Are turbo trainers more effective than cycling outdoors?

What are the fitness benefits of turbo training compared with road cycling? Which is best for strength and which is best for fitness?

woman riding a turbo trainer while indoor cycling

Just how beneficial is turbo training compared to cycling outdoors? With dark evenings and a limited number of daylight hours, it’s a timely question. Here’s Nik Cook to explain the answer.

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From a top-end fitness perspective, generally work that’s FTP [functional threshold power, the average number of watts that a rider can sustain in an hour] and above, the turbo is king.

This is mainly because, especially if you’re using ERG mode (where a smart turbo holds you at a set wattage), you do exactly the efforts that the session demands of you – no junctions, pot-holes or other road users to distract you.

For strength work on the bike, which basically boils down to big gear/low cadence intervals, you can certainly do these sort of sessions on the turbo and, especially if you live in an area devoid of hills, it’s probably your best best.

However, a big part of strength on the bike is trunk stability, providing a stable pedalling platform and controlling how the bike moves underneath you. On a turbo, you don’t have to do this so, arguably, for those grind-fest sessions, IRL is the way to go.

For endurance fitness, although platforms such as Zwift have definitely made indoor endurance rides more tolerable, just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Yes, if the weather makes riding outdoors unfeasible or dangerous, jumping on your turbo is definitely better than not doing a ride but, especially in the lead-up to key events, you should be making every effort to get out and ride for real.

‘Fitness’ for an event is not just about fitness, it also encompasses how well you handle your bike, how effectively you can fuel your effort on the fly and whether you can adapt to changing weather and road conditions.

If you spend all of your time bolted to a turbo and chasing avatars, these key aspects of ‘fitness for triathlon’ are going to be woefully lacking.

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Image credit: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images