How do we get through autumn and winter cycling? What are the advantages and disadvantages of indoor and outdoor cycling? Probably all cyclists ask themselves exactly these questions at this time of year. Some swear by indoor cycling in winter, others practice alternative sports, and still others cycle outdoors all year round. Steffi and Sandra talk about their personal experiences on how to best survive the dark months and deal with the advantages and disadvantages of different training options. They both adapt their training and cycling to the changing conditions.
Another article will deal with the topic of indoor vs. outdoor equipment.
Indoor and outdoor cycling - how to get through autumn and winter
Cycling in autumn and winter - What are the options?
1. Indoor cycling at home
Another big plus are virtual races, which are freely accessible to everyone. Virtual races offer several advantages. For one, you don’t need any previous experience (perfect for little chickens like me, Steffi, who don’t feel ready for doing real races), nor do you have to be a member of a club. Whether you’re pedalling 50 or 500 watts – there’s a race to suit every level of strength and ability. In addition, there are no costs and time for travelling and no race fees (the monthly fee for Zwift, for example, is €14.99 and can be cancelled monthly).
Head off, legs on - virtual races, intensive training and relaxation
Another advantage, especially for me, Steffi, is that you can test your personal limits in virtual races and intensive training sessions without risk and get to know, analyse and develop your own physical performance. You learn to understand how to read and interpret data and know in which performance ranges you are riding at your limits, where your strengths and weaknesses lie, as well as race strategies. There are many mixed races, a wide range of different races for women and a growing number of women’s teams.
Even without races or training sessions, indoor cycling serves as a perfect outlet for stress and less exercise in winter. Following the motto “head off – legs on”, music and podcasts can be listened to without risk, or a film or bike race can be watched on the side. There are also numerous Discord channels and Facebook groups where you can communicate with other indoor cyclists.
Safe Space at home
Indoor cycling - usually practised within one's own home - also creates safe spaces for people who do not feel comfortable cycling outdoors for various reasons. It can also be helpful to slowly get back into cycling indoors after an accident or other injuries.
Financial expenditure for indoor cycling
A prerequisite is usually a smart trainer and a reasonably good computer or phone. This disadvantage is basically always found in cycling. The hobby of cycling usually costs a lot and is elitist traits. This is especially true of indoor cycling. A medium to high-class indoor set-up with a smart trainer, fan, heart rate monitor and additional fun features such as a cadence and watt meter can easily cost over €1000. The financial factor is clearly the biggest negative aspect for me, as it excludes a lot of people. However, there are possibilities to rent new and used trainers on a monthly basis, for example via Paceheads.
Noise, sweat and mould
In old flats and houses, a little more caution is advised. On the one hand, the neighbours might feel disturbed by the background noise from the trainer and possibly music, podcast, TV, and on the other hand, these flats are prone to mould. I therefore recommend using a dehumidifier during and after training to filter out excessive humidity that cannot be removed by ventilation and to prevent mould and bad smells.
Another negative point is the space that is needed to leave the set-up optimally and, if possible, for the whole winter. Not everyone has an extra room and probably has to share a flat/house with other people. Depending on the trainer, setting up and dismantling takes some time and wears out material, so I try to move the trainer as little as possible.
Wear and tear
To prevent material wear, it is advisable to protect the bike, trainer and mat from sweat and to clean and disinfect them regularly. Indoor trainers with a clamped rear wheel usually require an extra indoor tyre that is more abrasion resistant. In order not to have to change the tyre every time, some people get an extra wheel, which however comes with extra costs.
Compared to cycling outdoors, wear and tear during indoor training is low. The brakes are not worn at all and the drive, i.e. chain, sprockets and chainrings, get less dirty and are therefore not additionally stressed by environmental influences. On the other hand, you may have to pedal harder during interval training or virtual races.
Position on the bike
Indoor cycling is optimal for short and intensive sessions (≈ 1-1.5 h). However, those who like to cycle long distances might not enjoy it as much. Due to the relatively static position on the trainer, incorrect positions are noticed more quickly and sitting discomfort, numbness in the hands or feet, etc. could occur. Of course, this varies from person to person and has to be tested individually.
On the whole, the advantages of indoor cycling in autumn and winter outweigh the disadvantages for Steffi. It is the perfect complement to longer outdoor rides at the weekend and relaxed yoga sessions in the morning. Indoor cycling will never be able to create the impressions and effects that cycling in the fresh air and daylight can offer, but it opens up a whole new and exciting area in cycling and for Steffi is less an attempt of a replacement and more an extension.
