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The long and short of it: indoor vs outdoor workouts

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Article posted: 27/11/2013

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Andrew Gillott is the Lead for Talent and Performance at sports coach UK, the national agency for coaching in the United Kingdom. He is a British Cycling Mountain Bike Coach and a Coach Developer for both British Cycling and UCI. In this, Andrew looks at how indoor and outdoor workouts compare, so your training doesn't suffer as the coldest months are setting in.

“The stable wears out the horse more than the road” (French proverb)

Riders who frequently string together two or three indoor sessions on consecutive days risk serious fatigue. If this sounds like you, stop it; build in regular rest days.

The weather is definitely turning a corner and before you know it, you’ll be factoring cold mornings, icy roads and deep snow in to your weekly training schedule. Of course, this time of year provides the perfect opportunity for some fun cross-training activity but whether you are following a carefully developed training plan or just trying to get some miles in, there is no escaping the fact that you need to be riding your bike if you want to have a successful, competitive 2014. Inevitably, during our darkest, coldest months that is going to involve some indoor training. I’m not going to cover the relative virtues of rollers and turbo trainers in this article (although if pushed I would argue a case for having both), instead focussing on the things you will have to consider when the snow is deep and crisp outside and you need to rescue an otherwise great week of training...

The Big Question I am most frequently asked around this time of year is how long a turbo session should be compared to a road ride. There are as many theories as there are theorists on how to translate duration of workouts from the road to the turbo, ranging from a 45-minute turbo being equivalent to a 2-hour road ride (a huge 62.5% reduction) to a 1-hour ride being equivalent to 1.5 hours on the road (a more modest 33% reduction). I’m going to suggest that you give this some serious, considered thought, every time you ride...

If you are using TrainingPeaks to analyse your rides then you may have already noticed that when riding outside you spend quite a lot of time doing not-a-lot; freewheeling, waiting at traffic lights, spinning slowly behind traffic – it all adds up. Looking at the files of athletes that I coach, 15-20% of doing nothing (in purely physiological terms) isn’t uncommon and if I compare files from outdoor workouts with indoor workout files in TrainingPeaks then I can see clearly that a similar training stress (TSS) and calorie expenditure is achieved in a shorter time on the turbo. Also contributing to the physical stress is the heat you will experience when riding indoors. It’s tremendously difficult to simulate the cooling effect of an outdoor ride on the turbo or rollers, no matter how many fans you get and how big they are. With elevated temperature comes higher heart rates and higher perceived exertion; riders who train using a power-meter report that they can achieve higher powers on the road or trail than when riding indoors, but I think what they are experiencing is an increased difficulty in achieving a similar power because of a higher heart rate for a similar effort and that it simply feels harder indoors. Of course, physical stress isn’t the whole story; indoor training is mentally fatiguing too. Without the distraction of the world passing by and the thousands of tiny adjustments and re-adjustments that you make when riding outdoors, indoor training can be tedious.

Back to The Big Question. Well, my question is “Which turbo session?” and “Which road ride?” In my experience, turbo sessions can too often consist of around an hour of constant pedalling, at a constant power or heart rate zone, at a constant cadence. On the other hand, riding outdoors tends to be a little (or a lot) less structured than that because the terrain in which you ride is likely to dictate the efforts you are required to make, how frequently, for how long and at what cadence. So when you find yourself abandoning the outdoors and taking to the indoor trainer, it’s crucial that you have a good think about what you were hoping to achieve.

If you were hoping to get a couple of relatively easy, constant hours in to develop your aerobic capacity and efficiency then I would suggest you do just that – get a good film on, put the fans on full blast and go for it. But it is rarely that simple and the key to effectively using your time indoors is to replicate the quality work you would have achieved outdoors. For example, let’s imagine you have a route which entails a gradual 30-minute warm-up, lots of stops and starts to get out of town and in to the countryside. Then, you hit a long, rolling section which challenges your fitness at times before you hit a nice downhill section, spin through some lanes and then return home via a severe 5-minute climb which leaves you with just 10-minutes to spin your legs before your arrive home 1 hour and 40 minutes later. If we were to look at the total work done, it might look something like this:

  1. 45 minutes Z1/Z2 87-95rpm
  2. 25 minutes Z3 85-90rpm
  3. 5 minutes Z4 75-80rpm
  4. 2 minutes Z5 60rpm

So what was your goal for the session? The likelihood is that you chose the route for the climbs. So your turbo session could look like this:

20-minute progressive warm-up

  1. 20-minutes Z3 85-90rpm
  2. 10 minutes Z2 95rpm
  3. 2 sets of the following:
  • 3 minutes Z4 alternating each minute between seated and standing 70-80rpm
  • 1-minute hard effort at 60rpm
  • 2 minutes spin easy
  1. 10 minutes gradual cool down.

In this example, you have done all of the efforts that you hoped to, but in just over 1 hour and 20 minutes. 20% less time on the bike; 20% more time with the family.

Riding indoors can therefore have its benefits; shorter, punchier workouts; total control over the efforts you make, when and for how long. Be clear on your goals and indoor training is a serious weapon. But riding indoors is mentally and physically more stressful over a given period of time. Riders who frequently string together two or three indoor sessions on consecutive days risk serious fatigue. If this sounds like you, stop it; build in regular rest days.  Finally, remember that the clinical efficiency of riding indoors will certainly make you fitter, but the constant adjustments of power and position that you experience when riding outdoors, not to mention the development of essential, race winning skills is what will gradually turn you from a moderately fit cyclist to a great bike-rider.

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