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The Better Workout: Indoor Cycling vs. Outdoor Cycling

The Better Workout: Indoor Cycling vs. Outdoor Cycling

Have you ever been in a cycling class or walked by the stationary bikes at the gym and wondered whether they give you as good (or better) of a workout as riding a bike outdoors? You’re about to find out in this comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of outdoor and indoor cycling.

First, it’s important to understand that the majority of indoor bikes are different than normal road, mountain or triathlon bikes. Most of these bikes have a “fly wheel," which is a 30 to 40 pound wheel that provides the resistance as you pedal. This is the primary reason the pedals on these bikes keep moving after you stop pedaling.

As a result of this fly wheel, your hamstrings (back of your legs) must work harder to slow down the pedals as they come around. In contrast, the when you’re outdoors, you’re pedaling against the friction of road and wind resistance, and this motion requires more work from your hip flexors and quadriceps.

Because of this fly wheel, it’s very easy to let these bikes “do the work for you," since once you get that wheel spinning, it’s very easy to keep it moving. This is why lots of people in cycling class can appear to be pedaling very fast when they’re actually not doing much work at all. (For more on what not to do in a cycling class, click here.)

Here’s the breakdown:

Fitness

Indoor Cycling: A study by the American Council On Exercise (ACE) observed that a typical cycling class keeps you at around 75 to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate. That’s pretty good. Big motivators might be the heat of an indoor cycling room, the peer pressure of cycling classmates and the motivation of an instructor barking orders in your face, but regardless, it’s a good enough heart rate to get a very good cardiovascular response. However, as you’ve just learned, indoor cycling bikes tends to use primarily your hamstring muscles because of that fly-wheel, which means more help from the bike and fewer overall calories burned.

Outdoor Cycling: Serious cyclists and professional cyclists can easily get their heart rate as high and higher as those in a cycling class. But most recreational cyclists just have a hard time pedaling that fast while balancing the bike, navigating, and not having the motivation of a crowd and an instructor. In contrast to an indoor bike, you use your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, shins and calves more when you’re on a bike outside — so your muscular fitness will likely be higher if you don’t spend much of your time "cruising." But once again, you need to be working hard enough to hit those muscles with adequate force to make them stronger and to burn significant calories, and many people just don’t ride a bike that hard.

Fitness Summary: For the average person, indoor cycling wins. For those committed to outdoor cycling, riding a bike can get better results (and get you outdoors more).

Difficulty

Indoor Cycling: Because you’re riding a stationary bike, indoor cycling can get boring fast, and it can also use the same muscles over and over again (no ascents and no descents). This can certainly make indoor cycling seem more difficult than outdoor biking. But the pounding music, group atmosphere and instructor motivation can help with this.

Outdoor Cycling: Unless you’re in a hardcore road race, outdoor cycling goes by much faster and generally feels much easier from an effort standpoint. If you want to take cycling to the next level, there are technical skills required that can quickly make cycling become more difficult than spinning.

Difficulty Summary: For the most part, doing anything indoors, whether running, rowing or cycling, will feel harder, and a big part of that is the boredom component.

Convenience

Indoor Cycling: Let’s face it — riding a stationary bike is way more convenient. You simply get on the bike or show up to class and go. The most inconvenient part, for many, is getting to the gym.

Outdoor Cycling: Outdoor cycling can be logistically messy. You need to dress appropriately, bring a tire change (and know how to change a tire), be ready for rough weather, deal with stop lights, stop signs and traffic, and the list goes on. Then again, a bike sitting in your garage is more accessible than a indoor bike you need to drive to the gym to access.

Convenience Summary: It’s a toss up. If you own an indoor bike, that route is probably more convenient, especially in inclement weather.

Indoor Cycling vs. Outdoor Cycling Summary:

You’re going to get a great workout with both indoor and outdoor and cycling. If you’re not into hard outdoor riding and have to deal with lots of traffic, riding a stationary bike is likely a better choice. If you’re committed to become a “technical” cyclist and have lots of open roads, cycling will probably get you better results.

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