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Indoor Versus Outdoor Training

What a strange year we are having. During hard lockdown cyclists and triathletes were forced to do all their training indoors. Now that the restrictions have relaxed we can all return to our training roads and trails but many have formed such strong habits on the indoor trainer that many have not returned to the outdoors at the same level as they did before lockdown. This got me thinking about how much we should worry about getting out on the road if we have everything we need in our ‘Pain Cave’?

Safety – I have had only two issues with cars in my 35 years of riding bikes. I ride almost exclusively on my own and am able to stay out of the way. That amount of time on the roads has improved my bike-handling to the level where I am confident in my abilities to handle things out in the real world. That said… the roads are getting busier, the drivers more inattentive and intolerant and, let’s be honest, a lot of the aggression towards cyclists is not helped by some cyclist’s behaviour antagonizing motorists towards all of us.

Suitable training roads – I live a kilometre away from where I grew up. My first training ride in 1986 was done on the same roads that I ride today. To say that this area has changed would be an extreme understatement. There are fewer and fewer open roads where we can just let our minds wander and immerse ourselves in the sensations that make riding a bike so much fun. It is also very difficult to find roads where we can just put our heads down and give it the big stick without an intersection forcing a change in speed and rhythm. Relative to the point about safety – I don’t know about everyone else but I can become a danger to myself when riding hard. I tend to take unnecessary risks through corners etc. and my Mr. Hyde or ‘racing persona’ comes out and I react aggressively to situations where a calmer head would be better.

Boredom – I have ridden the same roads and routes for so long that they are less stimulating than sitting on my trainer for the same amount of time. Obviously we are not out there to look at the view and the goal of the session does help to pass the time but there are less and less positive reasons motivating the time on the road, rather than on the indoor, especially now that we have apps like Zwift to make the IDT more interesting.

So those are negative motivators to stay off the road… what of the positive reasons to ride indoors:

Control – In 1986 I had a bike computer the size of a DSTV decoder and all it measured was: distance; time and speed. Nowadays we have multiple ways to measure our output and control the effort in training sessions. It also allows us to be very specific and creative in how we are going to tackle a session. These parameters are much easier to control and the workout can be much more structured indoors than outdoors.

Value for time – There is no freewheeling, cornering or sitting wheel indoors. So the value of your ride is increased for the time spent. Not all of us have the luxury of riding straight from our front doors. Many need to drive to a venue out of town to find suitable roads. The commute there and back drains minutes from already limited training time, whereas jumping on the indoor requires little or no preparation. You have two hours available time, all of that is used for training.

Quality of equipment – A big factor in all of this is the improvement in our indoor training equipment. In ’86 we had free-rollers, which were only good for improving pedalling technique and warming up and cooling down. I also had some quite spectacular falls off those. Then came the first trainers where we bolted the back wheel onto a polymer roller. There were four or five resistance settings and we could use our gears but there was always slippage under load and it was doubtful how good these were for the bike frame. Today’s smart, wheel-out trainers have excellent ride feel even if they are not perfect when out of the saddle. Then there are also trainers like the Concept 2 Bike Erg  which are stand-alone bikes, saving our actual bikes for race days and the odd session on the road.

Everything I have written so far is in reference to triathlon training, where we focus on holding a steady pace for the duration of our races. Cyclists need to develop ‘race-rhythm’. This is something that sports scientists have found difficult to quantify but anyone who has done some fairly serious bunch racing will know what it is. We can only acquire this riding in fast groups, following accelerations and making our own. There are also the obvious bunch skills that we will never learn riding on our own, in or outdoors. Sitting tight on a wheel and holding your position while riders crowd you from all sides cannot be learned on Zwift. Holding speed and momentum through a damp corner or on a technical descent needs to be learned through experience.

So my conclusion is that triathletes can probably do almost all their training indoors. Someone like me who has spent his whole adult life riding and racing probably needs even less road exposure. If you are new to bicycle racing I definitely suggest getting out on the road regularly to get comfortable with bike handling and road feel though.

Road and MTB racers can certainly do their quality sessions indoors but will still need the bunch and technical riding in order to work on race-rhythm and technical skills.

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