Words by Steve Thomas
As soon it turns dull and wet for any length of time, I find a terrible 'down' feeling sets in. It’s really not easy to counter it, and as for going out into that dark, unwelcoming and shorts-dampening stuff – it's even harder to talk myself into it. I guess winter can be like that for many people.
The medical term for the blues and other symptoms caused by lack of sunlight is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Although personally, I'm never really sure if this is what's affecting me, I just know it's downright depressing – but also fairly predictable, which does make it easier to manage.
When things dry up, and the sun breaks through, no matter how cold it may be out there, my mood instantly picks up. It's as if a dark cloud has been lifted from over my head – which, of course, is absolutely true.
For much of my life, I worked from home and in remote areas, usually mountainous and with a tendency to be very wet during the winter months. I imagine that, during the lockdowns, many more people experienced some kind of depression, when they suddenly found themselves without a regular commitment to leaving the house at a set time, and also lost the opportunity to interact with other people – both of which are great distractions from this gloom and doom.
These winter blues may not affect everybody to the same extent, but when they do hit, they can hit really hard and linger on and can really take their toll. In my case, they have often stopped me from going out on the bike for long periods of time. This always leads to the inevitable fitness consequences that follow from those gaps in riding.
I can’t count the thousands of times that I’ve walked up and down to the window to see if the rain has eased enough to venture out or walked outside just to see just how bad it really is. Often I’ve even got myself dressed up to hit the trails only to be thwarted by yet another rain shower.
The thing is, procrastinating is just about the worst thing you can do in such situations. Waiting to see if things get better? Sure it can, and does, pay off sometimes. Unfortunately, all too often, the time and opportunity pass by, and the moment has gone, along with another day of riding and the much-needed endorphin hit.
This all means yet another hole in the fitness maintenance regime, which makes it even tougher to go out the day after, and then the one after that… depressing stuff.
Managing winter blues
So, how do you manage things and keep riding or in shape through these times? Well, I can only answer for myself based on my personal experience of dealing with it.
Routine and commitment play a major part in keeping going. It can be tough to stick to a plan if you don't have regular, enforced obligations, but it really does pay to come up with a structured routine that you can stick to during this time. As soon as you do start to slip then, everything can go downhill pretty rapidly, which makes getting back out there even harder. We all know how brutal it can be trying to get back in shape and shave off a few pounds when the outside outlook is bleak. This scenario only gets tougher as you get older.
As we can't control the weather, it's always a good idea to have a plan B for those times when things really are too bad to get out there on a bike. This could be factoring in two potential ride time slots in a day, or taking to your feet for a run or a short hill walk, or even hitting the gym or the dreaded turbo trainer.
As someone with an aversion to indoor training, the gym is always a last resort for me. I prefer to take a short, sharp and intense outside hill run or a hike in the wet. This is, of course, down to personal preference.
Going out for a short ride on a sure-fire wet and grim day is always a tough one to balance. The inevitable cleaning and laundry burden that follows is often simply not worth it, hence doing something else might be preferable – or riding longer, making that soaking more worthwhile. Plus, it's rarely as bad as you think, at least not once you do get out there.
Sign up and commit
Committing to rides with others or signing up for events are also great motivators. Knowing that you can't afford to turn up out of shape really does help you to keep going.
Having your bike and kit all set and ready to go, your route in mind and your ride plan A and B, and your time slot laid own on a good old piece of paper, are all things that can make it easier to stick to your commitment. Even if you’re not training for some kind of event, ride and exercise frequency and routine are key in dealing with the winter and staying in shape. Throw in the odd treat to help keep you motivated – rewards if you like, for reaching certain goals.
The physical and mental health benefits of keeping on top of your regime during the winter are huge, which is why it’s not a good idea to skip much more than a beat or two. It does take some self-discipline, but being fairly strict with yourself is well worth the effort. And you will appreciate the rewards of actually getting out there.
If you do start to slide down that motivation and fitness slope it can be a slippery clamber back up. Being aware of that and stepping sideways if and when a downward turn starts is essential, even if it can be tough at times.