Every good cycling coach knows that there are huge fitness gains to be made from indoor cycling.
If you want to be an excellent cyclist (and not just a masher of pedals), you still need long days in the saddle and familiarity with the road. The training holy grail is when riders successfully integrate indoor and outdoor riding. If you want to can get the most out of your training, read on to find out how you can leverage the positives of both riding indoors and outdoors.
What are the main benefits of riding indoors?
By investing in one of the best turbo trainers or the best smart indoor bikes, you can ride all year round, no matter the weather nor how dark it is outside. You don't even have to spend a fortune with the best cheap smart trainers getting you up and running on a budget - and there's even more benefits to this approach:
Specific and safe intervals
Indoor training allows you to hit and sustain specific intensity levels (set by power and heart rate based cycling training zones) without distractions, delays, or the risk of external environmental factors getting in the way e.g. stop lights, undulating terrain, or traffic on the roads. Suffer at your best!
Maximum ROI for time spent
Have you ever looked at the time vs power data on an outdoor ride? If you haven’t already clocked it, training outside clocks up a lot of dead time. By contrast, indoor training gives you no such leeway - you rarely stop pedalling on an indoor session. A mere 30-45 minutes on the turbo can give your body the stimulus it needs to maintain fitness - check out these 30-minute cycling workouts if you're short on time.
Pedalling efficiency and leg strength
The pedal stroke, particularly on a direct drive turbo trainer with a heavy fly wheel, requires more engagement than pedalling outdoors. Over time, this is an additional benefit for developing your pedalling efficiency and potentially leg strength.
Keep respiratory illnesses at bay
The cold climate can make it difficult to push the body to perform intervals, particularly if you need long recovery between efforts. Training indoors eliminates the risk of getting cold while training and, worse, getting a respiratory illness like the cold, coughs or Covid.
What are the main benefits of riding outdoors (versus indoors)?
If you're well-prepared for the colder seasons with a drawer filled with winter cycling clothing, then there are some very good reasons for heading outside on your bike.
If you want to be good at riding bikes for several hours outdoors, ultimately you need your body to be able to endure at doing it - and so riding outside is the best approach for building your endurance.
Bike handling and technical skills
Riding outdoors, particularly in groups, requires good bike handling, balance and coordination. By riding in (well-behaved!) groups, you develop many key cycling skills, including cornering and braking, mastering descents, feeding while riding, and more.
Core strength and posture
When you ride outside for hours in a forward leaning position, many of the muscles in your body are working, even if you don’t feel it. Developing and maintaining your core and upper body are important for cycling as well as general health.
Enjoyment and social
Riding outside in the fresh air is a positive for most of us; having a social group to do it with is often the main appeal for a Sunday ride, especially in winter!
How to successfully combine indoor and outdoor riding
The best combination for indoors and outdoors, especially during winter, is to perform high intensity work indoors and low intensity work outdoors. During winter, we recommend doing most of your training indoors but keep the Sunday club ride or an outdoor ride with mates in the diary.
The best indoor training apps such as Zwift are ideal for intervals and e-racing during the week – this will keep you fit and satisfy any thirst for an adrenalin hit. At the weekend, the Sunday club ride or a ride with mates will tick many of the boxes needed for outdoor riding without putting too much strain on your body during the cold winter weather.
Medium intensity rides are a coin toss – you can do these indoors or outdoors, depending on what your priorities are. If you have the time and the weather isn’t an issue, we recommend that you go outside. If you’re feeling time poor and need to get it done, stay inside.
When the weather is truly wintery – to ride outdoors or not?!
If you are training towards a racing goal that requires good bike handling and tolerance for riding in wintery conditions (for example, if you are a classics rider!), then it makes sense to sustain and develop your tolerance for riding outdoors. But you risk developing a cough or a cold and losing several weeks of consistent training, it might not be worth it!
Iain McNaught shares how riding indoors during the pandemic changed his fitness for the better. “Until lockdown, every winter I needed antibiotics for hacking coughs,” he explained. If he hadn’t been forced indoors, McNaught might never have realised that riding in the cold was having a negative impact on his training.
If you are susceptible to respiratory illnesses, it may even be worth training completely indoors over winter. While you’ll lose some of your cycling dexterity and underlying endurance, the benefit of staying out of the cold and being able to train consistently will more than outweigh that negative of losing some familiarity with the feel of the road. Come springtime, you just need to dedicate yourself to sharpening up your technique by safely regaining the habit of riding outdoors.
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