Indoor cycling is a good substitute to outdoor cycling in winter; and still offers many of the same health benefits. Discover more.
While we aren’t about to suggest that you abandon real-world cycling and commuting to work by bike, it’s worth thinking about what indoor cycling can do for you.
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Is Indoor Cycling Good for You?
When you’re pedalling on an indoor bicycle, you’re expending energy just as you would on an outdoor bike. This means indoor cycling will lead to weight loss and improved overall fitness, provided that it’s carried out consistently and in combination with the right diet.
How many calories indoor cycling burns however, depends on your pace, but 500 calories an hour is a reasonable expectation. As well as using indoor cycling for weight loss, you can also expect to tone key muscle groups, improve your overall endurance, and generally get fitter and healthier.
As such, few would argue that spending time on an indoor bike isn’t beneficial, provided that it’s done in conjunction with other forms of exercise (like outdoor cycling).
Indoor bike trainers come in three basic varieties.
- Those which use electromagnets to resist the rider
- Those which incorporate a chamber of syrupy fluid to more closely emulate the inertia of a real bike
- Those which consist of a bike sitting freely on a few rollers. Your experience will vary from roller to roller – as will the results you enjoy
How Indoor Cycling Changes Your Body
Let’s look at a few of the muscles targeted by all indoor bikes:
Indoor Bikes and Your Legs
The first muscle group that you’ll tend to feel burning is your quadriceps. These are the large muscles running along the front of your thighs, connecting your hip to your knees. They’re responsible for drawing your lower legs back and forth, which means they play a vital role in the pedalling motion that cycling requires.
Most of their work takes place on the downstroke, but they’re supported on the other side by the hamstrings – the opposing muscles on the back of the thigh.
Of course, the lower legs also play a part in this movement. The muscles here, most notably the calf, will pull your feet down, allowing for more power in each pedal.
Push your feet down with each pedal to get the most from your calves, and pull on the way up to get them ready for the next push. This way, you’ll target your calves, and get the maximum power from your ride.
Indoor Bikes and Your arms, Legs and Abdominals
There’s little chance of a person falling off an indoor exercise bike, which means it won’t engage the muscle groups required for stability and balance in the same way an outdoor bike will. The abdominal and back muscles that make up your core simply won’t be targeted in the same way.
Different sorts of machine will work different supporting muscles, however.
A recumbent bike sees you lying further back, which gives your lower abdominals the chance to pitch in.
On a spinning bike, you’ll need to use your arms to keep yourself upright, which means they’ll get a minor workout too.
Turbo trainers enable you to ride your bike indoors: simply position the rear tyre on a roller, so as you pedal, the roller turns. Some turbo trainers will get harder the faster you pedal, whereas others will need to be adjusted manually – usually by a lever that you can clamp onto your handlebars. Cycling Weekly recommend these turbo trainers.
It’s worth noting that if your posture is correct, you’ll be distributing the workload across several different muscle groups, so you won’t be training any of them to exhaustion. This means that your quads won’t bulk up in the same way they might if you used a squat rack, leg press, or some other weighted contraption, on which you’ll push individual muscles to the brink of failure.
Indoor Cycling and Knee Pain
Indoor cycling has the potential to cause knee pain, particularly if the seat isn’t properly adjusted.
A high seat will force the knee to hyperextend – or reach the end of its range of motion with every single pedal. Doing this repeatedly will, over time, grind away at the knee joint, as well as the hips and back. Ideally you’ll want your knee to bend only slightly when fully extended – so position your seat accordingly.
Indoor Cycling and Hip Pain
Incorrect positioning on an indoor bike can also cause hip pain. If your hips are already aching, these stretches can help to cure your pain.
With every pedal, your hips will need to flex. This will place stress on them and cause them to ache. Hip pain tends to be a common complaint among cyclists, and often results from the hip rotator, and an imbalance between the gluteus maximum (in your buttocks) and the small piriformis muscle on the other side.
The role of the piriformis is to rotate the leg outwards – a motion that cycling doesn’t really call for. As a result, the piriformis becomes shorter and weaker. When overstressed it can then swell to the point at which it exerts pressure on the nearby sciatic nerve.
Will Indoor Cycling Burn Belly Fat?
Whilst it might seem intuitive to suppose that targeting a particular area of the body for exercise will cause that area to shed fat, the fact is that where someone gains or loses fat is entirely down to the individual, and the type of exercises you do will have no bearing on where you lose weight.
That said, simply keep exercising, and eating right, and eventually the belly fat should burn off.
Tracking Your Indoor Cycling Progress
One of the key advantages of indoor cycling is that it’s entirely controllable. That means you’ll be able to keep track of your progress under near-laboratory conditions, and form a more accurate picture of how well you’re doing, and how close you are to reaching targets.
If you’re training at home, then you’ll be able to take advantage of a bevvy of training apps for iOS, Mac and Windows.
While this is still no substitute for cycling outdoors, it’s arguably better than nothing.
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Can Fitbit Track Indoor Cycling?
Fitbit comes with a built-in GPS and step-counter that makes it fantastic for monitoring your progress when you’re out on the open road, but that functionality pretty much goes out of the window when you’re restricted to a single location.
The Fitbit app does, however, allow you to record custom details of your workout for your reference – but then, so does a pen and piece of paper. It’s worth therefore, opting for a model with a built-in heart-rate monitor like the charge HR, which will keep a benchmark of your overall fitness from session to session.
Can Apple Watch Track Indoor Cycling?
Apple watches can track your cycling sessions in much the same way. It senses your heart rate and from there calculates how many calories you’re burning. Get yours configured and you’ll be able to monitor progress.
Indoor Cycling vs Outdoor Cycling
Indoor cycling, as we’ve mentioned, offers several advantages over outdoor cycling.
The biggest of these is one we’ve already explored: you can control conditions, and more accurately monitor your progress by specifying an exact resistance and target speed every time you get into the saddle. That way you can monitor your progress week-by-week.
It's also worth bearing in mind that whatever the weather outside tries to throw at you, you’ll be able to cycle uninterrupted when indoors. This can often be crucial in maintaining momentum in your training schedule.
There’s also no danger of falling off and risking serious injury by sharing a road with motorists (however minor those risks might be), which allows you to push harder than you might on the road. When you aren’t worried about what’s coming around the next corner, you can concentrate more on the rhythm of your pedalling!
With all that said, there’s a reason outdoor cycling remains the hobby-of-choice for most of us. Amongst the biggest disadvantages of indoor cycling, and the one that really matters in the long-term, is that it’s boring.
Outdoor cycling, by contrast, is stimulating and varied. Your route might take you through towns, villages, forests and fields. You’ll also get different terrain to conquer: the great outdoors is packed with inclines and dirt tracks that’ll challenge your body in a way that a stationary bike could never emulate. That’s not to mention the fact that outdoor bikes double as a mode of transportation – i.e. cycling is a great way to get to work.
While indoor cycling could never replace outdoor cycling, it’s still a worthwhile practice for most of us. You’ll be able to make gains on the stationary bike which will translate into improved performance on the road!