Five Sure-Fire Strategies + Favorite Recipes for Fueling in the Cold

They say there’s “no bad weather, just bad gear,” but they left out the part about “sub-par snack strategies!” When winter weather hits, your gear is important but the strategies and recipes you use for fueling in the cold are the keys to enjoying every minute of your chilly runs, rides and ski sessions.

This week, I had the opportunity to chat with the Rapha global community ahead of the #Festive500 and share some smart strategies I use to fuel in the cold. These sure-fire strategies aren’t limited to cycling; no matter how you’re moving in the cold, the rules apply: stay hydrated, carb up, keep it flavorful, balance your body with opposites, and you’ll keep moving powerfully through winter + all it’s passtimes.

1. Stay hydrated. Seriously. 

If you’re riding the F500 in cold temperatures, like many of us, you’re going to be losing precious body heat out there and dehydrating fast out there. How do I know? We don’t have fur. And, our bodies don’t naturally burn fat to create heat (don’t get any wild ideas here, keto folks.) Our fur-free little bodies respond very specifically in the cold. The cold temps and our movement through the weather is causing our blood vessels to constrict, chilling our lungs, and we’re sweating and expelling heat all over the place. Thus, we dehydrate and get chilled far faster than we realize. Not to mention that our thirst response dulls in the cold.

Warming your hydration mix is a smart play for cold days.

I’m going to leave the nitty-gritty science to my dear friend Dr. Allen Lim who wrote this great piece on staying hydrated (and why you MUST do it,) in the cold. It turns out that staying hydrated is key to fueling well because without hydration, we can’t digest our fuel, keep our organs warm and that leads to other problems.

Putting heat, and hydration, back into our bodies is the high-tech way we can as we’re moving in the cold is the only way to counteract this dehydration response. And there are some really easy ways to do that.

Have an insulated bottle. And, fill that bottle with warm liquids before you leave the house, preferably something that contains electrolytes. Skratch Labs Apples + Cinnamon or Untapped Maple Ginger Aide make great warm hydration mixes for the winter. Even warm miso broth or soup are helpful and delicious!

2. Pack snacks. Carby carby snacks.

When we’re fueling in the cold, our bodies prioritize carbohydrates and stored glycogen. That’s right – carbs are the answer! If we want to perform well in the cold, we need to give our bodies the fuel it’s asking for, and that comes from complex carbohydrates and simple sugars too.

Date Bombs are the bomb for winter pursuits.

Here’s what’s happening:

No matter how comfortable we feel in the cold, how beautiful the landscape and how peaceful the snow and ice, our bodies enter fight or flight mode behind the scenes. This basic stress fires up our sympathetic nervous system and we start burning our precious fuel stores (read: glycogen.) If we don’t replace those stores with more glycogen (again, carbs) we start to get loopy, irritable, confused and start to experience all sorts of symptoms that make it tricky to ride a bike safely on snow and ice. (or skiing sick pow in the backcountry.) Super cold extremities, excessive shivering, and poor judgement to boot.

So, when fueling in the cold, pick a carbohydrate-rich snack that includes a bit of protein and a tiny bit of fat for delicious staying power, if you aren’t pushing very hard that is.

So what snacks to pack for the cold?

This is tricky, right?! First, we ideally want something with a bit of moisture. This is where a dry energy bar is a no-go unless you have a nice supply of hydration to enjoy with it. Fueling up with broth, or soup – again in that thermos – is excellent.

Lately, I’ve been making these Date Bombs and they’re fantastic for fueling in the cold. Dates are easy to digest, don’t freeze, and are friendly even for those with grain intolerance. And, these Date Bombs are actually benefitted by the cold because the chocolate coating won’t melt! Hee!

For all your other snacks, I recommend keeping them close to your body or wrapped in your backpack, bar bag or jersey pocket to prevent them from freezing.

Here are a few favorite recipes for fueling in the cold:

3. Recover RIGHT.

And by that, I mean right AWAY. Just like during warmer months, your body has about a 45 minute window after activity to recover glycogen stores burned up in an endurance effort like a 2-3 hour + ride. If we miss that window, our performance and recovery will start to suffer immediately. And, our bodies have specific requests for that meal; they need complex carbohydrates to recover, as well as a strong source of protein and fat for assimilation and rebuilding. So, if you’re going to be eating a significant meal again within 3 hours of finishing your ride, this meal can be more “snack-sized,” but if you have a while before dinner, treat this recovery meal like a proper big lunch.

The best foods to have when you’re re- fueling in the cold, or after a long ride are grounding, nutritionally dense ones that you’ve given some thought to. Breakfast is important, but this is just as important. (By the way, whatever you would eat for breakfast would probably be a great meal after your ride too!)

