A year ago, no one would have predicted the uptake of indoor cycling meets gaming platform, Zwift. With national and world championship events, and the scandals of e-doping, the virtual world is almost mirroring real-life competitions. Likewise, the number of people with turbo trainers and a ‘pain-cave’ has rocketed. But is cycling indoors a genuine rival for getting out on your bike?
Indoor versus outdoor training in a straight head-to-head battle. Categories of our devising. Feel free to add your own. Let’s go!
Cycling at this time of year requires layers to counteract the wet and cold, which means washing, a lot of it. Two bike-rides in winter kit is basically one full load. That’s before you start on your bike. A bad day is when cleaning your bike takes longer than your ride did!
Indoor cycling on the other hand requires very little. Despite some manufacturers offering indoor training kit most of us still use an old pair of shorts and a base-layer, which barely contributes anything to the household washing burden.
Verdict: Indoor training
Your turbo trainer is always there, waiting for you. As long as everything is left in place between sessions you can jump on and get going in no time at all. If you’re tied to the house waiting for a call or a parcel to arrive there’s no need to skip your session. You can even manage to do a ride while the baby naps or the kids are in bed.
On the other hand, a turbo can’t take you anywhere. One of the most time-efficient ways of getting cycle fit is by commuting to work. If you can combine a journey you need to do anyway with your bike ride, then outdoor cycling can be both convenient and time efficient.
Verdict: Indoor training – but only just
In ‘normal’ times, and in the days before Zwift, this would have been an easy win for outdoor cycling, as indoor cycling was very much a solo occupation. But with lockdown limiting exercise to just one person from outside your own household, there is no advantage to outdoors in this category. Instead, with chat apps like Discord being used alongside Zwift, it is indoor cycling that has the edge.
For many people, Zwift (and having a chat with your mates while rolling round Wattopia or Zwift’s London Olympics course) has been a saviour during lockdown. Much like cycling in the outside world, you can choose to race, ride gently side-by-side and chat to a friend, or join a group ride. Will Zwift ever replace the fun of riding to the pub or café with your mates? No, not for most of us, but right now it’s the best we have.
Verdict: Indoor training
A lot of people maintain that indoor cycling is best for fitness – and in many aspects, they may be right. For a start there’s no coasting or stopping at traffic lights, every pedal stroke counts and every minute you’re on the bike you are pedalling. Sessions are much more structured and goal orientated because, until Zwift, no one ever sat on a turbo trainer just for fun, there was always a reason behind it.
But fitness takes many forms, it’s not just about cultivating massive power outputs. Riding your bike outside develops core strength and postural endurance. Alongside this is technique; you can’t learn to corner fast, accelerate over the crest of a hill, follow a wheel safely or ride in a bunch while cycling indoors.
If you just measure fitness in watts then yes, maybe indoors wins, but to be the best all-round cyclist you’re capable of being you need to head outside too.
Verdict: Outdoor training
Our mental health is precious. It is very hard to be physically healthy if your mental health is suffering. There is a lot of evidence linking exercise with mental health so both indoor and outdoor cycling has a role to play. However, what helps your mental health is very individual. Some exercise environments might work for one person but not another.
Cycling outside is more than just exercise, it is connection with nature and being in nature has a very calming impact on how we feel. It is also escapism – you can literally pedal your problems away, escaping from the place or people who trigger your feelings. The repetitive nature of pedalling works for many people almost as a meditation, it helps free your mind and bring a state of relaxation.
In a time when we are having to stay at home, using daily exercise to get outside, breathe some fresh air and take in the scenery is incredibly valuable. For that alone cycling outdoors wins this round.
Verdict: Outdoor cycling
And the winner is… CYCLING!
It’s a fix! You knew this was how it would end up. Whether indoors or outdoors, cycling can play a part in maintaining your physical and mental health. So if you love catching up with your mates on Zwift, or prefer a solo effort in the hills, do whatever works for you. It’s all bike riding, and it’s all good!