Bike commuting is becoming increasingly popular all over the world. You may be concerned about the fact that cycling comes at the expense of sweating and you want to find ways to reduce sweating to a minimum. But how do you bike to work without getting sweaty?
Sweating while biking to work can be significantly reduced by pedaling less intensely, wearing appropriate clothing and using panniers instead of a backpack. An e-bike is a good solution if you want to go as sweat free as possible.
Before getting into detail about the specific things you can do to reduce sweating, let’s see if it’s sweating that you’re really concerned about.
Sweat vs smell
First off, we need to distinguish between sweat and smell. Sweat itself is odorless, but it may result in body odor if it is metabolized by bacteria. Depending on some factors it may result in that distinct onion smell that you can identify immediately.
It can be very uncomfortable to be around and the possibility of smelling bad throughout the day may completely put you off from bike commuting. Thankfully there are ways to reduce body odor as a bike commuter, and I suggest some practical tips in this article.
Of course, odor isn’t the only reason why you want to avoid perspiration. It isn’t a pleasant feeling to sweat for half an hour or more at the workplace even after you’ve arrived. If you don’t have showering facilities and you’re genetically inclined to sweat easily, there are a few things you can do to reduce perspiration to a minimum.
Pedal at the right pace
When you ride your bike you generate some headwind, which cools you down in return. You’ve probably seen motorcyclists wearing quite warm clothing even in Summer time. It’s precisely because of the wind they’re exposed to. The major difference is that their speed doesn’t depend on their effort, but on that of the engine.
The faster you ride the stronger the headwind, the stronger the cooling effect. There’s a catch though. In order to go faster you need to put in more effort, which makes you sweat more.
Beyond 18 mph you have to work extra hard to overcome wind resistance, but the speed is not proportional to the extra effort. When you go slower, the wind generated is sufficient to keep you cool, but when you go fast, the the wind can’t keep you cool enough.
There is a sweet spot, where you go fast enough to generate enough headwind to keep you cool without putting in too much effort to get too sweaty. In my case this is between 14 and 17.5 mph depending on terrain. I find this a fast enough, yet comfortable pace to move. This sweet spot varies from person to person depending on their fitness level, bike type, terrain, weather etc.
The way you dress affects a great deal how much you sweat. It is quite easy to misjudge the weather and to overdress, which causes you to sweat more. Since your body generates heat you always need to dress for the second mile of your ride, when your body reaches ‘operating temperature’. This varies from person to person and from season to season.
For 10 mile rides or longer it is recommended to wear cycling clothes. They don’t need to be lycra, but something breathable so perspiration can evaporate through the layers.
Personally, if the temperature is above 60F (15C), I wear a short-sleeve breathable t-shirt and shorts. Between 60 and 40F (4,5C and 15C) I add a thin, light jacket too and a long underlayer of trousers when it’s 45-40F (4,5C-7,2C). If it’s under 40F (4,5C) I change the light jacket for a warmer cycling top and wear long cycling pants. I’ve found that this combination keeps me sufficiently warm even in 5F (-15C). On the lower end of these regions it usually feels quite chilly initially, but I warm up after about 5 minutes of riding.
If you’re sensitive to cold it is recommended to wear several layers, so you can remove them as your body starts to generate heat.
It’s recommended to wear a nylon, polyester or merino wool base layer. These fabrics have good moisture wicking properties, which makes them ideal to deal with sweat. The best choice among them is merino wool, as it is the most efficient at controlling odors and can be used multiple times between washes without smelling bad. Nylon and polyester are synthetic fabrics, and they tend to retain odor more.
Panniers instead of backpack
A seasoned bike commuter wrote this in an online forum: ‘The only thing I regret about changing from a backpack to panniers after 5 years is that I didn’t do it sooner’. Panniers don’t look as sporty and stylish as backpacks, but one of the things they do really well is they allow ventilation to your back.
Some backpacks, such as the Osprey Radial, offer superior air ventilation, which is truly remarkable compared to other backpacks. They work so well that I use a backpack for commuting many days of the year.
But the truth is, no matter how expensive a backpack is and what advanced material it uses to keep the air flowing, it does push against your back and blocks ventilation. There is a difference between a regular backpack and a good backpack that allows for more ventilation, but the difference between any backpack and a pannier is even bigger. It can be a real game changer.
If you prefer having your own backpack when you get to your destination, you can also put a basket on your rear rack or find alternative ways to attach your backpack to your rack (like the AirPannier, which is one of my favorite products).
Your bike matters
If your commute is longer than 2-3 miles, it is worth investing in a decent bicycle. Don’t use a cheap department store bike if you have a long ride. I use a flat bar road bike, which is perfect for medium and long distance commutes. It is light and nimble.
I only realized how big a gap there is between a department store bike and a decent bike when I left my commuter at my local bike shop for repair and used my old bike to go to work. It felt like riding a stationary bike and took me much longer to get to work. I normally start sweating after 3 miles, but my old banger made me sweat nearly immediately.
Most people can get to work on more than one route, and they find that there is a best option among the possible ones. Choosing the route that has the least amount of hills, traffic lights, stop signs and is least exposed to wind and the heat of the Sun can help you save energy and stay cooler on your ride.
It’s recommended to be a little bit daring and explore the possible ways to work even if you like the one you already use. It took me several months to try a new commuting route, which has turned out to be a lot more convenient, beautiful and it also keeps me cooler as it leads through a 2 mile straight paved stretch in a park with no car traffic at all. I knew that part of the city well, still when I took it for the first time as part of my commute it felt like a new discovery.
It is important to drink water in order to keep hydrated. However drinking too much cold water in a short period of time when your heart rate and core temperatures are elevated, leads to excessive sweating. You will feel the beads on your forehead and brow almost immediately.
Drinking strategically means that your water intake is before the ride and after you’ve cooled down. If your ride is long and you need to drink throughout it, it’s best to do it with cool, but not ice cold water and in sips.
If you have a particularly hilly commute or you tend to sweat as soon as you start pedaling, an e-bike could be a great commuting solution. The battery provides extra power on demand and it will reduce the effort you need to put in.
Maybe you don’t want to get sweaty on the way to work, but you don’t mind getting a good workout on the way home. In that case you can use the electric assistance in the morning and turn it off in the afternoon.
Sweating is normal and it’s a sign that your body auto-regulates its temperature and it’s doing a good job at it. You don’t control the sweat directly, but only certain factors that trigger sweat. Even if you do everything right, you may end up sweating some. On hot days it may be more while on cooler days it will be less. Those beads of sweat are a testimony that you are a true bike commuting hero.