Here’s what I do:

Immediately off the bike or out of my ski boots, I warm some water. I keep some of this homemade cacao mix in a jar and swirl some into a mug with a splash of whole milk to enjoy in the shower. (Lately, I’ve been making an upleveled version of this mix – the Date-and-Coconut Cacao I shared with subscribers!)

After a quick rinse, I head to the kitchen. I usually have a pot of soup warming in my Instant Pot, awaiting my return, or I have a rice cooker full of warm rice waiting to be dolled up into a rice bowl. Occasionally, I have to cook up something quick like a fried rice or even crispy rice.

These are things I love to make to enjoy post-ride:

Crispy and eggs!

VERY BASIC (and truly the best ) CRISPY RICE:

Warm 2 Tbsp ghee, butter or olive oil in a small skillet. While the rice is warming, stir  2 cups cooked short-grain white or brown rice, chilled overnight, and 1½ tsp. kosher salt in a bowl and make sure there aren’t any massive lumps. (This makes sure you don’t fling rice all over your stovetop.) When the oil is hot, press the rice into the skillet in an even, compact layer. Cook until deeply browned underneath, 6–8 minutes.

While the rice mixture is cooking, make the dressing. Whisk together 2 Tbsp. gochujang2 Tbp. soy sauce2 tsp. honey, remaining 4 tsp. toasted sesame oil, remaining 2 tsp. unseasoned rice vinegar, and 1–2 Tbsp. water in a small bowl. Taste for heat: You can add more gochujang if it’s not spicy enough or more water if it’s too fiery. Set dressing aside.

When the rice is golden and crispy, turn it out into bowls. Top with fried eggs, any vegetables you may like but do NOT allow the vegetables to eclipse the amount of carbohydrates, or protein and fats here. Oh! And add your prepared dressing. Enjoy immediately!

4. Fuel with FLAVOR

Flavors aren’t just for fun. Flavors give our bodies specific clues about the nutritive values of our foods, and we can use these flavor cravings + clues to fuel our bodies better. All sweet-flavored foods – and not just SWEETS – have the power to soothe our systems, reduce inflammation, rehydrate, and rebuild our bodies and they’re the best things to eat during – and after – our rides. But, if we’re speaking broadly, aiming to get a bit of each of the Six Flavors we perceive is highly beneficial. Making sure you have something sweet, salty, pungent, bitter, sour and astringent at each meal will boost your performance, and your general enjoyment of food too.

Sweeten the deal

Ingredients like grains, root vegetables, meat, legumes, nuts eggs, dairy, fruits and sweeteners like maple syrup and dates…most of the foods we eat, except for lemons, vegetables and specifically leafy greens fall into the beneficial sweet catagory. So, the next time you have a craving for something sweet – specifically after a big bike ride or cold day outside – listen beyond the call for cake. Tune in and give your body what it’s asking for. These are great winter ingredients to weave into your ride fuel and recovery meals:

And, while we’re at it, it’s worth mentioning that if you’re going to enjoy a sweet treat, something immediately following your winter workout is the best time to get it in your body so it benefits you, for real. (During and after rides and ski outings are some of the only times I really crave cookies. So when I want one, I go for it!)

5. Balance with opposites.

No matter how hard you’re working out there, riding, skiing, running and moving in the cold is hard work for our bodies. The temperatures are cold, the wind is rough, the experience is intense. The wisdom of Ayurveda – a 7000-year-old medicinal system originating in India, tells us that like increases like, and that opposites balance. And this wisdom makes perfect sense with respect to fueling in the cold.

The cure for freezing toes and fingers is not an ice bath – it’s a hot shower. The best way to help your internal body recover is with something warming. The way for your body to recover from a hard, gut-wrenching, mentally-tough effort is with something soothing. We can do this – it just makes sense!

What does this mean for fueling? Recovering after a cold effort with a cold salad is like cuddling up with an ice pack. Your body hates it. And no, as it turns out – this kind of refueling only helps to put you into a deficit – and not the kind that inspires lasting weight loss or beach body goals.

Ancient wisdom is conventional wisdom

Ayurveda (and conventional wisdom) tell us to pick soothing, warm, sweet foods that calm and comfort you. It’s ok if this is a cookie or a slice of cake but maybe don’t eat a whole box. Pick whole, real foods – and not foods from packages if you can. Cuddle up, spend some time by the fire. Stretch out your muscles, and do something calming to help your brain recover from the effort and get ready for tomorrow. The opposite of cold, windy, tough, hard efforts are warm, comforting, soothing easy meals and evenings after a big day. Balance your body with the opposites.

And by the way: if a beer or a glass of nog sneaks its way into your fueling or recovery, give yourself a break. Exercising in the cold can be miserable, but the key to turning on the power and joy of this kind of requires knowing the sweet side of the post-ride relaxation. And that starts with using delicious, smart foods for fueling in the cold!