There are 2 types of cyclists: those who hate to ride outdoors in the winter and those who hate to ride indoors in the winter. While there are many good excuses to be found on both sides there are many more bad excuses. The truth is that virtually no one should be riding exclusively indoors or outdoors during the winter. There are benefits to riding indoors, even for those with the most flexible schedules, living in areas where the weather nearly always allows for outdoor riding and there are benefits to riding outdoors even for those with jobs that make outdoor riding impossible in certain months or who live in areas with extreme cold, wind, snow and ice in the winter.
The bottom line is that certain workouts are better indoors (e.g. long, steady state Tempo & Threshold intervals, pedaling technique workouts, 20 minute power tests) and some workouts are better outdoors (e.g. endurance rides, fast group rides, pretty much anything over 2 hours). While just about any workout can be modified to be done indoors OR outdoors, before you try to force that square peg into that round hole you should ask yourself "why?". I have found that few suggestions I make are as vehemently resisted as when I suggest to an indoor person that they ride outside or suggest to an outdoor person that they ride inside. Here are a few things I often hear this time of the year:
"I don't care how cold it is or what the conditions are like, I will ride outside. I don't mind the cold and I have lights so I can ride in the dark"
"If it's under 50 degrees, I refuse to ride outside. Period"
"My power is always lower indoors and my heart rate is higher"
"I don't mind riding 3 or 4 hours indoors. You tell me to do it and I'll do it"
"I didn't become a cyclist so I could sit on an indoor trainer going nowhere"
"I can't breathe when I ride in the cold"
So here are a few suggestions to help make things more bearable:
Indoor Riding Suggestions for Outdoor People
- Invest in a powerful fan. When riding outside, approximately 2/3 of our excess heat is dissipated by convection (air flow). Air flow is much more important than temperature, which is why you can be riding comfortably on a 90 degree day until you have to stop at a red light and suddenly it feels like your skin is boiling. Similarly, even if you're training in your chilly 40 degree basement, there's a good chance you're overheating if you don't use a fan that's powerful enough. In order to cool yourself just as well indoors as outdoors you need a fan capable of simulating at least a 15-20 mph wind. In other words, that 6 inch fan isn't going to cut it. Most high powered fans are more expensive, running anywhere from $40 to $300, but you can pick something decent up for around $50, like this one on Amazon. Alternatively, do a google search on "High velocity fan" and look for something with sturdy construction and larger (20"+) blades. You won't regret it.
- Take indoor cycling classes at a local training studio. More and more bike shops have opened training studios and while the class structure, length of sessions, type of trainers, instructor style and costs differ, most offer good quality indoor workouts that include a combination of technique work and intensity training. Simply put, misery loves company. The same workout that may seem unbearable at home by yourself can be significantly more achievable in a group setting. Not to mention, there's accountability. If you decide to skip your indoor workout at home or cut short that last set, chances are that nobody will notice. If you signed up for an indoor class, however, someone will know if you don't show up, miss an interval or if you aren't hitting the numbers you should be. Note: just to clarify, when I say "indoor class" I am not talking about Spinning classes, which I would classify as cross training. Nothing against Spinning, but it's more of an aerobics class than a cycling class.
- Get a Cadence TV or iMobile Intervals subscription. This will give you access to hundreds of structured workouts and you won't have to worry about keeping track of the timing yourself, which can be very difficult for shorter and oddly timed intervals. Alternatively, if you are using a smart trainer, you could program in your own workouts manually.
- Spend some time dialing in your setup. Make it as comfortable as possible. Set up your computer/TV/gaming system somewhere convenient so you have access to your preferred form of entertainment. Make sure you have sweat towels and access to food and fluid. Set up your trainer on level ground and you have a good riser block that won't slide around. If possible, set your bike up on the trainer the night before your workout is scheduled so all you have to do is hop on and start pedaling. Neglecting these little details can be the death of indoor workouts. If you only have 60 minutes to train and you waste time scouring your house for your trainer skewer, bike pump, water bottles, or your Netflix password, you will end up running out of time and/or motivation before you know it.
- If you are forced to do more than a few longer rides indoors, the purchase of a smart trainer (e.g. Wahoo Kickr, Tacx Neo, etc.) and a Zwift subscription may be justified in order to help pass the time. Just be careful not to overdo it on the intensity. Though most coaches don't prescribe a diet of pure "Long Slow Distance" for base training anymore, most still agree that there is value in doing your endurance rides properly, even if they aren't exceptionally long.
- Inject variety whenever possible. One of the reasons why "outdoor people" are turned off by riding indoors is because they find it to be mind-numbing. Adding some pedaling technique drills (e.g. one legged drills or fast cadence drills), changing up your cadence every few minutes, getting out of the saddle from time to time, or switching between your trainer and rollers can help break up the time into smaller, more manageable segments.
