Indoor vs Outdoor Cycling

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on November 02, 2020
Expert Content

Indoor and outdoor cycling. They both involve wheels and pedals, and are similar forms of exercise.

But despite their obvious similarities, there are also quite a few differences between the two.

We asked a selected group of experts to deliver their thoughts when it comes to comparing cycling indoors on a stationary bike and outdoors on a moving bike.

Here’s what they said.

There Are Several Key Differences

Jordan Duncan, Owner of Olympic Spine and Sports Rehabilitation

Cycling indoors and outdoors are similar exercises, for example the pedalling motion, and both require sufficient lower extremity strength, adequate mobility (especially in the hips), and the ability to maintain proper trunk posture for prolonged periods of time.

There are key several differences, however, between these two exercises:

• In cycling outdoors, you are training balance and coordination much more than indoors, since the indoor bike is fixed.

• In cycling outdoors, you can coast and conserve energy, whereas you can’t coast while indoors because the wheel doesn’t freely spin.

• In cycling outdoors, you can turn and need greater handlebar control. Indoors, the handlebar is fixed.

Some pros of cycling outdoors include being outside and riding on different kinds of terrain, for example on roads, trails, the beach, etc.

You can ride in groups and participate in races. As stated earlier, you can coast and conserve energy, for example when riding downhill.

Some cons of cycling outdoors are that the weather may not cooperate, and it can be very time intensive in order to get a great workout.

Some pros of cycling indoors include being able to ride indoors, therefore you can comfortably cycle regardless of the weather. It is easier to ride with people of different skill levels in an indoor cycling class because everyone can ride at their own pace.

In addition, you don’t crash when cycling indoors on a stationary bike. A joke among the cycling community is: “There are two types of cyclists: those who have crashed and those who are going to crash.”

Also, if you don’t have a safe road or trail to ride on, cycling indoors is a great option.

A con of cycling indoors is that because the handlebar doesn’t move and you aren’t required to maintain balance of the bike, it doesn’t have the same ‘feel’ as riding freely.

I would recommend cycling indoors to beginners who are interested in riding. You can learn the feel of the motion and ride at your own pace.

If you only have a short period of time to exercise, I would recommend cycling indoors because you can control the intensity to still give you a great workout.

I would recommend outdoor cycling to those who like exercising outdoors, especially those who have tried and enjoy cycling indoors.

In addition, cycling outdoors is a great option for those who enjoy competing and participating in races (e.g. runners and swimmers).

Outdoor Cycling

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Outdoor Cycling Can Be Motivating Without The Music

Casey Cohen, Certified Personal Trainer, beRevolutionarie

Both indoor and outdoor cycling utilize a bike, wheels, pedals and are a form of exercise.

They both require sufficient lower extremity strength, adequate mobility (especially in the hips), and the ability to maintain proper trunk posture for prolonged periods of time. They both also have the same pedalling motion.

Indoor cycling usually is conducted indoors with a stationary bike, music and an instructor. Cycling takes place outside, in the fresh air, the sun and even the rain.

Studies show that compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy, and positive engagement.

A stationary bike, compared to an outdoor bike, uses different muscles to keep you balanced. When you pedal to climb a hill outside, you are using muscles sometimes neglected and really activating your core, in order to make sure that the bike is balanced.

Outdoor cycling is motivating without the music. You take time to focus on your body and embrace the silence rather than be distracted by loud music or a shouting instructor.

It’s also easy to multitask if you are riding outdoors. If you have to run an errand, you can easily take yourself there instead of waiting until the indoor cycling class is over.

Dressing properly to ride outdoors is a huge factor for outdoor cycling. Indoor cycling is, of course, not affected by the weather.

Outdoor cycling can also be cheaper than indoor cycling. You only need to purchase an outdoor bike once that you keep, instead of paying per class.

Outdoor cycling gets different parts of your body moving all the time. That’s why it’s ideal to prefer biking outdoors to taking an indoor class if you seriously want to boost your muscular fitness.

