The Benefits and Drawbacks of Indoor Cycling

TriForcers  doing indoor cycling outdoors

A team member recently asked me about indoor v. outdoor cycling.  I’m a huge fan of indoor cycling (I’ve spent some winters doing basically nothing but indoor riding), but I’ve also come to see that it has some drawbacks as well.  Some professional athletes do a large portion of their training indoors (I recently read that Andy Potts does virtually all his riding on the Computrainer and I know that IM legend Peter Reid used to do tons of Computrainer riding in the winter up in Canada).   Other pros do virtually 100% of their riding outdoors (Kona legend Dave Scott said he didn’t even own an trainer).
 
“The only time I ride outside is when I race; otherwise I am always on my CompuTrainer.  I went to San Diego this winter for a month long camp leading up to Cali70.3 and my bike did not leave the garage once- CompuTrainer is the most used training tool I have” – Andy Potts

Indoor Cycling Benefits:

  • No stopping or coasting, no traffic no downhills, so you can get a much more focused nonstop workout
  • You can do your workout perfectly- (unless it involves hills); for example: (a) if you want to do 4*10 minutes at threshold at 90+ cadence w/ 2 minutes rest on the indoor trainer you can do it exactly (outdoors you might have uphills, downhills, stops, dangerous sections of road, etc., that make it harder to stay at your target intensity & cadence); the same thing goes for steady workouts (I often do repetitions of 9 minutes steady, 1 easy as an indoor set).  You can also much more easily control your cadence.
  • It’s easier to do high intensity intervals- you can just pedal hard without worrying about cars or dangerous sections of road.
  • It takes less time- you don’t need to pack up food, flat tire supplies, cold weather or rain clothes; you can just put on your shoes and shorts & get started; because there are no stops or coasting I think 2 hours on the trainer is worth 3 hours outside; if I can do a strong 3.5 hour indoor trainer workout and feel strong at the end, then I know I’m ready for an Ironman
  • You don’t need daylight- which nice for winter time
  • It provides a flat road for people who don’t have them- where I live (near San Francisco) many people don’t have any flat roads near their home, so when they ride outside they are constantly going up and down; when they go up they ride at a tempo effort (often out of their aerobars) and when they go down they are getting rest.  However, many races have long flat sections where you need to stay in the aerobars and keep an even steady effort.  If you’ve been only going up and down you won’t be trained to stay strong for extended flat sections.
  • You can quit at exactly the right time. For a “solid workout” I like to push my body to “the bending point” and stop short of the breaking point.   During an indoor workout I can hop off of the bike when I’ve given myself just the right dose of training, then immediately start fueling and stretching.  Out on the road I might have to slog it in for an hour or so.

Indoor Cycling Drawbacks:

  • Boredom. This might be the biggest drawback of riding indoors.  Doing structured sets and cranking up the music helps me ride indoors for a long time, but some people understandably want to get out and have some fun on the road!
  • You don’t get to practice on hills. You can raise the front of your bike up to simulate climbing, but it’s not quite the same.
  • You don’t get to practice cornering and descending. Your bike handling will never develop as well if you’re indoors all the time.
  • It’s easier to deeply fatigue the legs. Because you are locked into one position the movement is more repetitive than outdoors.  (I try to mitigate this by being sure to mix in some sitting up and getting out of the saddle within each set).  You also don’t get to coast and stop.  As a result I’ve found that my legs can feel much more tired.  If I’m trying to do lots of cycling volume, I’ll go outside for almost all of my training since I know my body will be able to handle much more volume without “frying my legs”
  • You don’t get practice varying your power & position. When you race you should get smaller and more aerodynamic at high speeds and into a headwind.  You should also be in the habit of gradually increasing your power as your speed declines and gradually decreasing your power as your speed increases.  This is something you can only practice on the open road.

If you have access to safe flat roads with few stops and intersections, you’ll probably be able to do all your workouts outside.  For other people, it’s probably worthwhile to mix in some indoor riding and some outdoor.  I personally tend to ride indoors alot during the winter when the weather is bad and I’m trying to build my overall power and speed.  In the spring when I’m bumping up my volume for IM training I’ll start to do most of my riding outdoors on a mix of flat and hilly roads to build up my skills and to let me do a larger volume without making my legs too deeply fatigued.  And I always know that if my life gets busy (like today) I can always ride inside.

Other people will leave their bikes on the indoor trainer during the week so they can do effective workouts for 1-2 hours before or after work, then do their long ride outdoors on the weekends.  

About Coady

Lucky to be coaching some really awesome & fun people!
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Comments

  1. Curtis says:

    The picture at the top of the post illustrates another benefit of “indoor” cycling: trainer workouts can be both social *and* targeted to individual training needs. If you ride with friends on the roads, someone always has to do a less than optimal workout to match the pace of the other riders. On a trainer, everyone rides his or her own pace but still gets to enjoy training in a group. Just look at those happy Triforcers!

  2. Coady says:

    Yes! One fun thing about this past year was that I did 2 out of 3 workouts / week with the team (including some long indoor rides on weekends). Time goes much faster if you’re lucky enough to have a people to join you for intervals.