How to Keep Cold Hands and Feet From Ruining Your Ride

When your extremities are frozen and uncomfortable, the rest of you also pays the price. Here’s how to keep even your most distant digits cozy when it’s cold. – By Selene Yeager

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Having faced the elements in some of the harshest climates around the globe, adventure cyclist Rebecca Rusch—a seven-time world champion and winter fat-bike racer—knows a thing or two about cold hands and feet. Making matters worse, she is prone to cold hands. “I have really bad circulation in my hands and they are a big factor in my ride enjoyment. Cold hands equals cranky Reba and unnecessary suffering!” she says.

Here’s her advice for powering through a ride when your extremities get cold.

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For your hands:

Layer up: Slipping on some big fat ski gloves may seem like a bright idea, but resist the urge, says Rusch. “It’s a recipe for disaster, because once you start to sweat, all the insulation in those gloves will get wet. Once wet, the chill sets in more quickly and it’s really hard to rewarm.” Instead you want to layer your hands like you would the rest of you. “Layering is key for an outdoor endurance activity,” she says. “I like very thin wool as a base layer for hands—and everything else—because it does stay warm when wet and it also breathes well so you don’t overheat.” On a cold ride, Rusch uses three pairs of gloves:

•Base layer: A thin wool or synthetic base-layer glove for next to skin. You could also use a light pair of regular riding gloves for this.
•Midlayer: Medium thickness, insulated gloves that are not bulky.
•Outer layer:“This is really the key layer,” says Rusch. Get a thin shell glove or mitten that is a size bigger than you normally wear, so it easily slides over the other layers. “This is key for keeping wind chill off your hands because your hands are the front part of your body and will always be in the wind.”

Rusch then adjusts her layers according to her comfort level as she rides. “I usually start with all three on, then remove the middle layer once I start to get warm and begin to sweat, doing most of the ride in the liners and the shell gloves.”

Bring them back from the brink: Once your fingers are numb, it’s time to do triage, says Rusch. Remove any wet layers and just ride in the shell gloves if that’s all you have left. Then make it your mission to get circulation back into your digits. Shake your hands to get the circulation going. If that doesn’t work, get off your bike and do some windmills. “A trick I learned cross-country skiing is to spin your arms like a windmill as hard as you can,” she says. “You have to spin hard so the centrifugal force from spinning aggressively puts blood back into your extremities. Repeat for 10 to 20 rotations until you feel the warm and tingly sensation of blood returning.

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For your feet:

Keep them dry: Feet sweat a lot, so it’s important to wear socks that let your feet breathe. “I like wool for my feet, says Rusch. “I wear wool socks all year round, thinner in the summer and thicker in the winter. They’re the best fabric for staying warm when they do get wet.”

Mind your soles: When it’s just a little cold you can keep the tops of your feet toasty with fleece-lined neoprene booties. For frostier temps, you’ll find the bottoms of your feet get cold with booties alone. “If you are using shoe covers only, then think about adding an insulated insole inside your riding shoe to keep you warm from the bottom too,” says Rusch. “You might need to size up to do this or remove the other insole.” A good pair of winter riding boots also solves this problem and is worth the investment if you ride a lot where it’s really cold.

Cover your toes: Little plastic snack baggies make great toe covers to add one more vapor layer against the elements, protecting your toes, which like your fingers are idle out in the wind the whole ride. “They make more expensive ones, but baggies work as well if not better,” says Rusch. Just slip them over your socked feet under your shoes.

Move your feet: There’s a reason they put in barriers when they invented cyclocross—so you’d get off your bike and run and jump around to warm up your feet! Wiggle your toes frequently to keep blood circulating into them. If needed, get off your bike and jump up and down to bring blood flow back into your feet and toes.

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