Outdoor Riding Suggestions for Indoor People
- Invest in some good clothes. With the right clothes, most riders can be comfortable riding outdoors down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit or even colder. Good outerwear can be expensive but will last a long time if you take care of it. Know your "trouble spots" where you tend to get the coldest- for me it's my hands and feet, and take special precautions in those areas (e.g. heated insoles, second pair of gloves, etc.). When you look at the weather forecast, pay attention to wind speed and direction as well as temperature. Also consider the type of workout you will be doing. The higher the intensity, the more you will warm up during the workout, so you won't want to overdress. For lower intensity workouts, you may have to wear more clothing so you don't end up riding too hard simply to stay warm. For more on how to dress for success, take a look at my blog entry on the subject from 2013, which includes a matrix of suggested clothing for every temperature.
- Ride the mountain bike on really cold days. Riding on the road when it's 20 degrees may be doable but it's probably not very fun. If your training plan allows, riding the mountain bike may be much more comfortable due to the fact that the speed is lower and trees offer protection from the windchill. It may also be possible to ride the trails when there's snow or ice on the ground, especially if you have a fat bike or studded tires. Don't own a mountain bike you say? Many bike shops (including Cadence here in Philadelphia) rent out mountain bikes, which is perfect if you will most likely only need it a few times per year. Alternatively, you can buy a decent fat bike for very little money, especially if you don't care about how heavy it is.
- Look at the weather forecast ahead of time and plan. If it's nice outside and you are able to take advantage of it, ride outside on Thursday instead of Saturday even if your longer ride is scheduled for Saturday. If it's going to be cold all weekend, try adding a little bit of time to your workouts during the week. If it's going to start raining at 1 PM, get out a little earlier. You get the idea. Getting in your training in the winter time requires some creativity and a lot of what coaches call "The shell game". Move things around as needed in order to make your training as convenient as possible and set yourself up for success. If you are a slave to your training plan, you set yourself up for failure.
- The shelter of a group can do a lot to shield you from the assault of winter winds. Riding alone when it's 20 degrees is quite a bit different than riding in a pack when it's 20 degrees. Just keep in mind that it is difficult if not impossible to do a real endurance ride with a group, so it's best to save your group rides for your high intensity days.
- If you're comfortable doing it from a safety standpoint, ride with headphones and listen to music, podcasts or audiobooks. Many "indoor people" dread long solo rides not so much because of weather conditions but because of the monotony. Personally, I love a good winter endurance ride, but part of the reason why is because it's the one time I can catch up on my reading. These days, I never seem to have the time to focus on reading an actual book so when there's something I want to read I order it on Audible and listen on my endurance days. Admittedly, for intensity workouts, I prefer music since James Joyce and VO2 Max intervals aren't the best combination.
- Try mapping out some new routes. One of the great things about having a GPS is that it allows us to ride on unfamiliar roads without the risk of getting hopelessly lost. You can also try jumping in the car and driving somewhere new to ride. For example, here in Philly, we don't have a ton of flat roads with the exception of a bike path that goes along the river. Aside from the fact that riding that path over and over again gets awfully boring, the proximity to the river amplifies the wind chill and the path isn't plowed consistently when it snows. So what do I do if I'm supposed to ride a flat endurance ride and I don't want to ride on the bike path? Maybe I hop in my car and drive 30 minutes across the bridge to South Jersey, where I can ride flat roads with wide shoulders all day long. There seem to be quite a few days in any given winter when there will be snow on the roads in PA but not in NJ.
- Be patient. Just like riding in the heat, the body acclimates to riding in the cold over time. The adaptations may not be as significant (or as researched) as the adaptations that occur when training in hot weather, but they do exist. So if you feel like you can't breathe right when you ride in the cold, hang in there and keep at it. Needless to say, use caution. If you have cold induced asthma, you should never go outside without your inhaler and you should avoid prolonged exercise in the cold, especially when it's severe.
Let me close with a word of straight talk to both sides. First, to all you "Indoor People", suck it up and get outside! Don't be stupid and try to ride if it's 20 degrees below zero, it's dark outside or if the roads are covered in black ice but there are very few places in this country where cyclists need to be confined to indoor riding for the entire winter, so unless you live in Fairbanks, Alaska or Fargo, North Dakota you should be able to get outside at least a little bit in the winter. You may find that if you are properly dressed and prepared, it's not so bad after all. Why burn yourself out riding the indoor trainer for 3-4 hours at a clip when you could be outside enjoying the winter scenery, listening to a nice book, and discovering some new roads or trails?
And to all you "Outdoor People", stop being idiots! There are times when it just doesn't make sense to ride outdoors. Sometimes it's just plain dangerous to ride outside and certain workouts really do work much better indoors. Why ride/drive an hour out of your way to go back and forth on a 2 mile section of bike path to do that Tempo workout? Because you don't like riding indoors? Seriously? Indoor riding offers more control, works way better for technique drills and it's more repeatable from workout to workout when you're trying to compare efforts over time. And as a side benefit, you can catch up on Game of Thrones, Gilmore Girls and The Walking Dead while you're at it.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 roadracer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director forTeam YoungMedalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!