Elite athletes have long recognized the benefits of high quality, structured, indoor cycling workouts. Some of the best Iron(wo)man athletes in the world, for example, claim to have experienced their greatest success in racing when they reduced the total number of hours on the bike, and took their high intensity training indoors. This means that instead of logging multiple 5-6 hour rides (the average time it takes to complete the bike leg of an Ironman) per week, they spend less than 10 hours total on the bike, but every second of those 10 hours is very focused and accounted for. This is even more surprising when you consider that most of those professional athletes choose to live in warmer climates where it is possible to train outside year-round.
Those of us who live in less cycling friendly winter climates (like right here in Central PA) are lucky (!) in that we are forced to take our cycling workouts indoors when the days get shorter and colder. This allows us to spend a couple of months completing very focused workouts, so that when spring rolls around we are in great shape to hit those local group rides or races.
So what is it about indoor cycling workouts that make them of a higher quality than simply just going for a ride outside? First, indoor workouts are usually only 50 minutes to 1.5 hours long (because our butts can’t take much more!). This means that we are way more focused on hitting those specific training (heart rate and power) zones, and less likely to waste time just riding along. Many cycling coaches have demonstrated this by showing the difference in their Garmin profiles during a group ride outdoors, or a focused workout indoors. It is clear from those profiles that although the total time (volume) on the bike might be longer outside, the time spent working in the correct training zones (quality) is less. Balancing training volume with training intensity is increasingly being recognized as a key to improving overall fitness. Sure, you will get fit by just going outside and riding for hours on end, but it will take longer to the fitness level you want to be at, and you are more likely to hit a plateau.
There are a host of other benefits to indoor cycling workouts. There are also no stop signs, traffic lights, and cars to disturb your workout. The weather doesn’t play a factor (most of us have experienced what it’s like to battle the wind on the road bike!), and you can’t coast down hills, or cheat by drafting behind other cyclists. All of this leads to a better use of your training time.
“But we are not all pro athletes, and when the spring rolls around we want to quit the indoor intervals, and ride outside all the time”, I hear you cry! And I concur, to a degree. There are many benefits to riding outside. It will increase your vitamin D exposure (and let’s face it, we all need that summer time exposure living in the northern hemisphere over winter!), it improves your bike handling skills, allows you to mentally switch off for a few hours, and of course the shear joy of just being outside on your bike and seeing different places.
So, the question becomes, where does indoor cycling play a role in your training during the spring and summer months? The key, like everything in life, is balance. Sure, go out and enjoy those long miles on the road or trail with your friends. Those longer, often slower rides (known in the cycling world as “base miles”) will help improve your aerobic conditioning. But make sure you carve out time once or twice a week to perform high quality, structured workouts indoors. The quality of cycle classes at PYP, for example, ensures that you hit all the right training zones in a mere 50 minutes. Those intervals will substantially help improve your outdoor summer cycling. For example, those 30 second to 1- minute sprint intervals we do will allow you to be able to chase down that friend that tried to drop you, recover from that effort, and to continue to ride at pace. Our indoor climbing drills will improve your muscular endurance, allowing you to climb for longer outside, with more power. I often find it helps if I focus on the purpose of the indoor workout, by asking myself, what is this workout improving? And, what are my strengths and weaknesses? I then ask myself those questions when I ride outside, so I know what I need to work on inside.
Maintaining an indoor cycling program in the spring and summer is also very helpful if you know that some days of the week are going to be more busy because of work, family commitments etc. Rather than stressing out about making it outside before it gets dark, commit that day to being an indoor workout day. You will be amazed how much the stress of your day will be reduced. Plus, who doesn’t love the camaraderie and buzz of riding with a group at PYP?!
The bottom line is, whatever the season, indoor cycling has a place in your workout regime. Plan your week out at the start, look at what the weather might do, what your work and family commitments are. Set the day(s) you will ride inside, and stick to it. Focus for the entire duration of the indoor ride on what the purpose of the ride is, and know that by consistently preforming high quality indoor workouts you will become a stronger, faster athlete. I have followed this training structure for the past 3 years, and those 3 years have seen my best race results. Whether you want to be a faster cyclist outside, or just see improvements in your general fitness, make time for higher quality indoor cycling workouts, I assure, you won’t be disappointed with the results.