2. Outdoorcycling in Autumn and Winter
The advantages of cycling in the fresh air are obvious: fresh air, sunshine and especially for people who spend a lot of time at home in their studies or at work, outdoor sports help them to leave the flat – not only for errands in the supermarket.
Tageslicht, frische Luft und Gesundheit
One advantage of cycling outdoors is that exercise takes place in fresh air. The body needs daylight to produce vitamin D. This in turn is essential for the immune system, as it ensures that important immune cells can be activated, the T-cells. Vitamin D also improves calcium absorption and is therefore important for bone stability.
Another benefit of outdoor exercise is that it can prevent (winter) depression. Depressed, listless, a craving for sweets and constant fatigue are symptoms that accompany it. Daylight reduces the release of melatonin (aka sleep hormone), which is responsible for our sleep-wake rhythm, and stimulating hormones such as cortisol and serotonin are activated. This is also where the explanation for a craving for sweets is hidden, because foods rich in sugar also cause an increase in serotonin levels. Serotonin belongs to the happiness hormones and is known as the feel-good hormone. So it's worth getting daily doses of daylight in the fresh air.
Choice of Clothes
Getting dressed takes much longer in autumn and winter, more clothes have to be put on. The onion principle has proven itself here, because a layer can be quickly added or taken off if necessary. When there are strong temperature fluctuations during the day, I find it particularly difficult to choose the right clothes. Because everything that is taken off later has to be stowed somewhere on the bike. A frame bag or a saddle bag can help to stow the clothes if the jersey pockets are not sufficient.
Sufficiently warm and, if necessary, waterproof clothing is important to be comfortable on the road in autumn and winter. But that doesn’t have to mean buying everything new if you don’t have suitable cycling clothes yet. Maybe your ski gloves have the right thickness to keep your fingers warm? Maybe your wardrobe has a pair of thermal running pants that can be pulled over a pair of bib shorts? Maybe there’s a softshell jacket hanging on the coat rack? Or an insulating jacket?
Let there be light - Poor visibility and darkness
Especially in autumn and winter, days with poor visibility are common. Sunrise is late and sunset early. Rain and fog also lead to poor visibility. That is why it is all the more important to have bicycle lights with you and to use them. Reflectors and high visible colours are also recommended to be seen well. A tip: Pay attention to how well you perceive other people in road traffic and what leads you to recognize other people well and early or what is the reason why you noticed the person very late.
Riding safety and staying warm
In autumn and winter, many road cyclists switch to gravel bikes or cyclocross. For Sandra, a decisive advantage of this is that the body stays warmer. There are several reasons for this:
- The riding speed is lower, so the wind is less strong and cools the body less.
- When riding on uneven terrain, the whole body is used more. This means that more muscle groups are active, and the body stays warmer.
Bike handling on uneven terrain is not only good for staying warm, it also improves your bike handling skills. If you have the bike well under control in many situations, you can handle dicey situations better and feel safer on the bike.
Bicycle races in autumn and winter
There are also bike races in winter. Very big in Belgium and the Netherlands; less common in Germany are cyclocross races. There are races for riders with UCI licences and also hobby races. In the race, riders have to complete a circuit of 1.5 to 3 kilometres several times. After 1 to 2 laps, the total number of laps to be completed is displayed. The number of laps is calculated from the lap time of the fastest person and the indicated race duration. Sounds more complicated than it is. If in doubt, someone will also let you know when to stop.
Race courses of cyclocross races are varied: meadows, sand, mud, short steep climbs and descents, barriers and stairs can be included in the course. To be faster, it is worth practising getting on and off the bike quickly in advance. That’s all Sandra does to prepare for the race
3. Combining outdoor and indoor cycling
It is also possible to combine indoor and outdoor cycling. This adds up all the advantages of both training options, but disadvantages such as high costs also add up, of course. The advantages of this are that sport and exercise can take place in the fresh air. In case of darkness, slipperiness or other inconveniences, cycling can be done quickly and effectively at home. For example, it’s ideal to move long sessions outside and do intense sessions indoors.
4. Alternative training
In addition, training to strengthen the upper body muscles is highly recommended (core training). Core training improves the transfer of power to the pedal. If the pelvis remains stable, less work is wasted and more power reaches the pedal. Such training also helps to prevent issues in everyday life. Of course, it is particularly good if strengthening exercises are carried out all year round. Yoga can also include many exercises that strengthen the core muscles. In addition, flexibility is improved and a feeling for one’s own body is developed.
