10 December 2012

Keeping toes warm while cycling

It's December. The good news is that it's almost Christmastime! The bad news is that London has been experiencing a colder than average winter thus far, and it isn't even officially winter yet.

Whereas last year there were three weekends in February that we didn't go riding because the temperature had been below freezing overnight and we worried about ice, nights below freezing have been the norm these last few weeks. This has introduced a new barrier to my winter cycling -- cold feet.

Alberto has an uncanny ability to never experience cold (you probably don't want to witness the debates in our house about when to put the heating on!), but I've always been particularly susceptible to it, and especially my feet. In 'average' winter conditions of 6 or 7 C (low 40s F) my feet become uncomfortably cold, but not unbearably so.

However, last weekend I headed out for some Regents Park laps at 2 C (35 F), and my feet were painfully cold from almost the moment I left home. I only cycled for an hour, but an hour was enough to convince me that I really need to find a solution as we have a long winter ahead of us, and the predictions are that we are going to continue to experience a below-average winter.

My system for keeping my feet warm on Saturday was as follows:
  • Thick wool socks 
  • Sealskinz mid-weight waterproof socks over the wool socks
  • Normal cycling shoes (MTB/touring style, mainly leather body)
  • Thin plasticky overshoes on top

Now, I know this system isn't perfect. First of all, there is a school of thought that doesn't believe in layering so many socks in a normal cycling shoe as apparently it could restrict blood circulation to your feet. My shoes are on the large side so I don't think it is an issue for me. 

Secondly, the overshoes aren't particularly insulating. I bought them because they were on sale and fit my abnormally large shoes (as in, the shoes are quite bulky as cycling shoes go. My feet are actually on the small size!). But I'm not sure I want to invest in a pair of good overshoes as there doesn't seem to be any consensus that they can actually keep feet dry and warm. 

Despite these shortcomings, however, I was honestly surprised that my feet were so cold so quickly. I  think there must be something else I'm doing wrong. Some googling helped me come up with what I think is the most probable cause: my feet are too cold to begin with. 

Basically, as the internet argument goes, if your feet are borderline cold when you're getting ready for your ride, they have no hope of warming up and will basically just continue to get colder and colder for the duration of the time you're out in the cold. I have no idea if there is any basis in fact for this theory but it resonates with me, because I spend a lot of time with my feet feeling just on the okay side of cold.  That's just the way my feet have always been. 

So now I think I understand the cause of my problems but I don't necessarily have a solution. We don't have a fireplace or space heater that I can use to heat my feet up in advance of a ride, so as far as I can see I have a few options:
  • get warmer slippers/socks to wear around the house to try and keep my feet warmer in general
  • stick chemical warmers inside my cycling shoes
  • Rule Number 5
I haven't yet decided what I'll try next, but in the meantime if you have any suggestions for keeping feet warm while cycling please do let me know in the comments!


  1. I'm currently trialling Jim Mad Idea #245861:
    Put gloves and thinish socks on radiator, ideally overnight, but at worst, 1-2 hours before you leave (radiator must be warm at this point).
    Then put on gloves and socks just before you leave the house. These warm items should either be next to the skin or 1 thin layer away. Other layers can go on top. In this way, the extremities start off warm, and stay warm as the body heats them up with some brisk cycling.

    Extension of this theory is that when your extremities get cold, your body shuts down blood supply to these areas, so they stay cold. Hence keeping them warm stops this shut-off, and therefore preventing them getting into a state that it is very difficult to get them out of.

    I'll keep you updated on success. This morning was very cold, but I drove due to returning boxes back to the removals company later on today.

  2. Thanks, this sounds like a good possibility! At the moment I am really struggling even on short commutes. I don't know whether winter boots are the next logical step but I want to avoid splashing out for that if I can.

  3. First test - I think my 2nd socks are too thin! Put them on, and they were lovely and warm. Sat down to put my shoes on, and they had already lost all their heat.
    Gloves - a lot better, but spent so much time faffing around with keys, locks, lights, etc that they had lost most of their heat.

    Didn't seem to be much better this morning, but there again, it was a lot colder.

  4. Last audax I did in November, with temperatures close or below 0C, I wore a pair of thick wool socks, and on top of that, a pair of windstopper socks. Used my "racing" mtb shoes (with plenty of ventilation - great for the Spanish summer!) and never felt cold feet throughout the day. I suppose having neoprene overshoes might also help. But then again, I barely feel cold on my extremities when out on a cold ride...!

    Also, a few people I talked to recently, said they were using heat cartridges that they put in between overshoes and shoes. Apparently they worked well, though I think that's a bit of an overkill...?

  5. I've got the same problem with my hands, and I think you're kind of on to something. We had two mornings last week, one at 21 degrees, the other at 19 degrees where I had to wear my bulky ski mittens on the commute. The first day (22 degrees), I lifted weights (inside) before the commute. My hands were comfortable all the way in. The second morning, we ran outside, and my hands were cold as can be after that. Even though I left for work about 20 minutes after running and my hands were comfortable again, they got cold on the way in by bike. I presumed it was from being cold already.

    Unfortunately, I'm not sure how to prevent it in the long run...my hands are like your feet, perpetually cold!

  6. I've tried skiing gloves a few times on my commuter (no gears) when it gets well below freezing (which isn't very often in London UK!) and that works very well. But I can imagine they would not be at all pleasant with STI shifters or traditional mtb ones. Should be fine with bar end levers though, or indeed singlespeed/fixed bikes. Just another idea!