Warm cycling feet. Because sometimes Rule #5 can bite me.

I’ve been at this a while, so you think I’d have this dialed by now but every year I still struggle to get it exactly right. Part of the problem is that most days I just grumble about hardman something-or-other or Rule #5 and then roll out the door with normal socks and normal shoes and normal overshoes. And I wonder why I return with numb feet. Or I get home and congratulate myself on suffering through with numb feet because, Rule Number Five.

But this weekend I snapped. The weather was (finally) mercifully dry, but still a little cold. Saturday’s 4-hour rollabout featured 2 hours of numb feet. On Sunday morning, I decided to take action. The combo I dreamed up was a smash success; here’s what worked for me.

  1. Ski socks. Wool cycling socks are neat. And sometimes warm enough. But not always. I upgraded to full-on ski socks. The thick kind that I keep in the bottom drawer of my dresser. A drawer that is labeled, with tape, “FAT SOCKS.” Fat wool socks. That’s where I started.
  2. Hand warmers duct-taped to the top of my toes. I know this seems excessive, but I contend that the stick-on, foot-shaped, footie warmers do not actually retain heat as well as the fatter, free-floating hand warmer pouches. Adding hand-warmer pouches to already thick socks requires a lot of extra space in your shoe, which leads me to the next layer. I think the taped-on hand warming pouches was the most important part of this toasty-foot success story.
  3. Winter cycling boots 1-2 sizes above normal. Mine are Sidi Hydros that I acquired for a peloton magazine review several years ago. They probably aren’t the warmest winter boots on the market, but they block more wind than a normal shoe which is key. Most important though is making sure they’re a size or two too big so you have room for a thick sock and a hand warmer while still allowing air circulation. (I used to overstuff my cycling shoes with extra layers of socks, but cutting off the airflow surrounding the foot is actually counter-productive.)
  4. Good windproof overshoe. I used Endura’s neoprene road overshoe which I bought in 2011 at a local bike shop, River City Cycles. I have beaten these overshoes to shit, and though the neoprene is finally tearing a bit here and there, they still perform their main duties perfectly.

I once read that slathering your feet in antiperspirant works surprisingly well, though I haven’t been desperate enough to try that yet.

What are your best warm-feet strategies?

29 Responses to “Warm cycling feet. Because sometimes Rule #5 can bite me.”

  1. John says:

    Place a layer of bubble wrap between the overshoes and the shoes. However, this might create airflow problems.

    • Heidi Swift says:

      Haven’t tried this, but it’s worth a shot. I do sometimes wear “wind socks” (I think mine are Castelli) over my sock layer. Those seem to help as well.

      • Richard Clayton says:

        I keep 2 flip top sandwich bags in my bag. They go over my socks with the flap under my foot. Great for weight weenies. The really work!!!

  2. Emma Bryant says:

    I almost wish it got cold enough here to warrant putting hand warmers in my shoes. I remember one ride when I was living in France where I tried to coat my feet in deep heat (that anti-imflammatory muscle rub stuff) to keep them warm. This provided a fairly unpleasant burning sensation that lasted the duration of the ride and most of the afternoon, and the smell stayed in my shoes right through summer. I discovered the joy of oversocks not long after that experience.

  3. Stephanie says:

    My feet are the hardest part to deal with. I hate it! Your solution is sorta close to mine:
    - Medium wool socks (not too thick to maintain airflow in my regular shoes. I’m too poor and the weather too unpredictable in the Mid-Atlantic to invest in winter-specific shoes.)
    - Mylar blanket cut to a square just big enough to cover the front half of my foot
    - Shoe
    - Chemical hand warmer over toebox
    - Neoprene shoe covers

    I find that not trying to stuff the chemical warmer inside the shoe, thus allowing my tootsies plenty of wiggle room, is the key.

  4. FL says:

    I do the exact same as you but without the shoe covers. One thing I have noticed but have not figured out how to fix is that the outside toe area of the shoes get extremely cold because of the wind. So it makes sense that the inside toe box ends up getting really cold. Maybe a little bubble wrap or some foam between the shoe and shoe cover would add an air pocket for insulation.

    You can also replace the insole with thicker and more insulated one. Typical cycling insoles are super thin.

  5. Annie. says:

    First question I asked myself upon reading your article was: What the heck is Rule #5 (I’ll look it up) and: How cold was it?

    I usually wear a pair of SealSkinz socks (windproof, waterproof, the “midweight” version if it’s really cold and the “thin” version on warmer days) in my normal cycling shoes. Also, I have put a thin insolating inner sole between the usual inner sole and cleat section of the shoe. That works great.

    Finally, I top that up with 1 – 3 pairs of overshoes, depending on how humid and how cold it is: I’ve got a battered old pair that is like a neoprene sock, then a thin or a thick wind- and waterproof SealSkinz pair.

    This way, I have never had even slightly cold feet (provided that I eat and drink enough) for the usual 2,5 – 5 hour rides at 5 – -2° Celsius. If its colder, I more often than not only opt for rides of 2 – 3 hours on my cyclocross bike.

