How Indoor Cycling Can Make You a Better Outdoor Rider

Bringing your training inside really can enhance your technique and performance.


With the frigid temperatures and snowy roads and trails out there, even hardcore cyclists are having trouble getting their outdoor rides in this winter. Some cyclists are loath to consider training inside but it doesn’t have to be a bummer. You can use indoor cycling classes and solo sessions as a way to improve your technique, stamina, strength, and confidence for riding outside. In fact, research from the U.K. found that when trained cyclists performed 40-kilometer time trials on a stationary bike indoors, they generated just as much power input as when they did the same time-trials outside.

Unique Benefits of Indoor Cycling

More than just a great way to stay in good cardiovascular condition, indoor cycling offers an opportunity to refine your pedal strokes and improve your leg speed (through sprinting) and strength (through climbing). Some specific benefits, according to master instructor Jennifer Sage, founder of the Indoor Cycling Association: Gaining muscular endurance (with progressively longer climbs), development of force (with higher resistance climbs at RPMs of 55 to 65), anaerobic endurance (with high intensity interval training of 1 to 3 minutes), explosive power (through sprints at a high resistance for 30 seconds or less), and greater aerobic capacity.

Best of all, you can maximize your training benefits in a minimal amount of time (since outdoor riding generally takes more time than a 45-to-60-minute indoor class). But to get the most out of your indoor training, you may want to consciously ride at a higher perceived exertion level than you might outdoors: Research from the University of Nebraska at Omaha found that when recreationally trained cyclists were instructed to give the same perceived effort while participating in two 40-km.

trials—one in an indoor setting, the other outside—they naturally achieved a higher power output and heart rate outside than in.

Indoor cycling can be an especially effective training regimen because you can create incremental changes in resistance and vary the simulated terrain—without having to worry about balancing the bike or steering.

Instead, you can hone your riding technique while building strength and endurance. But you’ll want to choose a class led by an instructor that refrains from doing push-ups, squats, hovers, and other aerobics-on-a-bike techniques (a.k.a., contradictions or taboo moves) and sticks with drills that are in sync with outdoor riding.

Fine-Tune Techniques

You can also use indoor solo sessions to fine-tune your outdoor techniques. A good starting place is to focus on the quality of your pedal strokes: With resistance that simulates a flat road, concentrate on keeping your pedaling smooth and efficient, hitting every point on the circle with each leg (this takes the dead spots out of your pedal strokes). Then, do 30-second intervals in which your right leg does all the work while the left one goes around for the ride (both feet stay clipped to the pedals); then, switch legs.

By contrast, “spin step-ups” can help you improve your pedaling speed and technique: After warming up with a pedaling cadence of 90 RPMs and low resistance on the bike, increase your cadence to 100 RPMs for 3 minutes; after that, bump it up to 110 RPMs for 2 minutes then to 120 RPMs for 1 minute. If time permits, recover for 5 minutes, then repeat the sequence.

Some other techniques that are especially helpful for using indoor cycling to boost outdoor performance, according to the late exercise physiologist Edmund Burke, Ph.D.: Pyramid schemes (gradually increased bouts of intense effort, followed by gradual decreases in bouts of hard effort), steep climbs with heavy resistance, and sets of the surge-and-purge drill (riding in a hard gear in your normal position for 5 minutes, followed by 3 minutes in a seated position in an easier gear at a faster pace). Late in a ride, you might do 30-second speed bursts (high cadence, low resistance) while seated in the saddle to recruit your fast-twitch muscle fibers when your legs are already fatigued; this trains your legs to develop a burst of fresh energy for sprints or attacks at the end of a road race or hard ride.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, both serious and recreational cyclists can use indoor training to enhance their outdoor (and indoor) performance. You can develop greater strength, endurance, and fitness while getting your groove and your sweat on. So settle in and enjoy the ride!

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