So most of us are now back into the swing of solid winter training. What does it mean for you? And what is the best type of training? Indoor or outdoor?
Hours and hours sat on the turbo listening to music, watching films or ‘playing on Zwift‘ or some other interactive training tool?
Or are you ‘hardcore’ and come rain or shine you will be out in all weathers?
For me there are benefits and pitfalls to both indoor training and heading outdoor in winter. I am going to talk through what I see as some of these benefits on both sides and come up with a recommendation for what could be the ‘optimal’ solution.
The benefits of winter cycling outdoors
When it comes down to it most of us race outdoors. Be it on or off road, in a triathlon, cycle race or time trial. So outdoor training, logically, allows the best replication of race conditions and preparation for the season compared to indoor. There are a lot of benefits to all year round outdoor training but some pitfalls too.
- Fresh (bracing air!), when many of us are cooped up indoor for hours this time of year can be a nice change and also the chance for a little winter sunlight.
- The replication of real life conditions, road surfaces, wind, corners, traffic and the like.
- Massive training stimulus, the body has to work harder in the cold to not only power the legs but also maintain body heat.
- The chance to try something different – I am a big advocate of mountain biking in winter, its hugely beneficial to your cardiovascular system, handling skills, cadence and powers of recovery.
- The views can be breathtaking!
The risks of outdoor training
- Darkness and poor light. However many lights you use there is still a greater risk from traffic in the winter.
- Road surfaces are often more dangerous. Slick from oil and rain, hidden pot holes and pot holes that worsen as they freeze and refreeze can all add to a more dangerous ride.
- The cold! Ice is an obvious risk, but the immune effect from hard training combined with the cold temperatures can suppress your immune system. This combination makes you more susceptible to the more common winter viruses.
- Time! Going out in winter is an expedition. I find it takes me 10-20mins just to get ready. Then returning takes a similar time – undress, get warm – and that’s without even thinking of cleaning the bike! Have you that free time?
- Increased costs. Winter is abrasive on kit and components. A solid winters training will likely mean you need a new drive train and probably tyres (at least) let alone all the warm weather gear.
Training outdoors and its role
So what do we make of all that? For me out door riding in winter has its place. I see 2-3 key roles it can play:
- Endurance. I strongly recommend that (at the least) your one long endurance ride a week is done outdoors.
- Handling and road feel. I think there are strong benefits from maintaining your ‘feel for the road’. The conditions will only improve your handling skills come summer race days.
- Mixing it up. Use the winter for some cyclo-cross or MTB riding. Explore new trails, believe me some of the views are well worth it!
The stunning image below was taken around 20miles from the Peaks Sports HQ overlooking Derwent Water in the Peak District.
Indoor cycle training
For many many years of my sporting life this used to be known as the devil’s work, and rightly so. It was, and can still be horrible! Sit (usually in a cold, dark wet garage) on your bike, staring at the wall or your bike computer pushing yourself to some set number, be it speed, heart rate or power.
It was, and still is, a necessary evil. BUT advances in indoor training technology have made the experience more interactive, more enjoyable and closer to outdoor riding!
Recent developments in online gaming has seen a multitude of platforms that can link your ‘smart’ turbo trainer or power meter to in game software to give the appearance of riding in a group, or racing. Meaning you can now race in both the real and virtual worlds. Two of the leaders in this field are ZWIFT and Road Grand Tours (RGT). Both work on the same premise. You link to the programme and an avatar on screen is powered along by your leg power!
Below we see the more realistic RGT on the left with a climb of the iconic Stelvio pass in Italy, and on the right a Zwift race taking part on a rendering of the 2015 Richmond UCI World Championship race course.
All you need to get going is:
- Laptop / computer or even phone app
- Bike and smart turbo trainer
- A big fan!
The below gives you a view of my set up.
So, let’s now think what the benefits and risks of indoor training are compared to outdoor.
The benefits of indoor cycle training
- Time efficient. Literally as long as it takes to boot up the PC, get your kit on and you can be off. There’s no bike cleaning or huge muddy (but it will be very sweaty!) kit to worry about after.
- Safe. You won’t get hit by a car, you won’t fall on ice and you won’t damage any kit.
- Cheap. These apps are either free or charge a relatively low monthly subscription. Way cheaper than the local gym.
