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Road to Indoor Cycling

How to Transition from Road Cycling to the Indoor Bike

With the right approach, indoor workouts can provide a convenient, effective complement to your outdoor rides.

By Renee CherryJanuary 5, 2024

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Indoor vs outdoor cycling offer two completely different experiences. Inside, you might hone your focus on a Peloton instructor’s cues or a high-energy playlist. Take your workout outdoors, on the other hand, and you’ll contend with the elements, traffic laws, and an unstable apparatus.

One option isn’t inherently better than the other, and they both have their pros and cons. But if you’ve strictly relied on outdoor cycling up to this point, you may find that indoor sessions are a worthy addition to your routine. To understand why, you’ll need the details on the unique benefits of indoor and outdoor cycling, and the best approach to transitioning to indoor cycling.

The Differences Between Indoor and Outdoor Cycling

Indoor vs outdoor cycling

The effects of indoor and outdoor cycling are similar, with both providing a cardio workout while working muscles in your lower body and core. Still, every cyclist should take note of a few key differences between the two.

Since indoor cycling takes place in a gym, studio, or home, you don’t have to concern yourself with potential hazards that can arise when biking outdoors. That means you can focus all your attention on fitting in an effective workout with less safety risk.

“Riding indoors allows you to work through a specific structure of efforts without concern for environmental factors such as traffic, terrain, surprises (like dogs chasing you), or weather,” says Peloton instructor and decorated track cyclist Christine D'Ercole. “The ability to go through an entire workout structure without risk of interruption allows you to gain the benefits of the workout more efficiently because of this.” 

During an indoor session, you can do certain things—like closing your eyes or grabbing a set of dumbbells for some upper body exercises—that wouldn’t be safe on an outdoor bike.

Typically on an indoor bike, you can adjust your resistance to mimic the effect of biking up or down a hill. However, indoors, you’ll miss out on the instability of an outdoor bike, which requires you to shift your center of gravity to stay upright, Christine notes. Outdoors, “depending on the intensity of the grade, and how high you climb, you will feel a change in the forces on the body as well as the impact of the change in altitude on your breathing and your body’s ability to deliver enough oxygen to your working muscles,” she says.

Both forms of cycling can offer an opportunity to escape the demands of daily life, but outdoor workouts may have a slight edge there. “The environmental awareness required to ride outside is an exercise in mindfulness,” says Christine. “And riding outside offers the joy of fresh air and the sensation of speed which cannot be replicated inside.” 

It bears mentioning that outdoor cycling can double as an eco-friendly mode of transportation. Commuting by bike is a win-win if you want to fit more movement into your day without carving out dedicated time for a workout.  

Indoor vs Outdoor Cycling: Which is Harder?

Generally speaking, outdoor cycling is tougher than indoor cycling. “Riding inside removes the challenge of maintaining balance on potentially difficult terrain, from off-road, gravel, rain, potholes, etc, therefore making it easier to focus on the efforts at hand,” Christine says. 

And there are benefits to be had from using your body to maneuver a bike through these challenges. “Reaction time, understanding how to shift weight and off-load over bumps builds confidence in oneself and opens us up to greater challenges,” explains Christine.

Ironically, research suggests outdoor cycling may still feel easier. In a 2014 study, cyclists were instructed to use the same level of perceived effort during indoor and outdoor rides. The cyclists ended up completing higher-intensity workouts when they were outdoors. The researchers concluded that cyclists may want to consider riding at a higher perceived exertion when cycling indoors in order to receive the same benefit they’d get from an outdoor ride.

It’s worth noting that the participants in the study were completing their outdoor cycling sessions on relatively flat terrain for an equal comparison. But in reality it may be easier to challenge yourself during an indoor ride, rather than an outdoor ride that involves a lot of downhill coasting. “Generally, in indoor cycling, you don't stop your legs during the workout, whilst outdoors, when going down a hill, you might not move your legs at all,” Peloton instructor Charlotte Weidenbach previously told The Output. “So indoor cycling can feel a lot tougher in a shorter amount of time.”

At the end of the day, the intensity of your workout partly hinges on the terrain (if you’re outside) and the effort you put into it. You can dial up the intensity of an indoor workout by increasing your resistance and/or cadence, or you can complete a low-intensity ride outdoors by sticking to a flat terrain and leisurely pace. With indoor cycling, you have the option to take a class, and rely on your instructor’s guidance on how hard to push yourself throughout the duration of the workout.

How to Start Cycling Indoors When You’re Used to Outdoor Biking

A smooth transition from outdoor to indoor cycling begins before you even mount your bike. “My first recommendation is to make sure your fit on the Peloton Bike is as close as possible to your fit on your outdoor bike,” says Christine. “While the angles of the Peloton Bike will be different, you can take your bottom bracket to seat height, tip of saddle to handlebars, and height of bars to a position that will allow you to ride comfortably and gain all the benefits of cycling indoors.”

No matter your level of experience, Christine recommends starting your foray into indoor cycling with some of Peloton’s Power Zone classes. Peloton’s Power Zones are a measurement of your effort during a ride, based on your speed and resistance and customized to your fitness level. Throughout Power Zone classes, your instructor will indicate which of the seven Power Zones you should aim to be in.

By taking these classes, you’ll gain an understanding of the relationship between cadence, resistance, output, and rate of perceived exertion (RPE, or how hard you feel like you’re exercising), and how they impact your workout, says Christine. You’ll be better equipped to create a workout plan that balances high- and moderate-intensity days with recovery, she adds.

Benefits of Indoor Cycling for Outdoor Cyclists

While the two modes differ, indoor cycling can help prepare you for outdoor cycling. “I have heard several stories of folks who have taken my Haleakala climbs on Peloton and then actually gone and climbed the real deal in Maui,” says Christine. With the volcano’s high altitude and extreme elevation gains, that’s no small feat.

Even if outdoor cycling is your preference, you might have days when the convenience of hopping on a Peloton Bike from the comfort of your living room and avoiding a snow storm sounds more appealing. And other days, you may not feel like dealing with the added stress that can come from navigating your bike through traffic.

With indoor cycling, you also have the option to rely on music and its benefits, whereas listening to music on an outdoor bike isn’t a safe practice. “[Music] is a powerful motivator that can really help us push through challenging moments,” notes Christine.

Indoor vs. outdoor cycling doesn’t have to be an either/or choice, and you can find a mix of both that works for you. Some days you’ll benefit from the unique challenges of taking your workout outdoors; others you’ll have the convenience of hopping on a stationary bike.

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