunburn, temperature control, and the subsequent implications an unexpected mechanical problem could have.
Hot weather cycling, heat exhaustion & heat stroke
Heat exhaustion and hyperthermia are the two big risks for cyclists in hot conditions. Heat exhaustion results from decreases in blood pressure and volume. Vital fluid and electrolytes are lost from the body through sweat when exposed to heat for extended periods.
Fatigue will go beyond what a rider usually feels with potential symptoms including nausea, profuse sweating and a feeling of sickness. Riders may also feel dizzy and confused. If you become aware of this, it’s best to stop cycling immediately and find a spot in the shade away from the sun to cool down and refuel.
Cold towels can also be used to lower body temperature and have a cooling, remedial effect. Ditto for a cool bath or shower.
Many of us will push on despite knowing we’re not in a good place. If you push yourself beyond the above symptoms you risk developing heat stroke. This is often symbolised by the sweating stopping and the rider suddenly feeling very cold despite a hot environment. At this point the condition becomes a matter for emergency services. While waiting for an ambulance it’s vital to sip at cold drinks and maintain consciousness.
Whilst we can do very little about the weather forecast as road cyclists there is a lot we can do to plan ahead for the eventualities the environment can inflict on us.
With a few smart equipment choices we can make the most of our ride without suffering dramatic consequences.
1) Maintaining hydration: ensure you have some 750 ml bidons
Water is vital to our body’s ability to perform at its highest level. Just a small percentage loss of the water from our body can have a dramatic, detrimental effect on our performance.
Just a 2% decrease can have a measureable effect on cycling output. Therefore every road cyclist should know the importance of maintaining their fluid levels all year round. Summer in particular is the time where we are most likely to suffer from heat stress.
Racers in the Tour de France will be seen with 500ml bidons, but these are passed out due to their relative ease of transport through the peloton. Riders will stuff them down the backs of jerseys and in pockets to ride through the bunch and distribute to teammates.
You may want to look like a pro, but just carrying a couple of 500ml bidons could easily have your body crying for more fluid later in a ride. I recommend you switch to 750ml water bottles, increasing your carrying capacity by 50%.
Ideally you should be drinking plenty of fluids before, during and after rides. Many coaches cite a minimum 500-800 ml of fluid as a requirement during hot and humid weather riding.
2) Stock up on isotonic drinks and electrolyte tablets for hot weather cycling
If you’re looking for an ergogenic effect swapping from water to certain sports drinks can improve hot weather performance.
Isotonic sports drinks are at the same osmolarity as our bodily fluids and can therefore be absorbed into the body as fast as or faster than just drinking water.
Look for sports drink for hot weather containing 4-8 grams of carbohydrate per 100ml for optimal balance between hydration and fuelling.
These drinks are also a great way to recover if you’re feeling the effects of heat exhaustion, as they will replenish the essential electrolytes lost through sweat.
Electrolyte tablets are easily dissolved into water. They provide your body with vital minerals responsible for muscular contraction and the regulation of your body’s fluid balance helping us to maintain performance in the heat. They’re also very easy to stash in your wallet, jersey pocket or saddle bag.
3) Don’t forget about your skin
We all love a glorious sunny day on the bike. It’s what drives us through the sleet, snow and cold. However, it’s becoming more and more apparent of the need to protect our body from the damaging effects of UVA and UVB radiation.
We all know someone who’s rushed out of the house, forgotten to put the sunscreen on and arrived back home a few hours later looking like a lobster.
Many companies now make specific sports sun creams and sunscreens. They’re more resilient to sweating than regular sun creams, which is a bonus for cyclists. Look for water resistant sun creams which won’t wash away with a brief storm. High levels of UVA and UVB protection are also a must.
Most sports sun products are available in factor 30 or higher. If you’re fair skinned consider factor 50 protection or higher. Neutrogena produce a great looking factor 70 sun cream which offers outstanding levels of protection for sports.
4) Not all cycling jerseys are created equal
Few of us actually have specific summer cycling gear and apparel. Most of us have cycling kit we’d say is for winter and then everything else we use for the rest of the year — sometimes teamed up with arm-warmers or a pair of leg warmers and overshoes on those cooler days. Manufacturers are starting to turn their attention to the demands of cycling in summer.
A key characteristic of summer cycling jerseys is the ability to wick away sweat from the body. This will help to keep us feeling cool and comfortable as the mercury rises. Lightweight mesh panels can be great for this, although be aware that the sun’s rays can penetrate the holes so you may need some sunscreen under your jersey in such instances.
A good, snug yet unrestrictive jersey will help you to feel comfortable riding in the summer months without limiting your movement. Excess fabric is always going to flap around and annoy you so try to keep this to a minimum. Pockets are also great for your mobile phone, a few gels or bars, and a small travel-sized bottle of sunscreen in case you need to reapply during a long ride.
Here’s an example: the Castelli Climber’s Jersey is a fantastic women’s road jersey for summer which features a tightly knit mesh which will help wick away perspiration. The cut is fairly close but flattering and the styling simple yet classic with a selection of colours to keep boredom away.
5) Protect your eyes on bright summer days
The sun can have a devastating effect on not just your skin. Your eyes are particularly sensitive to sunlight. That’s why it’s rare to see a pro at the Tour de France who’s not wearing a pair of sunglasses to protect their eyes.
One of the key benefits of wearing sunglasses is their ability to block out potentially harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This has been attributed to development of eye problems like cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The skin around your eyes is particularly sensitive and sunglasses can help prevent signs of premature aging.
Always look for good quality sunglasses which block out 100% of the sun’s harmful rays.
Bright summer sun can lead to headaches and strain on your eyes. When looking into the sun we squint to try to limit the amount of light entering our eyes. As we squint we stress the muscles around our eyes and over time this can lead to eyestrain. The darker tint of a pair of sunglasses will help limit the amount of light entering the eye and help to protect you while riding.
6) Look for a well ventilated helmet
Many of us love to look like our idols from the Tour de France and one of the big cycling fashion trends is the ‘aero’ road helmet. Many look like something we’d have seen in the early days of cycling helmets with a small number of vents on the front.
Those are great if you’re looking to save valuable seconds or watts. However, they will trap heat inside the helmet which could cause real discomfort when road cycling in hot weather conditions.
You will often see pro riders swap to a better ventilated helmet on warm days or when there’s going to be lots of climbing involved as ventilation is key to remaining cool. When choosing a helmet consider when you’re going to be riding. If you ride a lot in hot and dry environments airflow will make a huge difference in keeping you cool.
7) Pre-cool prior to racing with a cooling vest
For many of us we pin numbers to our jersey come rain or shine. We relish those warm summer days which come as a reward for those brutal winter races where we lost feeling in our fingers and toes.
Because it’s rare to hear of events called off due to conditions being too hot, every advantage we can get on these days is a physical and psychological plus.
Cooling vests have been around for a good number of years at the elite end of competitive sports. They came to prominence at the Athens Olympics where temperatures were at times pushing above 100° Fahrenheit and athletes needed to develop strategies to deal with the conditions.
In a study by Hunter et al (2006) it was found that the use of cooling vests for one hour prior to competition reduced rises in core body temperature in runners usually seen during hot weather endurance performance.
Increased core temperature has been shown to have a negative effect on endurance sports performance. So according to this study, a cooling vest could positively impact your event performance.
1) Warming Up With an Ice Vest: Core Body Temperature Before and After Cross-Country Racing, Iain Hunter, J. Ty Hopkins and Douglas J. Casa, Journal of Athletic Training.