It’s that time of year again. The weather has turned, legs are hidden away and covered in hair again, the roads seem wet even when it hasn’t rained for a few days and every ride seems to be a dawn or dusk one. This is the time when you start to think, should I be riding indoors or outdoors? There are arguments for and against both, it’s all very dependant on personal preference, goals and other individual factors.
Be it riding on the turbo, rollers or specific indoor bike, riding indoors is certainly a very time efficient and easy way of ‘getting it done’. Gone are the days of nothing but a blank wall to look at while wishing you could be socialising with friends again. Thanks to various indoor training apps and chat apps etc, you can still do ‘social’ rides indoors. It also means there is a lot less time spent getting kitted up beforehand or bike/kit cleaning afterwards. Your chain and other drivetrain components won’t be getting battered by the elements and you never have to worry about that one patch of ice that you will somehow hit (every year so far I’ve managed that).
A big benefit of indoor training is that it is very specific. You can ride at exactly the numbers that you need to with little or no deviation. Riding outdoors, you may have to sprint out from a junction, or push just that little bit too hard to get over a particularly steep climb. Indoors it’s all very controlled. There can be disadvantages to this though, as in races, especially road, pace varies dramatically and an ability to deal with changes of intensity is vital.
Another question is “to ERG or not to ERG”. It certainly makes the session easier to follow, but there is some debate as to whether it produces a slightly false resistance when compared to riding on the road. On the road you are overcoming gravity (when riding up hill), friction/rolling resistance and air resistance. On the turbo, you only ever fight friction. This can also mean that you inadvertently get more used to riding in a purely comfortable position rather than in a position which provides a balance of comfort and aerodynamics.
In my dissertation, I investigated the effect of gradients on muscle activity. In races, the final result is often decided by performance on climbs. In my study I found that when riding at the same high intensity on different simulated gradients, muscle activity was significantly different in the hamstrings (bicep femoris), calf muscle (gastrocnemius medialis) and quadriceps (Vastus medialis). It could be suggested that long periods of riding indoors, on essentially a level gradient, could result in reduced performance or greater feelings of fatigue when producing efforts up gradients.
A final potential drawback to indoor training (in the winter anyway) is heat adaptation. Indoor riding is almost always warmer than outdoors, because of the lack of airflow and ventilation by comparison. The body is very clever; it adapts to this and one way it does so is by increasing sweat rate so you can cool off more effectively. This is great if you’re going to be competing in hot conditions, but if you’re racing in Europe in the spring, you’re not going to need to be heat adapted! You may find that, when riding on the road, you have a higher sweat rate so may get cold more easily and may also need to consume more fluids and salts.
One undisputable benefit of riding indoors however is the time efficiency. It is a lot quicker and simpler to get the work done compared with doing an equivalent session on the road. If time is of the essence, the turbo is nearly always king!
When the sun is out, the surroundings look stunning and you’re enjoying the fresh air, riding a bike is absolutely great. When it’s raining down, blowing a gale and you can’t feel your hands, it’s not so good. Part of successful winter riding outdoors is getting your kit right. Once your hands and feet get cold, that can make a ride unbearable. Once your core gets too cold that can make the next week or so unbearable if your unlucky enough to get ill as a result. Another factor for some people can be tightness of breath and constricted airways due to cold air. My personal clothing recommendation for winter riding is to layer up so that you feel comfortable, not necessarily warm, when standing still. You can always unzip a layer or cram a gilet into your pocket once you’re riding and have warmed up a bit. Wear gloves that are slightly too big rather than close-fitting, as this will result in a layer of insulating air around your hands which will keep them a lot warmer than tight fitting gloves that are not hardshell. Tape the vents in your shoes and get some decent overshoes; cold feet can get very uncomfortable on longer rides. Bring a buff: if your neck gets too hot you can wrap it over your bike computer and headset easily; if you get cold you can cover your face and airways with it. Photochromatic lenses are very useful. If you go out at, say, 8am you will probably be met with pretty gloomy darker weather to start, a low rising sun glaring in your eyes midway through your ride and finally finishing off with high sun. Lenses that can change tint are very useful for making sure that your vision is not compromised. Lenses also keep your face a bit warmer and protect your eyes from winter filth being kicked up off the road.
Fit a flashing rear light. Yes, I know we shouldn’t need to make ourselves look like Christmas trees on wheels, and that drivers should take care to see us properly, but it’s far better to be safe than sorry. If your ride passes through tree canopied areas where it goes from light to dark, a flashing rear light will almost certainly make your ride safer.
As far as spares are concerned, always bring a little more than you think you’ll need. This applies to inner tubes, spare clothing, extra food anything else you may need to keep you and your bike going. You can always fit a bar bag in addition to a saddle bag (seeing as they’re now regarded as ‘fashionable’!) to cram all your extra stuff into.
So those are some ways to make winter riding outdoors more comfortable. This is important because there are definitely some benefits to riding outdoors compared to indoors. These include ecological validity: basically, train and ride where you’re going to be racing, in this case the road. There really isn’t anything better than doing your efforts where you need to be performing. This also counters other issues of riding indoors such as muscle activity variations on gradients as well as overcoming gravity and aerodynamic drag.
During non-covid times, outdoors is also the best way to keep social (restrictions permitting), even if it’s about sharing the suffering. Some of my favourite rides have been in horrendous conditions where I’ve seriously considered phoning for a pickup! I would say though, that if there’s even a slim chance of it being icy, don’t risk it. You’ll have to ride cautiously so won’t be getting any decent training done and one small patch of ice is enough to derail you completely. On these days, the risks outweigh the benefits by a very big margin.
So, to summarise: there are pros and cons to both indoors and outdoors. A combination of the two is generally best but this will be different for different people. Personal preference is another factor; some people can manage 4 hours indoors, some can’t. There’s no point burning out all of your keenness 3 months before even the early season races start! Make sure you’re well equipped for whichever ride you do. Indoors, you can at least get off the bike to fill up a bottle or grab snack easily. Outdoors it’s not so easy to obtain something you’ve forgotten once you’re 50k from home! The biggest thing is, enjoy what you’re doing. That’s the main reason any of us should be riding a bike.