Let’s talk about what to eat when it’s cold! No, I’m not talking about choosing a holiday season dessert, or snuggling up by the fireplace with hot cocoa. I’m talking about those bike rides in frigid temperatures… where it’s almost too cold to eat but you have to eat if you want to make it through your ride.

What can you eat when it is literally freezing cold? Because while the basics of in-ride nutrition don’t change, your eating habits will have to!

Don’t underestimate it – riding outside during a cold winter is more than just buying thicker clothing and wearing multiple layers. You also have to adapt your nutrition and hydration regimen. Here’s how.

What NOT To Eat in Cold Weather

First, if there’s one thing to remember, it’s what not to eat. And there’s basically one thing you can’t eat: Powerbars.

Powerbars are great in mild weather, but at extremes, you don’t want to touch them! In the cold, Powerbars will freeze solid and you might (literally) break your teeth! They are impossible to chew – don’t bother trying!

Powerbars – or any other old-school energy bars that are really dense – should be avoided. Fortunately, you have many more options nowadays.

What To Eat and Drink in Cold Weather

These are the best choices for what to eat on cold weather bike rides:

Kate’s Real Food Bar
The “Kate” who created these bars was a skier, so she knows a thing or two about food you can eat in the cold winter weather. So these bars are a safe bet. They don’t turn into solid bricks when they get cold.

SIS Isotonic Gel
Energy gels are ideal on cold days because they’ll get thick, but they probably won’t freeze for many hours. Any gel will do, but the best option is to find an isotonic energy gel. (Isotonic gels are simpler because they don’t require you to follow them with a gulp of water to digest properly.)

ProBar Bolt Energy Chews
Energy chews are even better than gels in cold weather. Not only do they remain edible, they are easier to eat when wearing thick gloves.

Snickers
Candy bars – specifically Snickers – are still edible in the cold. They’re not particularly healthy, but they’re really good, so I consider it an acceptable compromise for the morale boost they provide when biking in harsh conditions!

Skratch Labs Drink Mix (Hot Apple Cider)
You want a warm beverage on a cold ride, but most sports drinks taste pretty bad when warm. So don’t use just any beverage. Skratch Labs invented hydration drink powders that are designed to be mixed with hot water.

How To Find Good Foods for Cold Weather Conditions

I’ve been riding for many years, and especially in my younger years, I would ride year round. I needed to eat and drink regardless of the weather conditions, so I learned some valuable lessons on what foods and drinks are best on cold winter days.

(And for purposes of writing this article, I put various foods in the freezer for specific times, so I could have a standardized testing process.)

Here’s how to tell if a particular food is a good choice:

Energy Bars

Energy bars are ideal because they provide the most calories in the most efficient manner, with the least hassle. As long as you choose the right one…

I used to regularly eat Powerbars during summer rides. It only took one ride in the winter to realize that Powerbars are a terrible choice! Back then (in the 90s), we didn’t have many energy bars that were edible when frozen. They were dense, highly-processed substances that were similar to eating a brick, even at room temperature. Fortunately, that is no longer the case – energy bars today often resemble real food!

In the winter, you want an energy bar that is light and crispy or soft and moist. You have some options, such as the aforementioned Kate’s Real Food Bar. These – and any other “real food” style energy bars – are safe bets. If it looks homemade, and you can break it into chunks, it will probably be fine.

Another good one is the LivBar. It will not freeze or melt.

The Bobo’s Oat Bars are good. They are like baked oatmeal.

Bonk Breaker bars are good in all weather conditions.

Really, most of my highest-rated energy bars for cyclists are suitable for year round use.

Energy Gel

The nice thing about energy gels is that it will take a long time for them to freeze solid. During a winter ride, they will thicken up, but I personally find that to be a more enjoyable texture!

I find winter to be a great time for indulgent flavors like chocolate and salted caramel. If the gels get real cold, it’s like a thick chocolate milkshake or an actual salted caramel.

But there are two things to keep in mind:

1. If you are using energy gel packets, it’s hard to open them while wearing thick winter gloves. You might have to remove your gloves to tear open the packet. Because you can’t pre-open the wrapper like you can with an energy bar.