    Also, as it is important for me not only what I wear on my feet, but also, what I eat and drink, on very cold days, I have a backpack with hot tea (and electrolytes and Maltodextrin etc.) below my jacket: So my body stays warm (head to toe) as does the tea. (And I don’t mind my similarity to Quasimodo.)

    • Heidi Swift says:

      Hi Annie,

      It was 4°C that day. Not the coldest temp I ride in by any means, but cold enough to give me numb feet after about 45 minutes.

      At Cyclocross Nationals in 2009 I raced in -13°C temperatures and got frostbite on my toes. Lost both big toenails in the process. Since then, keeping my feet warm has been a lot more challenging.

      The insulating layer is a brilliant idea and I’m impressed that you wear up to 3 pairs of overshoes! Your points about hot liquids and staying fueled and hydrated are also great reminders. Thank you!

  6. Annie. says:

    PS: I read (overflew) the rules. I don’t like them :D ( “don’t like” as in “I don’t give a shit”)

  7. Kym Accleton says:

    Hello from a fellow cold-footer! Having reasonably poor circulation in my toes I have been advised to try never letting my feet get cold in the first place because it takes so long for them to warm up again. Being new to cycling I decided that I wasn’t going to ever let myself get chilly through complacency or hurry. To this end, I begin my feet layering with some thin merino socks topped of with ski-socks. Then my regular shoes (a lucky ebay purchase that fortunately allow me to fit the extra sock), all rounded of with snug covers. I can’t believe how long it takes at the moment to get dressed up and out on the bike, but layering definitely seems key. I’m so going to appreciate the warmer days!

  8. GS Spadoni says:

    When Greg LeMond found himself living in Minnesota, when it started to get cold, he went to REI and bought a pair of insulated hiking boots two sizes too big. He took them home, and using a grinder, removed enough of the soles so that he could attach what were at the time, the new fangled Look cleats. He wore three pairs of socks and was able to ride though the winter, as long as the roads were clear of snow.
    If you are not riding in The Land Of Ten Thousand Lakes, Greg’s method may be overkill, but there are a couple of ideas. First, get some bigger shoes for winter. You need the circulation to stay warm. Yeah, they feel sloppy but a bit of foot float is better than cold feet. Follow with the various sock shoe cover combos you mention.
    Second, consider changing your pedal and shoe choices. If you are not traing for the Tour, you may not want to go all in like GLM, but a pair of platform pedals would let you ride with some heavier shoes on colder days, and you could wear real boots on vey cold days. I was able to ride every day in December when we had highs in the low 20s here in pdx, using platform pedals and some winter boots a guest from Michigan had left in my front hall closet. Not the most elegant set up, but it beat riding the trainer in the house.

  9. Jen says:

    Great tips except I would not size up on the SIDIs or any other winter shoe. They actually come about a 1/2-1 size larger as is because they expect you to use a thicker sock. I bought mine a size larger and regret it.

  10. Jill says:

    I was just going to write something on Geargals about my little tricks for this. First off, I use Lake winter cycling boots if it’s below 45 degrees or if it’s a cold, rainy day of almost any temperature. Screw those fussy little “rules;” cold injuries are not worth it. Trust me, they add up over time.

    Cycling shoes are terrible for allowing feet to get too cold because they have way too many vents and are far too tight and foot-squashing. Those companies really think everyone cycles in balmy and perfect 78 degree weather all the time and no one needs their feet healthy for anything else. As an Alaskan, I think most winter cycling shoes are a total joke and I can’t even be bothered with them. The only thing that works well are the winter-specific boots like Lake or 45North, and even they require a “system:”

    Regular Lakes (a size or two big, this is key) down to 35 degrees, below that I add a foot warmer (the trick with the sticky ones is to let them heat up a little longer before containing them in your boot). I also use gaiters to keep the heat from escaping the top of the boot, which helps a ton. Below THAT I use a combo of antiperspirant spray and cayenne pepper sprinkled in my socks. Below ten degrees or so I might add an overboot, or switch to electric warmers (I usually use them in my ski boots but they work great in cycling boots as well). I also take aspirin which helps with circulation. Even then at that temperature, and below zero, I can only stay out for a few hours before my feet start getting cold.

    I also find that wearing more layers on legs is a key component. Keeping that blood as warm as possible before it gets to the legs helps a lot. If its raining, I wear rain pants. If it’s just cold, I bundle up on my lower body. If it’s REALLY cold I wear the rain pants over all the other layers. It does help.

    One of the reasons I have to be so diligent is that I let my feet get too cold too many times over the years living in the Arctic. Take care of those feet!

    • Heidi Swift says:

      Jill, I was hoping you’d chime in. Great stuff here, I certainly do not have experience with Alaska-style conditions. I might have picked up the antiperspirant thing from you originally. Now that you bring it back up, I might actually try it the next time the temperature takes a true digger.

      • Jill says:

        Of course I will! You know I can’t resist cold weather topics :)

        I think the cayenne pepper is the best thing I’ve tried so far. It’s pretty amazing. I have not had cold feet since I started using it. Really keeps the blood flowing!

