Is Biking Outside Better For You Than Indoor Cycling?

Photographed by CJ Isaac.
With gray clouds turning to warm, sunny skies, you might find yourself dragging your cycling shoes to an indoor class. Luckily, this pleasant weather means you can take your cycle love right back to where it all started: the great outdoors. But what’s really better for increasing your heart rate, burning more calories, and increasing muscle use? Clicking into your stationary bike or putting the pedal to the pavement?

Outdoor Cycling
There’s something rewarding about biking up a steep incline, reaching the top, flying down, and feeling the wind in your hair. While you might think those moments of coasting downhill during your ride result in less of a workout than pedaling for an hour in an indoor cycling class, a small study from the University of Nebraska at Omaha found that’s not the case. Researchers told the 12 cyclists in the study to exert the same perceived effort — a measure of intensity based on a scale — for the indoor and outdoor trials. They discovered the cyclists exerted more power and had higher heart rates when riding outdoors than when they cycled indoors.

In addition to raising your heart rate, you’ll also target more muscles. A stationary bike works the hamstrings harder; riding on varied terrain, pushing up hills, and turning corners requires the power of your major lower-body muscles, including your glutes, hamstrings, quads, shins, and calves.

Indoor Cycling
If you’re stuck on the convenience factor of an indoor bike — because, let’s face it, just showing up to class is a lot less time-intensive than tuning a bike and traveling to a trail — you’ll still receive many of the benefits of outdoor cycling. In fact, the 30- to 40-pound fixed wheel on a Spinning bike provides resistance throughout your workout, so you can’t freewheel or coast like you would on a regular bike. Your muscles work the entire time, and your hamstrings must push even harder to slow the pedals during a cycling class, resulting in a high-intensity activity.

Your heart also profits from this non-stop pedal practice. That free wheel forcing your legs to continue pumping also keeps you performing at 75 to 96% of your maximum heart rate, a study by the American Council on Exercise found. So while you might not be targeting every major muscle in your lower body as you are when riding the hills and corners on your outdoor bike, you are working consistently with very few breaks, pushing your heart rate to its maximum power.

The Winner
Both indoor and outdoor rides result in a major workout, but each offers its own set of benefits. The change in scenery and terrain during an outdoor bike ride can make your perceived effort of cycling indoors feel more difficult; plus, you will target more leg muscles outdoors. However, your heart rate and oxygen intake often increase more during an inside ride.

If you want the "outdoor" workout during a cycling class, kick up your resistance by a notch or two. And of course, if you want to work on increasing your heart rate and oxygen intake while pedaling outdoors, choose a trail with more hills and limit your coasting.

In the end, cycling comes down to personal preference, so give each option a shot. You might just find yourself dashing to an indoor class when it’s pouring rain or grabbing for your helmet and padlock when the skies are clear and roads are dry.
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