Does Zwift Make You Soft? Maybe, maybe not

by Up.Bike

We're starting out 2019 addressing an argument that's been rumbling among cyclists for year. Does riding inside and using software like Zwift and TrainerRoad make you weak?

There's a rather heroic image built around those brave enough to venture out of doors this time of year. The frozen roads glistening with snow, ice, or permanently wet with rain, the wind whipping the weather-worn visage of some lone figure plowing a lonely furrow. Frozen hands, numb feet, and a thorough, saturating cold in every inch of your body; this is just the price you pay to be a 'true' cyclists. Eddy Merckx would have it no other way, and if you listen to the riders over, say, fifty, it's how they always trained during the winter months back in the day. And we've all dipped a toe into those conditions, if not stuck with them as often as possible. For many riders in the Midwest, the safety of groomed trails offer respite from inattentive drivers and ice patches, though riding a fat bike still exposes riders to the cold and wind, with the additional change of slow speeds, inconsistent grooming, and a penchant for beard growth. 

But our question isn't so much about bravado but about actual fitness. Do the traditional long, cold slogs meant to built base miles do more good than shorter bouts indoors, often with some amount of structure workout or interval? Many people have gotten into the debate, and some have actually even conducted studies, rather than just tossed around opinions. As much as we'd love to ride outdoors year-round, weather, short days, long nights, and busy work schedule all mean we often are forced to fit our workouts into a box; even when we have the time to ride long, or make the drive to a groomed trailhead, is it the most efficient use of precious minutes?

To keep things simple, we're going to look at a measure of work and a measure of fun. If we're saying being efficient is the most amount of work (measured in calories, to make it easy), then 60 minutes should see the most calories burned. While you may be able to burn plenty more calories over three, four, or five hours doing base training, outdoor riding is much less efficient than 60 minutes indoors. Even if you don't do a structured workout, trainers have two big things going for them to burn more calories. First, there are no stop signs, and second, there are no descents. According to one study, riding indoors saw athletes burn 761 calories compared to 575 outdoors in the course of an hour, with a higher average heart rate, too. 

There's plenty of evidence that shorter, more intense indoor rides have equal and even greater fitness benefits than long base-building winter rides. There's even anecdotal evidence that it's easier to manage off season weight gain riding indoors, as you don't have the snacks and coffee stops of long winter rides, or the ravenous metabolism that comes along with consistently doing five hour rides.

It's almost a consensus, then, that indoor riding is at least equal to riding outdoors without the risk of crashing or the uncomfortable, numbing of experience. But are riders that can stand the cold tougher, or are they having more fun?

That's the things we can't necessarily measure. Riding in the cold is a bit of an adventure, every single time. Trail or road conditions are inherently variable; they can change throughout a single ride, let alone day to day. Even the best trails have muddy days, wet days, even closures; even the safest roads still carry the threat of one bad driver, or dangerous pothole, or a nerve-rattling close call. Still, the very best cycling experiences come outdoors and often in spite of conditions. Some of our proudest moments have come in freezing cold, subzero fat bike races and in soaking wet rain rides that turned into some of the nicest days of the year, once the weather moved on. There is the invaluable commodity of street cred; braving the cold does immediately make you a tough, but aside from that, it doesn't do much for you that riding a trainer would. 

In the end, neither is truly better. Using both indoor training for its efficiency, safety, and convenience is a great balance to taking on the challenge of long, bad weather rides that may not build fitness, but build just a bit of character, and help us all to appreciate the sunny days of the year...and the warmth of our trainers set up in basements and backrooms all winter long.