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Though it's not the case for everyone, I'm comfortable biking through four seasons and this keeps me in an acceptable condition.

Say that I entered a race and wanted to train to improve my performance. Would there be any advantages to using a bike trainer for some or all of my training, versus doing all of my riding on the road?

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    Trainers make it somewhat easier to do structured interval sessions where it may not be easy to find an appropriate/safe section of road for it. This is especially true of smart trainers with erg mode (though I personally don't like it that much). May 21 at 3:34
  • 4
    @WillVousden that's an answer, please.
    – Criggie
    May 21 at 10:19

5 Answers 5

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If your goal is to train, the trainer is a good complement to riding outside:

  • control of the training: the companion apps are usually proposing modes/exercices that can be difficult to replicate on the road in your area.
  • you can "ride" when you want: personal example, I don't like to ride during the night, the trainer opens the possibility to train at this period during the week.
  • you can have a feel of conditions that do not exist in your area: if you live in the Netherlands, a trainer can give you a (limited) feel of the kind of effort required to ride an Alpine pass.
  • you can try harder than you would normally do on a ride: since you don't have to bother about coming back, it's somehow easier to 'explore' the limits. If you've tried too hard on a trainer, you can just stop.
  • the social aspects can make it stimulating, as riding alone for training can be boring.
  • since you don't have to concentrate on the road and the traffic, you can combine it with stuff like watching a TV show or listening to a podcast

But there are aspects that the trainer doesn't train for: managing wind, riding in group/peloton, riding techniques (improving your cornering skills for example), endurance training (you 'can' do endurance training on a trainer, but after 1 hour, the trainer starts to be boring for me).

But of course, you don't have one of the fun parts of biking, which is to be in the outdoors enjoying some nice landscape and if it applies to you the adrenaline rush because of speed.

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    A big advantage is that you can train at precisely the intensity you want without getting slowed down by traffic, traffic lights, road conditions, descents etc. You can also train long&effectively when it’s really cold outside. It’s very safe and easy, you don’t have to worry about bringing water, lights, tools, clothing etc.
    – Michael
    May 21 at 9:16
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    The evidence that precise control of training intensity produces better outcomes than less precise control is weak. Also, it's not clear that indoor trainers make training for the Alps while in the Netherlands more effective -- even the best of the current generation of smart trainers cannot replicate the crank inertial load of a real Alpine or Pyreneen climb.
    – R. Chung
    May 21 at 16:15
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    IMHO, If you are concentrating on a podcast or TV, you are not training, you are merely exercising while doing something more interesting.
    – mattnz
    May 22 at 2:40
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    @Renaud Watts/kg are pretty much watts/kg, so if you can improve your watts/kg on a trainer, that mostly translates to improved watts/kg while climbing. Likewise, if you can improve your watts/kg riding outdoors in the Netherlands (and you can), that mostly translates to improved watts/kg while climbing.
    – R. Chung
    May 22 at 16:26
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    @R.Chung I agree with you, but perhaps a tweak in wording would be better than removal. Unstructured intervals on the road can be very good, certainly, and many routes lend themselves to that kind of ride - but it takes a level of determination to build them in to a ride with so many other hazards/distractions/delays, and not just end up at a fast cruise. It might be bad luck but when I've tried to do intervals on many routes whenever I've had enough recovery there are cars in the way or a sprint. I'm no fan of indoor training, but the one thing I have used it for is to get round this.
    – Chris H
    May 23 at 10:12
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While normal bikes are great for the places they can take you, trainers do benefit from the fact that you don't go anywhere.

I have small children that are far too young to leave home alone. I can go on an 'epic' multiple-hour virtual ride after they're in bed, but in the event one of the kids wakes up and needs something, I am still always just one room away.

Likewise, the cost of getting going is pretty much at the minimum. I can start and stop virtually randomly with regards to what is going on. When I do the same outdoors, there is much more logistics that need to be arranged.

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  • Thanks for this answer. As a parent, this does really make a lot of sense. I was not thinking so much about the ability to train without temporarily abandoning life's more urgent responsibilities.
    – SamA
    May 22 at 14:24
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I feel like an obvious answer should be simply "weather". Sure, you could ride in a heavy downpour or a blizzard or a sandstorm, but that sounds pretty miserable to me, not to mention possibly dangerous. I suppose it depends what kind of climate you live in, but where I live now, even without precipitation, the heat and humidity would make it extremely unpleasant to bike outdoors for about half of the year. And where I grew up it'd be freezing cold and hazardously icy the other half of the year. If you happen to live in a sweet-spot area where it's comfortable to exert yourself outside year round, then congratulations, but I haven't had that luxury.

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    I obviously sort of tried to preempt this answer, but you make a good point. I can pretend to be a tough guy all I want, but I'd probably be less enthusiastic about training outside in a downpour.
    – SamA
    May 24 at 2:35
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Recent history shows us that a pandemic is capable of drastically limiting the freedoms people have to ride.

An indoor trainer or exercycle (at home) allows exercise to continue without risk.

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    Outdoor activities are arguably safer than ones in shared indoor spaces, if the risk you're concerned with is airborne infection.
    – SamA
    May 21 at 13:05
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    @SamA: I assume that Criggie is not talking about trainers at a gym where you share the room with dozens of people but a trainer in your own living room (or training room) where you can ride even in a full-blown lockdown or while in quarantine. Of course very few countries had lockdowns which prohibited going for a bike ride or run/walk.
    – Michael
    May 21 at 14:46
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    @Michael correct - we had two lockdowns of 6 and 4 weeks where you could exercise outside, but only close to home and away from other people. Gyms/etc were all closed for the duration. Riding around the block 10 times gets boring very quickly.
    – Criggie
    May 21 at 22:53
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    "Of course very few countries had lockdowns which prohibited going for a bike ride or run/walk." Sadly, @Michael, the geniuses in our local government closed down all the trails to outdoor activities for months. Never mind the fact that it made no sense and that there was plenty of evidence that sunshine, exercise, and being generally healthy are the best ways to prevent getting sick in the first place. </off-topic rant>
    – FreeMan
    May 23 at 16:24
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    When the police have the power to detain and question anyone they see outside, as they did in some places at some times where strict lockdowns were enforced, that makes going for a ride pretty hard.
    – WBT
    May 23 at 18:13
2

A few more reasons that no-one else mentioned:

  1. It's time efficient in terms of pre ride faff - no time wasted putting on several layers, blowing up tyres etc, just hop on and train.
  2. It's time efficient in terms of terrain/route - no more 20 mins riding to the spot you want to do your intervals, just hop on and train.
  3. It can be fun - from racing on Zwift, to the 'Pro Rides' series on Wahoo, you can have an enjoyable training experience that is different to what you get outside.

Note that personally I can't emphasise enough how important items 1&2 are. When i'm 2 weeks into a training block, tired, sore and had an unusually hard day at work, the motivation can be a little hard to find. The thought of pulling on overshoes etc and riding (or in some cases driving) to the start point of ride is enough to cause a missed session. With the trainer there, just pull on some shorts and go, really helps me with consistency.

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