By Deena Blacking published
Every good cycling coach knows that there are huge fitness gains to be made from indoor cycling. Just look at the gains made by riders who were forced to ride indoors more during the pandemic (for example our recent fitness feature, ‘Locking In the Lockdown Gains’ in the 25 November 2021 print edition of Cycling Weekly).
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 this winter, 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?
Specific and safe intervals
Indoor training allows you to hit and sustain specific intensity levels 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.
Pedalling efficiency and leg strength
The pedal stroke, particularly on a direct drive 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 want to be good at riding bikes for several hours outdoors, ultimately you need your body to be able to endure at doing it!
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, 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!
The Holy Grail: Successfully Combining Indoors and Outdoors
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 in the diary.
Zwift is 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 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!
In the fitness feature in the 25 November print edition, ‘Locking in the Lockdown Gains’, Iain McNaught shared how riding indoors had 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.
Deena Blacking is a cycling coach and sports consultant at drivetrain.cc
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