Alternative: get an energy gel flask and purchase gel in bulk containers.

2. You need to drink water when you eat a gel, to ensure proper digestion. Maybe you’re not thirsty, or maybe your water bottle is frozen shut. For whatever reason, you might not want to gulp down water whenever you suck down a gel.

This is why an isotonic energy gel is a good idea. The gel is already balanced for proper digestion and absorption.

Energy Chews

With energy chews, there are many different formulations, and some are better than others. Some stick to your teeth in the summer, some get rock hard in the winter.

The best ones for cold weather riding seem to be the ProBar Bolt chews and the Skratch Labs chews. These ones maintain a good texture.

Unlike energy gels, you can pre-tear the packaging, and easily squeeze them into your mouth, even with thick gloves on. No hassle. No mess.

Candy bars (like Snickers)

Know what else is great?! Junk food!

snickers candy bar

Winter ride? Grab a Snickers!

Why?

1. They are edible in the cold. I actually prefer eating them cold.

2. They taste good. You can’t eat bland cardboard bars year round!

3. They’re cheap. (Like 33 cents each!)

4. They are packed with calories. (And you burn a lot of calories when exercising in cold weather.)

5. You don’t need to chug water with it.

If I’m riding outside in the winter, I’m probably not doing insane intervals. And if I’m not doing anything intense, I can stomach junk food, like Snickers. It’s like a reward for getting outside and riding!

Even better, grab a Snickers Almond. I find them just as satisfying, and you get the nutrition boost that comes with the almonds. (Almonds are great for endurance athletes because they contain a good mix of carbs, fat, and protein; peanuts are basically just fat.)

What About Sports Drinks?

When choosing a beverage for winter bike rides, the first question is: water or sports drink?

I vote sports drink for three reasons:

1. For short rides, you may be able to fulfill both your nutrition and hydration needs with one substance. It saves hassling with food.
2. Using a sports drink mix will lower the freezing point ever so slightly compared to plain water.
3. The flavor!

It wasn’t always this way. For the longest time, since sports drinks often taste terrible warm, you either carried plain water or green tea with honey as a makeshift winter beverage.

Today, you can choose from ready-to-mix sports drinks that are designed to taste best when warm!

Sports drinks to mix with hot water

The most popular option is the Hot Apple Cider mix from Skratch Labs. It is designed to be mixed into hot water. It tastes like warm apple cider, but hydrates like a sports drink.

More recently, DripDrop ORS released a line of “hot” flavors, including: Honey Lemon Ginger, Spiced Apple Cider, Hibiscus, and Decaf Green Tea.

How much to drink?

Something to keep in mind is that you might not need as much fluid in the winter as you do during the summer when you’re sweating buckets. In cold conditions, your sweat rate is surely going to be lower than during the summer.

But you also lose more moisture through respiration in the cold months. Does it even out?

I’m not sure. Studies are conflicting. Fortunately, the sweat rate test mentioned above still works perfectly. Whether it’s summer or winter, the sweat rate test results are personalized to you. (It doesn’t matter if you’re losing water through sweat or respiration, the same testing protocol works.) It’s a good indicator of how well you are doing with your hydration practices.

WARNING: Riding in cold weather is hard.

One more thing… Don’t forget the logistics of riding in the cold. That’s just as important as what food and drink you choose. Heck, maybe even more important!

For example, you can keep food warm by placing it closer to your body. But even a warm drink could still become inaccessible if your water bottle valve freezes shut. It’s tricky.

And the longer your ride, the more difficult it becomes to choose the perfect outfit and the perfect snacks. So make sure you are prepared.

That’s all covered here: Read This BEFORE Your First Ride in the Cold

 

This article was originally published on December 3, 2005. It was updated and republished on December 12, 2021.

Photo credit: Leonid Mamchenkov

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2 Comments
  1. Now, this is a first. A health/fitness dude promoting junk food!

    I’ll have my Snickers, sir! Thank you

  2. I believe it was published in some magazine that Snickers packs much more of a punch than any gel or bar, ounce for ounce. That’s probably due to the high fat, but that’s not really an issue during slow winter rides.

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