With outdoor cycling, you can get your heart rate as high and burn more calories in the process. It can be difficult, moderate, or much like indoor cycling, depending on what you choose.

For example, regular commuting may feel much easier because it needs very little effort, not to mention that, in this case, you’re biking for leisure and/or just transportation.

Hardcore outdoor cycling, on the other hand, is quite involving and is often suitable for those who want to take their cycling skills to the next level.

Being aware of your surroundings for outdoor cycling is critical. You need to be aware of pedestrians and cars. Indoor cycling on a stationary bike allows you to just focus on being present in the room.

Also, if there’s a problem with your bike outdoors, you might need to find an alternate route home. In an indoor studio, if there is a problem with the stationary bike, they will more than likely replace it with a working bike.

Indoor And Outdoor Cycling Have Their Own Benefits

Pam Moore, Occupational Therapist and Personal Trainer

Cycling outdoors requires skills such as balance and coordination, especially if you’re using clipless pedals, riding in a group on a road ride, or navigating technical terrain on a mountain bike.

This, of course, can be a pro or a con – for those looking to master a new skillset and who want to explore local roads and trails while getting sunshine and fresh air, it’s a huge plus.

On the other hand, if you’re coming back from an injury or just getting into fitness, adding all of this complexity could potentially be overwhelming and a huge turn-off.

Another downside of cycling outdoors is that depending where you live, you might need to drive to the start of your ride, which adds a significant investment of time.

Additionally, riding outside requires a lot of planning; you should have enough water and calories for a longer ride (or in case you get lost!). Ideally, you should also have everything you need to change a flat tire (and the skills to do it if necessary).

I’ve explored the mountains of southern Spain, Colorado, Wyoming, and even ridden across the state of Arizona on my bike and made some great friends in the process.

That said, cycling indoors has its own benefits. You can ride with anyone in an indoors cycling class, regardless of your fitness level.

You don’t need any special gear, don’t need to worry about falling or car accidents, or endure the stress of riding alongside distracted drivers. And there’s no need to worry about wearing the appropriate layers or taking enough water or gels on an indoor ride.

Plus, you can be really efficient with your workout. Without stop signs, hills, or wind, you can get so much more done in a shorter period of time on an indoor bike- while safely listening to your favorite music, catching up on shows, or listening to a podcast if you want.

Outdoor Cycling

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Cycling Outdoors Is Great For the Mind And Soul

Kevin Kennedy, Personal Trainer, Edge Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine

After 25 years of personal training and competing, I now train people to ride, run and row. I used to race bikes but after too many trips to the ER, I have now become a recreational rider that also uses a Peloton bike. I love both – and I encourage people to do both.

My insight is simple. Cycling outdoors is great for the mind and the soul. It clears your head and allows you to vary your workout based on the conditions on the road.

For example, when you climb a hill, you go to the top. That is an effort you don’t get to change in the middle. When you are in a class, you can cut anything short.

Cycling outside is first about survival and second about training. Drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists are a legitimate threat, so you often have to sacrifice effort to stay alive!

Bike handling and the ability to communicate with your fellow riders on the road are skills that take some time to master.

Riding in a group can give you some of the benefits of the group support of an indoor cycling class, but again it greatly increases the risk of a crash when you are close to other riders.

Some of the pros of indoor cycling are that it is safer, easier to master and not limited by weather or sunlight. You also have the support of the group class without risk of crashing.

Some of the cons of indoor cycling are that you will get fitter without practicing riding safely outdoors. In a class, you’ll often also practice things on the bike that don’t apply to riding outside.

For bike handling skills and mental health, outdoor cycling is better. Riding skills increase a sense of accomplishment when you can ride to towns you have only driven to previously. Conquering local climbs is very rewarding, and you can be part of a great supportive community.

Some of the cons of outdoor cycling are that other people are unaware of you, pedestrians will walk in front of you, and cars will cut you off. You need to have decent bike handling skills to get a great workout. You’re also limited by weather and sunlight. If you have a problem with your bike, oftentimes you can find yourself 30 to 60 minutes from home.

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