Fotos: Daniel Fleckenstein & Vincent Hoyer
5. Winter break
Simply get your mind off things. Over the winter, the bike can go into hibernation due to many factors. There are much shorter daylight hours and the time to ride outside is therefore very limited. For those who are busy with work and family and can’t afford or don’t want to buy equipment for the winter, taking a break may be an option. It all depends on the objective. Despite the advantages of being active all year round, it is also perfectly okay and legitimate to take a break.
For your physical and mental health, it’s a good idea to be active even in winter. After all, in case of doubt, the winter break can be longer than one would like. There are varied options to keep up fitness and exercise levels.
Advantages and disandvatages of indoor and outdoor cycling
The amount of preparation and follow-up is bigger for outdoor cycling than for indoor cycling. Maybe the lunch break has to be blocked for cycling in order to get outside during daylight. Maybe the bike needs to be adapted for fall and winter, maybe additional equipment needs to be purchased. But it’s worth it when all the adjustments are made.
Indoor cycling, on the other hand, can be done quickly somewhere in between or even 10 p.m. without additional equipment. At the beginning, however, you have to invest in a suitable indoor trainer.
Both, outdoor cycling and indoor cycling have advantages and disadvantages. The overview lists many of them.
|INDOOR CYCLING||OUTDOOR CYCLING|
training is possible at any time
preparation is fast
time window with daylight is short
dressing takes forever
|SPACE|| enough space for the trainer?|
tied to the location
you need space for the trainer even in summer
risk of mold growth
no additional space required
less traffic on paths and streets compared to summer
|DIRT, SWEAR AND DIRTY CLOTHES|
bicycle needs to be protected from sweart
significantly more and dirtier laundry (undressing in front of the apartment or in shower/bathtub has proven to be effective in order not to spread the dirt everywhere)
more dirt enters the flat / house
depending on the trainer, increased tire wear (there are special indoor tires)
less wear on the drive and brakes
getting to know bicycle mechanics
dirt, road salt and wetness attack the bicycle. Regular cleaning, checking and lubrication are important
high purchase cost
maybe monthly costs for applications
no additional costs for races and public transport to get to races
winter clothes are expensive
higher maintenance costs due to higher wear caused by dirt
|TOTAL EXPENSES||rather low||rather high|
|NEIGHBORHOOD||noise may disturb neighbors||dirt in staircase|
less oxygenated air
less sunlight (vitamin d deficiency possible)
training on fresh air
daylight may prevent (winter) depression
online exchange possible (e.g. in Facebook groups, Discord channel)
virtual group rides and races
no face to face contacts
personal contacts when participating in group rides (in big cities there are often after-work rides or weekend rides)
dates with friends
short and effective training possible
no travel, no empty kilometers
Head off, legs on – pay attention to nothing but the training program. No other traffic participants, no roads, no intersections play a role.
test (physical) limits
getting to know your body (e.g. cadence, wattage)
constant seating position can quickly become uncomfortable
training in real conditions
testing limits – improving skills in more difficult conditions
getting to know your own body – how does it work in the cold?
empty kilometers (way to the training track)
|BIKEHANDLING||no special skills necessary||improvement of bike handling|
at any time of the day or night (24/7)
daily also many women only and mixed races
ideal for people who are afraid of a road race
long journey and higher costs
only a few races available
food is available quickly (nearby kitchen)
it is hardly possible to drink as much as you are thirsty for
often people do not drink enough in the cold
winter closure of some cafes and places to stop for refreshments
|SAFETY||low risk of accident|
Risk of falling due to slippery conditions
car drivers may be less likely to anticipate cyclists, which increases the risk of not being noticed.
And how do I decide?
There is no wrong decision. Everything is right. The important thing is to find the right approach for yourself. No matter whether indoor or outdoor cycling, alternative training or winter break. The important thing is that you feel good with your decision, which of course can always be different and be made anew.
A good starting point for a (first) decision is what equipment you have already: Do you have clothes that are comfortable enough for cycling in cold and wet conditions? Do you have an indoor trainer? Do you have neither, but live in a snowy area and have winter sports equipment? Do you have running shoes and running clothes? Do you have a yoga class or maybe sign up for online yoga?
Whether with indoor or outdoor cycling, alternative sports or a break: Get through the dark season well!