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Is Road-Biking Better Than Gym-Biking?

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

This is an article by Helen Traynor

If it’s raining, the roads are crowded, or our bikes are out of action, plenty of us like to maintain our training by hitting those stationary bikes at the gym. Few of us would argue that the view of the gym mirror is as compelling as the natural landscape unfolding before you as you cycle. Or that the still and sweaty gym air pressing around your face is as exhilarating as the breeze whistling past your ears. But we’re a little more unsure when it comes to the question of which is ‘better’ for us. Do stationary bikes provide as good a workout as outdoor bikes? Do they give the same health benefits? As with most things, it’s a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other. And a lot of it depends upon your own personal proclivities, and the intensity at which you engage with either form of cycling. Here’s a quick weigh-up of the two...

Musculature

Stationary bikes come equipped with a flywheel, usually weighing between 30 and 40 pounds. The aim of this is to provide the kind of resistance one would push against on the road. However, the complex forces working on a road bike are extremely hard to emulate correctly, so what we’ve got is a compromise whereby pushing the pedals is harder, but the force of resistance stays more or less in one place. What this means is that the major muscles you work on a stationary bike are your hamstrings, while outdoor biking involves much more detailed muscular engagement. While you’re on a road bike, you’re not only propelling yourself forwards (over varying terrain which requires the use of differing muscle groups), you’re also balancing yourself, and dealing with cross-wind resistance, potentially from many directions. Road biking therefore requires you to use your quadriceps and hip flexors a lot, as well as your shins, your calves, your abdominals (marginally, for balance), and your arm muscles (while steering and, again, balancing yourself). This is why people with long-term musculoskeletal conditions are often advised by insurers and doctors to avoid cycling on the roads, but are allowed to use the cycle trainers at gyms. In theory, therefore, road biking provides a much more detailed workout than the hamstring-concentrated gym version. However, muscle-group usage isn’t the only factor at play, here. One also has to consider how hard these muscles are getting worked...

Effort

Assuming that the same amount of effort is going into both, road biking wins hands down on the calorie-burning, muscle-working front. However, the amount of effort involved in the two is rarely the same. Some people find that stationary biking is simply too ‘boring’. They lack the motivation to continue, and lack the ‘distraction’ from bodily aches provided by things like the landscape whizzing past which you get while you’re biking outdoors. However, others find the gym a far more motivational environment than the road, due to the presence of trainers, music, gym buddies and the like. It’s also worth noting that road-biking is a far more stop-start affair than stationary biking. Those who cycle outdoors slow down to avoid obstacles, they free-wheel down hills, they pause to admire the view...While stationary biking involves a good deal of consistent effort, you have to be extremely dedicated, and have a very clear stretch of road in order to put the same amount of consistent effort into road biking. So it’s a bit of a moot point. For the majority of people, it’s easier to maintain consistent movement on a stationary bike than it is on a road bike, meaning that stationary biking wins on the calorie-burning front for the average person. But, for those who are able to put the steady effort into road biking, it’s a far better workout overall.

And The Rest...

As we’ve mentioned, stationary biking is pretty dull when compared to road biking. Even if you like this ‘dullness’ and lack of distraction, your brain will thank you more for taking it out on the roads. Exercise is always good for the brain - but it’s at its best when it allows the brain to stretch its own ‘muscles’ a bit. Road biking stimulates the brain with all the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors - proven to be extremely good for our mental health - as well as keeping our cognitive abilities sharp with all of those micro-decisions you have to make while cycling outdoors. However, stationary biking is undoubtedly convenient for when the weather is appalling, or other factors conspire to keep you off the road. Furthermore, if you’re canny, you can use stationary bikes in an interesting way (pedalling backwards, for example) in order to mix up your muscular workout. So, while stationary bikes are never going to be a substitute for the thrill of road-biking, they can be a very useful way of getting some good training in when you’re unable or unwilling to get on the road itself!