  11. @heidiswift says:

    Happening now in the comments section: Good conversation on keeping feet warm while #cycling in cold temps. http://t.co/LXpbY3f9a8 #bicyling

  12. MT @heidiswift: In comments section: Good conversation on keeping feet warm while #bicycling in cold temps. http://t.co/377VPaaoaK

  13. @lmlipman says:

    MT @heidiswift: Good conversation on keeping feet warm while #cycling in cold temps. http://t.co/lZMxn1Mn19 #bicyling

  14. Cate says:

    No cold feet in my climate. Probably about 2 weeks in winter it gets close but no banana.

    On another topic. You label your drawers?

  15. Ann says:

    Great stuff here, thanks! I live in Omaha, where it’s been just miserable for months. Last winter I made it through the 20-30-ish (F) days when roads were clear w/wool socks, Keen cleated sandals, & a plastic bread bag over each sock – this was so I could ride my Surly, which is my only bike w/clipless pedals. Biggest problem with the bags is that my feet would sweat. On the snowy or very cold days or icy/slushy/otherwiseshitty-road days, I rode my kid’s outgrown aluminum hybrid that I made into a snow bike (studded tires & flat, grabby pedals) in regular winter hiking boots and was fine. The weather changed too often to swap out tires or pedals on a daily basis, so that worked. THIS winter, we’ve had weeks and weeks of subzero temps, but not much snow, so I buckled down and bought winter boots with cleats to keep riding the Surly Crosscheck(I love the Surly). I read about Lakes and wish I’d bought them, but I took a slightly cheaper option – Diadoras. I do like the boots but they definitely don’t handle anything longer than a short ride when it’s below zero (F). They also run very small. I bought them a 1/2 size big but they’re snug over just the 1pr of (thick wool) socks. Everything but my toes stays warm, though. Rest of me: Surly knee-high wool socks (sometimes w/thin wool liners), Terry winter tights, Eddie Bauer First Ascent hoodie & same brand fleece pullover (love the zip pocket on the breast – that’s where my phone &Chapstick go), Columbia furry fleece neck gaiter, & sometimes I start off with a thin wool beanie too, but that comes off as soon as I start to warm up. I always take my cheap neon yellow jacket – it was 20 bucks & feels like plastic-coated paper, but it is definitely wind-proof. The biggest concern for me is getting too warm & then sweating, which could be deadly if I have to stop to fix a flat or handle some other repair in subzero temps (with -30 wind chills like we’ve had) … I check my bike obssessively in the winter.

  16. heather says:

    Great to hear from you again! Cold feet are a huge problem for me, and women in general are more prone to cold feet. You might want to check it out as poor circulation can be a symptom of many things, but usually one of those things you have to manage. I just do not go for long winter rides because the pain is too unbearable. Being a total spazz, I do not use clipped in cycling shoes, I just use street pedals and street shoes. I have very small/wide feet, so have never found cycling shoes that fit either. I have to wear the warmest boots possible in cold weather. My morning commutes have been very cold lately for the PNW, and we recently got bombed with snow, so extra chilly. My feet get so cold. It may look ridiculous, but if cold and dry I wear bright pink sheep lined emu boots(cheaper version of uggs), that I got years ago. Impossible to walk in, but great for cycling. I put on a few layers of socks and it keeps the cold at bay, although I found the longer I was out, the colder I got. I’d have to do alot of hill climbing to warm my feet up. I also have a cool pair of winter boots lined with fun fur, but made an insole with a bit of real fur, but still not enough. I have ordered a pair of sheepskin lined boots and will see if that helps.
    I used to bike in saskatchewan in the winter and do not remember having such cold feet….
    another trick is plastic bags, especially if it is wet. Put them on over socks. Even with rubber boots or overbooties, the plastic helps a bit.
    Socks should have the highest wool content possible. I find the socks with lots of spandex or lycra fit too tightly on my feet and restricts blood flow. Even if wearing super warm looking ski socks, my feet will be blocks of ice. So, lots of wool, less elastic/lycra. hand knitted even better.

    • Jill says:

      Hi Heather, sorry for stepping in, but I wanted to tell you – the warmest footwear I have EVER had on my feet were caribou-fur boots. They were amazing. I wore them snowmachining (fast – lots of wind) when it was -20F ambient. I never got cold, even though all they had for a sole was a felt pad. Real fur truly is the best insulator. If I could have caribou fur cycling boots or even cycling overboots I would go for it in a heartbeat.

  17. heather says:

    If you got frost bite on your toes, you are going to have trouble for the rest of your life and need to take extra care. I managed to get through decades of frigid weather with only a bit of frostbite on the tips of my ears, and boy do they give me grief to this day.
    An option for cold weather is to ride with regular shoes and pedals. My husband’s winter season bike has those toe hook things so he can wear big boots if he has to. So, even with a road bike, you could try those old school straps and shiny bike jewellry clips with super warm boots. I have very cold hands too, but they will warm up fairly quickly when cycling, but my feet almost never do, which is an issue. I have tried cayenne pepper, and those warmers. I really ought to try them again, but my feet were still blocks of ice except for where the little warmer was, which created a tingly burning pain.