Guest Post: Cycling Outside vs. Inside

Today's post comes to you today from Calah Schlabach, professional triathlete and cross country coach at Marymount University in Arlington, VA. 

I hate cold weather. Absolutely. Distain. It. So, ever since our wonderful drawn-out autumn was drastically ruined by wintry temperatures last weekend, I have struggled all week to get out the door.

Of the three triathlon disciplines, the worst by far to perform in cold weather is cycling, at least for me. First there’s the extra half hour it takes to apply all the layers of clothing, then there’s the fact that you never warm up, then there’s the fact that, even though you never get warm, you actually seem to get colder as the ride goes on.

So, it seemed like a good moment to discuss the pros and cons of riding inside vs. outside. In a nutshell, I think a mix of both is good, because both have benefits and drawbacks.

One hardly has to scour the internet to find a plethora of articles that not only condone, but actually strongly encourage triathletes to ride trainers nearly exclusively. I am certainly not opposing the advice of all these writers, coaches, and professionals who are much more experienced than I am. Rather, I believe that riding outside--even in the winter--has certain advantages, and that some of it should always be maintained in one’s training plan.

First among these advantages is bike handling. Triathletes are stereotypically bad bike handlers, and I don’t feel like adding to that stereotype--or risking my own and others’ injury during a race.

Secondly, while a lot can be done on the trainer as well as (or better, some might argue) than on the road, one thing that is left out when riding the trainer is cycling-specific core development. The act of stabilizing yourself and your bike on the road works your core in a way that riding the trainer just does not. Riding rollers, rather than a trainer, is a great way to keep the core development and bike handling elements while riding indoors.

I don’t know why you choose to ride inside rather than out, but for me, my decision is either based on convenience, the specificity of the workout, or…me being a weenie. While the first two reasons may be acceptable some days, the latter never should be. As long as it is not actually dangerous to ride outside, I should not ride the trainer simply because I’m too lazy to get dressed and too wimpy to brave the cold. You can’t tell me that riding in 35-degree weather doesn’t build some mental fortitude--which brings me to my last point:

Realness. We race outside, so we should train outside--at least sometimes. Even though our sport takes place mostly in the summer months, we all get caught in cold races sometimes. In addition, it is vital to gain experience riding varied terrain in all kinds of conditions.

That all being said, I will certainly ride the trainer plenty this winter, not just because it is sometimes more efficient and realistic in my schedule, but also because it is helpful for training.

Some very specific workouts are easier and better performed on the trainer, where you can control all the variables. This is certainly true for testing your heart rate and the like. For some stages of very low heart rate training, I have no choice but to ride the trainer because even the slightest hill immediately throws my heart rate out of the proper zone. This being said, I would argue that even some specific interval workouts should be done outside on unpredictable terrain. Getting back to the “realness” point--we can’t control all the variables on race day!

Finally, I cannot cite mental toughness as a pro for riding outside without doing the same for riding the trainer. I have found that riding the trainer feels exponentially harder than riding outside--if I am doing it properly, that is. You may be able to do a quality workout while watching a comedy or your favorite TV show; I, however, seem to lack that level of multi-tasking ability.

So what am I saying? Get outside when you can this winter--it will make you a better cyclist. And when you ride the trainer, make it count--that will make you better, too!

See you out on the roads (when I’m not on my trainer, of course)!