- Specific. For me the best way to use your indoor time is specific intervals. You can either download sessions your coach has set in Training Peaks or use set training sessions within the apps, or even build your own. You then have the option to ride the workout and you can use ‘ergo’ mode. This will guide you through and add resistance to the trainer to simulate the watts required in the intervals.
- Focused. Used properly its a great way to ‘control’ your winter training build and simulate the key sessions needed to simulate development.
- Interest! The software adds visual stimulation and challenge to make the sessions pass quicker and with more interest than the old ‘staring at the wall’ method.
- Racing. The ability to race others all around the world any time of day or night is a huge attraction. But beware!
The risks of training indoors
The above are some really great benefits to be had from indoor training compared to training outdoor. And used in the right way I think its an excellent tool. That said there are still some downsides:
- Using ‘Ergo’ all the time. This is a great ‘smart’ tool to force your trainer to make you work at the watts in the interval . BUT don’t use it all the time. You need to be able to control your own pace on the road and make these choices in your head, not dictated by a machine
- Doing every session on the turbo. A lot of people do this. My advice is to mix it up, from a mental stimulation benefit as well as a bike handling and real world feel. You could easily train indoor for 6 months without ever going outdoor on the road. Then you turn up at a race. At best your skills will be ‘rusty!’
- Bike position. Just watch that you don’t have two wildly different positions on your turbo bike to your real world bike (if you have the luxury of two). Make sure you replicate your dominant real world racing position on the turbo. It ensures the muscle adaptation is in line with how you will race.
- The very ‘social’ nature of the apps can make them highly addictive! You might want to ride with ‘virtual mates’ all the time. This will generally mean one of 3 things:
- You will not stick to a training plan and just do whatever anyone else is doing NOT something specific for you.
- You will likely go too hard all the time or too easy, either leaving you over tired or literally wasting time.
- You may get ‘hooked’ on the mileage or feet climbed awards and again go against your training plan.
- Lack of specificity. Riding, seeing the virtual scenery and sprinting the sprints or going for a KOM can be great things to try, but you can be in danger of just ‘riding for riding’s sake’ instead .
- Racing. This is a real double edged sword. There are many in the virtual indoor cycling world who almost exclusively target racing on line, they train for it and do it a lot and never race outdoor. If that’s you then great. Also there are others who balance the use of a ZWIFT race in their training plan. Again that works well. But if it is just a tool to support your training be careful!
- How does it fit to your training plan?
- Is your build periodised to include racing now?
- Be aware that (very likely) you will be off your ‘best’ race numbers.
- You will race some people whose physical talents appear unbelievable. And some are, so don’t be too despondent!
Indoor virtual racing – the format and downsides
ZWIFT racing often follows a very similar format, driven by the strength of the fields these days and the computer models that support this type of racing. Generally you have a massive sprint from the line for 60-120secs. Then a group will usually form. Generally no one tries to ‘break away’, especially on the flat as the ‘draft’ software mean you have to be so disproportionately strong to get away. Races on the flat generally follow a ‘group race – sprint format’, SO unless you can hold 10-15w/kg you will struggle!
In hillier races you see attacks on the hills to break and whittle fields down. But often these end in a similar scenario of smaller groups coming to the final kms and a sprint finish. Plus almost all these ZWIFT races are under an hour so they are essentially short crits. This is a very unique way of racing and requires a specific type of fitness so if it’s not your key focus it can be a challenge.
So what is best? Indoor or outdoor training?
So all that said where does that leave us?
My recommendation is a blend of indoor and outdoor training and this is what I tell all my athletes:
- Use the turbo trainer for specific, focused interval sessions where the target is to hit set training zones without fear of road debris, cars, ice or anything else.
- Go out on the road ideally at least once a week, for a base endurance ride.
- DON’T ride in Ergo all the time on the turbo.
- Do race on online if you want to. But don’t get caught up in it (unless it is your key goal to compete at the CVR Cade World cup).
- Use workout builders either in app or via off line tools (Training Peaks etc) to set specificity for your sessions.
- Try and avoid lots of the winter group ‘social rides’. They will likely be at the wrong pace or level (too low or too high) for the specific zones you’re needing to be at. So from a pure training sense they are wasted hours.
- Remember for most us in the Northern Hemisphere winter is the ‘build phase’. We wont be at our best (or shouldn’t be if our race goals are 6+ months away!) so remember this and follow your plan!
Good luck with your winter training and if you want to discuss how some personal tailor made training can help you succeed please get in touch.