Winter Cycling – Indoors or Outdoors?

Cyclists don’t have to look very far to find discussions about how to deal with winter in Canada.  There’s considerable information online about how to train indoors over the winter.  There’s also a lot of people who will ride outdoors in just about any weather conditions. And there are obvious benefits to both options.

I can’t tell you which option is better for you because it’s a very personal decision.  What I can tell you is that there’s no straight answer that fits everyone.  I’ve read a lot of opinions about this subject and I disagree with the polarizing nature of some comments, so I’m going to try to keep the tone of this post inclusive.

First, my perspective:  I will always choose to ride outdoors because for me, there’s no substitute for simply being outside.  I acknowledge that there are options that make indoor training less painful than it used to be, but it will always be less desirable for me than being outside.

That said, I have spent many hours on my indoor training over the years.  I’ve tried Zwift, training videos and workouts, watching movies or hockey games while spinning the pedals indoors.  And there’s no question that I get a good workout from it. Indoors, you can focus your workout.  You’re in an environment where you have complete control over your power and you can set up your workout to include your warm up, intervals and recovery.

But…. it’s indoors and you’re not moving anywhere or seeing anything new (unless your basement or gym has been redecorated).

For me, cycling is not only about the exercise; it’s also about being outside, feeling the outdoor air on my skin, seeing the landscape during the different seasons, smelling the fresh air.  It can be a hard workout or a casual ride in the country, or the forest, or in the city, but it’s outdoors!

This past weekend, as I sat on the couch watching the Winter Olympics, I found myself having an internal debate that I often have this time of year: Should I bundle up and get outside on my bike, or should I ride indoors on my trainer?  I was on the fence and could have fallen either way (or I could have simply talked myself out of riding altogether).  It was about -2C, overcast and there was freezing rain in the forecast.  So I sat there until a decision was made:  I’d bundle up and get outside.  I chose my fatbike and planned to ride through nearby neighbourhoods, maybe some of the Grand River Trail and try to get in an hour ride.  I bundled up and hit the road headed out.

About halfway into my ride, it started to rain.  Winter rains like this provide a good excuse to stay indoors.  If it was raining like this when I was undecided about riding, I may have postponed my decision.  But I was already out there, warmed up and moving and my winter gear is waterproof,  so I stuck with it and got in a 12 km, one-hour workout. And the scenery included huge ice blocks on the trail:

For me, cycling outside will always beat indoor training.  But I’ll never disagree with the benefits of indoor cycling for many people.  Here’s a list of a few of the pros and cons of indoor versus outdoor winter cycling:

Outdoor – Pros

  • It’s outdoors – you get to feel the fresh air with all your senses
  • On the right trails, you can get near-perfect singletrack… like this:

  • Your body adapts to the temperature and once you’re warmed up, you’ll be surprised how you don’t feel the cold (with the proper winter clothing).

Outdoor – Cons

  • It can be cold, icy, slippery
  • It can be expensive to get the right clothing and gear

Indoor – Pros

  • You can focus your workout with intervals, tabatas, 20/40s, 30/30s etc.
  • Software like Zwift make it more tolerable that it used to be

Indoor – Cons

  • It’s indoors
  • You don’t actually go anywhere
  • You could be riding outdoors

Everyone has to do what works for them, but my preference will always be to ride outdoors, since indoor cycling is too much suffering for me.

Endnote:  I had my 45NRTH Wolfhammer boots out for a second ride.  I rode on some wet, slushy roads and my feet stayed dry.  It didn’t get too cold, so I still haven’t tested them in extreme cold, but so far, they’ve been comfortable and dry!

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