8 Reasons to Ditch the Trainer and Ride Outside This Winter

My favorite riding conditions!

As we recently witnessed the first snow of the season here in Pennsylvania, my mountain biking friends and acquaintances seem to be dividing into two camps–those that love winter and embrace the white stuff with open arms, and those that relegate themselves to indoor workouts on the trainer until spring, claiming that below-freezing temperatures are no condition to ride outside.

I personally love winter, fat biking, and riding in the snow, and I think that more people should give it a shot before they knock it. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Cold air is invigorating and intensifies the benefits of exercise.

Feeling lethargic and tired? Head outside and feel the cold wind on your face to wake you right up. While I wouldn’t replace my morning cup of coffee with it (nothing ever replaces my coffee), I find that a spin outside, even a short one, is a good cure for the late afternoon slumps.

In addition, cold air actually intensifies the benefits of working out–from physical ones such as caloric burn and increased cardiovascular strength, to mental ones such as decreased stress and an elevated mood. I can personally attest that a bike ride in the cold is generally more uplifting and invigorating than one in the hot, humid summer months.

Photo: Evan Gross
A cold-weather ride is always rewarding. Photo: Evan Gross

2. Being outside helps prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Colder temperatures and waning daylight hours cause a lot of people to feel more depressed in the winter, a condition known at Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD, a very appropriate acronym). People who are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety on a regular basis are more prone to SAD symptoms, but even those with a normally-happy demeanor are at risk the winter blues, especially those living in environments that are exceptionally cold and dark during this time of year.

Getting outside can help treat the symptoms of SAD, as well as prevent it from occurring. Continuing to do your regular activities through the winter helps to maintain a sense of routine. Even on a cloudy day, you’re still getting vitamin D from the sun, and even if most days of the week you can only get out at night, you’re still getting the benefits of a cold weather ride mentioned in reason #1.

VIRB Picture
Even the winter sun is strong enough to provide benefits of vitamin D exposure. Photo: Evan Gross

3. Night riding adds an exciting element and makes familiar trails seem new.

I know that I personally get a little bummed out when it starts getting dark at 5pm. In the depths of winter, many of us go to work before dawn and come home after sunset. It’s hard to get motivated to go out and start a ride in the cold, dark world, but once you get out there, you may find that night riding is actually quite enjoyable and has plenty of merits in its own right.

Riding familiar trails in the snow, as well as at night, make them seem new and exciting again. Night riding is not something that I do very often in the summer, when there is much more daylight, so winter is a good opportunity to embrace the dark and use those lights!

4. It will make you mentally stronger.

It’s not easy to brave the cold and potential discomfort of venturing outdoors for hours in the middle of winter. Staying in and riding on the trainer in a climate-controlled house or gym seems very appealing when the temperature drops and the weather becomes less hospitable. Having the mental fortitude to head outside despite the weather will ultimately make you a stronger person, and more able to put up with uncomfortable conditions while riding in all situations.

Just keep pedaling. Photo: Evan Gross
Just keep pedaling. Photo: Evan Gross

5. Riding outside is a better physical workout.

While you’re gaining mental fortitude outside in the cold, your body also becomes stronger than it would working out on a trainer. Regardless of how hard you try to make your indoor workout, the natural environment will always have the advantage of unpredictability and conditions that just cannot be replicated–like slogging uphill in 6 inches of powder (aka lots of hike-a-bike).

Your body will also become more adaptable. It will have to work harder to maintain your core temperature and pump blood to your extremities, making your heart stronger and your body more hearty in general. You will burn more calories than you would by doing the same ride in more temperate conditions.

A hike-a-bike through powder will make you strong! Photo: Evan Gross
A hike-a-bike through powder will make you strong! Photo: Evan Gross

6. It will make for better memories… and stories! 

No one has ever said, “Man, that was a sick ride on the trainer!” Yes, part of riding in the winter is staying in shape for the rest of the year, but if you’re not riding outside, you’re missing another huge part of the equation–the experience of being out there, seeing different places, and dealing with different conditions.

Some of my most memorable rides have been in the winter. Like riding to work on a frozen lake, venturing out onto a frozen creek after temperatures had been in the single digits for days, joining other crazies to tackle our local winter fat bike race and pass whiskey around the fire after, or cutting fresh tracks through powder on untouched gravel roads right from my back door.

A very memorable ride: A group of us riding on the frozen Raystown Lake.

7. It’s not as prohibitive as you may think. 

One of the big excuses I tend to hear people use for not riding all winter is “I don’t have the gear.” It’s true, having a fat bike (if you live somewhere that gets a lot of snow) and nice, warm, cold-weather cycling apparel does wonders and adds to the enjoyment of the experience. But, I rode in the winter for several years before I had any of these things, and I had a blast. In fact, it’s what made me fall in love with mountain biking in general.

Make do with what you have. No fat bike? There are probably still plenty of places you could ride, at least most of the season. No SPD-compatible winter riding boots? Switch to flats for the winter and wear hiking boots (riding flats will help make you stronger too). No cycling-specific winter apparel? Layer up with what you have–as long as you’re not out there in jeans and a cotton shirt, you’ll be fine. Alec wrote this great article last year on how to make a bomber winter riding kit on a budget, so check it out for some of his tips on how to stay warm while keeping your wallet happy.

No fat tires needed! Or pants, apparently. Photo: Sarah Anne Wharton
No fat tires needed! Or pants, apparently. Photo: Sarah Anne Wharton

8. It’s more fun.

Yup, riding outside in the winter is, in general, harder than relegating yourself to the trainer and hunkering down until spring. But, that doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?

I know many people don’t like the cold. I am one of the few who don’t mind it, as long as I’m moving. But the truth is, it’s not that bad, once you’re geared up and out in it. Give it a shot, and I’m betting you’ll like it more than you expect.


So now you’re thinking maybe this winter riding thing is a good idea. Check out this article I wrote last year on some tips for continuing your mountain bike adventures into the colder months, and get out there!