It’s early in the season, but the latest predictions are that winter 2012/13 could be significantly colder and snowier than average.

That being the case, using an indoor turbo trainer will become even more appealing this winter for cyclists seeking to ensure that their base levels of fitness are maintained.

There’s no doubt that stationary bike (or turbo) training is far better for cycling fitness than vegging out on the sofa and skipping sessions entirely. However, a common concern among cyclists is that the slightly different patterns of muscle recruitment and technique that occur on a stationary bike mean that the fitness gains don’t translate effectively into ‘real’ cycling. The good news is that recent British research makes for encouraging reading.

The science
In the study, scientists from the University of Aberystwyth investigated the differences in cycling efficiency, muscle activity and pedal forces while cycling on a stationary turbo trainer compared with a ‘proper bike’ ridden on a treadmill.

To do this, 19 cyclists rode six sessions; a session each at 150 watts, 200 watts and 250 watts on a stationary turbo trainer and then sessions at the same intensities while riding a road bike on a treadmill.

Cycling efficiency – in other words how efficiently the cyclists were able to convert chemical energy in their muscles into power on the bike – was measured by analysing the inhaled and exhaled air from the cyclists during each session.

Also, the patterns of muscle activity were determined using a technique called ‘surface electromyography’ and the forces that the cyclists applied to the pedal were recorded with instrumented pedals. The researchers then looked to see how these differed between stationary turbo cycling and cycling on 
a treadmill.

In a nutshell
The first thing the scientists noted was that compared to stationary turbo cycling, treadmill (‘real’) cycling induced a larger muscular contribution from the gastrocnemius of the calf (increase of 14 per cent), the biceps femoris (the main hamstring muscle – increase of 19 per cent) and gluteus maximus (the major buttock muscle – increase of 10 per cent).

Conversely, compared with treadmill cycling, turbo trainer cycling induced larger muscular contributions from the vastus lateralis and rectus femoris (quadriceps muscle in the frontal thigh) and tibialis anterior (shin muscle) – the gains here were seven per cent, 17 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.

The second finding was that despite these alterations in muscle activity, when it came to cycling efficiency, there was no significant difference in treadmill or turbo trainer cycling; the efficiency on the treadmill was measured at 18.8 per cent while that on the turbo trainer was measured at 18.5 per cent.

So what?
Anyone who has had to keep fit on a turbo trainer will know that when they get back on their bike, it feels a bit ‘different’. This is because the pattern of muscle firing and percentage of effort is slightly different on a turbo trainer. This is no doubt due to the ‘specificity of training’ principle – ie that the more closely your training duplicates the activity you’re training for, the more effective it will be.

The good news is that these muscle recruitment differences were not so large as to impact on training efficiency, which was virtually the same in both training modes. In short, while riding your outdoors bike is the best option in terms of training specificity, using a turbo trainer when the roads are blanketed by snow and ice is definitely worthwhile as well.

This article was first published in the January 17 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio, download from the Apple store and also through Kindle Fire.