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We spend countless hours on our bikes, some of it riding for pleasure, but other times pushing ourselves to get fitter.  With the evolution of indoor cycling, we have more freedom to choose how we ride and train.

I spoke with Matt Rowe, from Rowe & King Coaching in a Question & Answer session to better understand the differences in training indoors using a smart trainer versus training outdoors, the value of following a structured plan as well as asking about other key aspects that is often overlooked such as diet and rest.

How does training for indoor and outdoor cycling differ?

One of the big differences between training indoors and training outdoors is your positions on the bike.  If you think about riding outdoors, your bike is free to move, so muscular coordination plays a part.   Getting used to the way you feel sitting on the bike, and all the moving parts, which a lot of that is limited indoors, is key. 

When you ride outdoors with intensity you push the bike and effectively “float from side to side,” especially when sprinting.  When riding indoors, you don’t get that, it’s much more of a “stomping” action and you don’t need to focus on technique as all you are trying to do is produce as high a power as you can, with no regard to aerodynamics, but when you go outside, aerodynamics is a massive factor. 

Obviously, the main difference with indoor cycling is the bike is fixed, outdoors it is not although Tacx has the Neo Motion plates to try and replicate the movement of the bike.  The rigidity of the bike is another factor of your indoor setup. Ultimately you need to ride where your goals are, whether that is outdoors or indoors.

What are the benefits of training outdoors?

Benefits of training outdoors is that most people’s goals are outdoors so you’re training in the environment that you’re going to need to perform in.  Weather conditions being the big factor and the inertia and the feel is different.

The social enjoyment aspect such as connecting with friends and being out in nature is a massive huge part, when indoor training, yes you can jump on Discord but being outdoors, there’s no real replication for riding next to your friend and most get into it through the love of being outdoors.    There’s a wide range of terrain to tackle and these indoor training apps do a very good job at mimicking and replicating various terrains, but it’s not quite like doing it in practise in the real world.

What are the benefits of training indoors?

Heat stress is an added stressor that can benefit you physiologically, via increasing blood plasma volume and improving your ability to regulate body temperature.  Training indoors, it is easier to execute specific efforts in the very controlled environment as well as being efficient with your time.    

What are the common mistakes made when training indoors?

Common mistakes when training indoors is not cooling yourself adequately, or neglecting the need for cooling and the impact that it has. Most people who race of Zwift have multiple fans, you do need industrial fans, you need to keep yourself cool, otherwise you won’t get good results in terms of power compared to outdoors.  Effectively, without cooling, you will struggle to produce your outdoor form, indoors. Also, too much intensity. This is just doing races and doing everything near the max.  The biggest mistake is too much intensity and not enough endurance.

What are the common mistakes when training outdoors?

Common mistakes when training outdoors is tricking yourself into thinking you’ve got good quality endurance miles done in a club run, in a group, where a lot of the time you are sat in the wheels.  With a power meter, it’s easier to quantify but traditionally you go on a four-hour club run and you think you have done four hours of training but actually, depending on how much you have done on the front of the group, you haven’t actually trained as well as you could have done. 

The mistake from training outdoors is getting caught up in too many group rides that are not challenging enough and spending too much time in the wheels barely pushing watts – basically too much time on wheels producing very little watts.

What is the value of structured training?

It helps ensure you don’t waste your time. So sometimes, less is more and riding easier and taking days off is going to benefit you.  Helping to give you confidence as well is a big thing, confidence in what you’re doing and having a well-structured plan laid out in front of you takes the thinking away and one that fits around your lifestyle. That’s what a structured plan should do.

What is the value of following a plan?

It’s a quicker route to success.  It’s a quicker route to improvement essentially.  A well-structured training plan from a qualified, experience coach is going to increase your chance of improving and make you a better rider.

How long does it take to see improvements?

It’s difficult to say but let’s take your average rider, who has been cycling a couple of years, I would say after 6 weeks, if you took a baseline, did some tests, in 6 weeks you will definitely see an improvement.

How should you judge improvements?

Quantification is power.  Power (watts) over a set duration.  But a real-world example is when you’re going out with friends and someone comments “You are going well.”  Those are powerful indicators, also in amongst your group noticing yourself increasing in “the pecking order” so to speak, improving your position, how you stack up against your peers.  With Strava, and tracking everything and setting PR’s across segments is a good indicator.  But ultimately, it’s power and the power to heartrate relationship, are you able to produce a high power for the same heartrate or the same power for a lower heartrate, is genuinely a sign of improved fitness.

In your experience, what are the main obstacles that stop people reaching their goals and how can they be avoided?

The main obstacle is not being clear enough and realistic with the time able to train.  Over committing basically. You set out in the first couple of weeks and you are stretching your personal life so you cut workouts, you start not fulfilling obligations, it’s manageable short term but not long term.  The key obstacle is being realistic about your time available to train. 

What is recovery and how important is it?

Essential! It’s only when you allow your body time to recover, that it has time to restore muscle function and improve performance.

Looking at endurance sports, which cycling is – along with time off training, nutrition is essential for optimised recovery.

Carbohydrate and protein provide the substrates to enhance glycogen resynthesis and remodel skeletal muscle proteins, respectively, both of which would be important to become a fitter and stronger bike rider.

What should you do to aid recovery after a training session?

Nutrition. Refuelling quickly and efficiently, protein and carbohydrate intake and not neglecting either of them and getting high quality rest. A bit of quiet time, like an hour on the sofa especially around hard training days.  On the weekend, say if you do 4 hours, if you factor in somewhere to have an hour high quality rest that will stand you in good stead. Factor in high quality rest and refuelling properly.

How does diet impact your training?

Diet, if you don’t fuel properly, you won’t have the energy to complete the workouts so it becomes apparent when you add intensity, so if you are not fuelling properly, you are not going to get the most out of your session as you won’t have enough carbohydrate and glycogen stores will be burned through and you will be running on empty.

What are the most important factors to consider when training? 

Training alignment to your goals.

Summing up

Some really insightful points from Matt Rowe, the key takeaways for me personally is about being realistic about the time you have to train, utilising what time you have effectively by having a plan and focus on supporting aspects that are often neglected such as diet and rest.  It’s evident that minor changes can play an important part in helping us improve. For more information visit