If you’re into indoor cycling, then you know that Spinning along to your favorite feel-good music can be addictive. Hell, it might even inspire you to bust out of that dark room and take your pedaling power out onto the road. Yes! I mean, if you can crush 20 miles in a 45-minute class, surely you can take on a road ride or your first sprint triathlon, right? Well… kind of. Before you hit the road, there are a few things you should know.
From the Spin side of the story, there are some major benefits that you can’t get from riding outside: an ultra-fast, stress-free workout, for one. If you’re short on time and gear, indoor cycling is an easy go-to, and you’ll never have to worry about changing a flat tire. It’s also pretty liberating to shut your eyes (a big no-no on a bicycle!), zone out, and let your legs do the work. “Spinning is the closest I can get to meditating,” says Emily Southworth, lead instructor at Recycle Studio in Boston.
While most stationary bikes have a weighted flywheel on the front (usually around 40 pounds) to mimic what you’d feel outdoors, this weight builds momentum as you spin, making it a little easier than pushing your own body weight on a flat road or up a hill.
If you’re bike-curious and thinking about swapping a Spin class for a road ride, don’t be surprised if it feels a little funny at first. “A Spin bike is locked in a vertical plane, so by nature, there isn’t a lot of side-to-side movement,” says Peter Glassford, a cycling coach for Smart Athlete. “If you watch someone standing while pedaling outside, you’ll see the bike move from side to side under them, and that requires more balance and coordination, plus more muscle activation for stability.” Engaging more muscles means getting more of a total-body workout than on an indoor bike. Riding outside requires some basic skills like riding in a straight line and navigating obstacles, and you’ll also need some gear: A bike and helmet are essential. As a plus, if you get tired on a bike, you can coast (or cruise forward without pedaling) and take a breather while still gaining ground.
While there are some obvious differences, both Spinning and outdoor cycling boast a lot of the same benefits.
Both Are Killer Workouts
If you’re looking for a quick and dirty workout, there are few that hit the same caloric burn rate as a sweaty spin class: 400 to 600 per hour on average. Spinning has boomed in popularity for this exact reason—it’s nearly impossible to finish a class without being soaked in sweat. “It’s a very intense workout,” Southworth says.
Riding outdoors, you could burn as few as 100 calories per hour if you’re just cruising at a snail’s pace, or more than 600 if you’re really throwing down, but the choice is yours. Unlike Spin, where an instructor is egging you on and telling you when to go hard and how much resistance to add, riding outside means you pick your own pace, and the road determines your resistance: You can’t just dial the knob back when you’re grinding up a hill in your lowest gear. Plus, your whole body will be working, from your core to maintain balance, to your glutes when you climb, to your upper body when you’re out of the saddle.
Both Are Ultra Efficient
Spin class is usually a 45- to 60-minute long sufferfest guaranteed to burn calories, and it ticks the “workout” box off your to-do list for the day. There’s usually a place to shower afterward, and it’s weather-independent, so even a blizzard won’t keep you off the bike.
But outdoor cycling can be just as efficient in a different way: You can swap your drive to work or to the store for cycling and burn calories while commuting or running errands. If you’ve got an insane schedule (who doesn’t?), it may be more realistic and convenient to get in your daily exercise through human-powered transportation rather than trying to jam gym time into your calendar. Plus commuting to work by bike has been shown to increase happiness and productivity (so you’ll be more efficient all day long, not just while training), and it’s more convenient than ever with bike share programs popping up all over the U.S.
Both Train Your Brain and Your Body
Can’t quite get into meditating? Try a moving meditation instead. “You can really clear your head in a class,” Southworth says. “You’re working your ass off, but you can zone out and decompress.” Many studios (inspired by the OG SoulCycle) now focus on inspirational music and mood-setting candlelight to help riders get in the zone. You’ll challenge your brain by reacting to the instructors cues for different positions, rotations per minute (RPM or speed), and resistance.
Although Spin is a great way to zone out, you’re not getting any fresh air in nature or challenging your brain with new stimulation. “The motivation, the tunes, the community, it’s all great; but your brain and vision aren’t stimulated the way they are outside where you have to engage in a variable environment,” Glassford says. “That variety is good for your brain and body.”
There are also dozens of studies championing the best part of riding a real bike: being out in nature. That means no screens, no loud music, no distractions—just fresh air and sunshine. Spending time outside has been linked to decreased symptoms of depression, greater resiliency against stress, and more happiness and contentment in general. So if most of your day, including your workout, is spent indoors, it might be time to shift to some outdoor adventuring.
Both Communities Are Strong As Hell
Spin class is a great activity for your crew, since you can have all different ability levels pedaling together, and no one gets dropped. Even if you didn’t know the person on the bike next to you, you feel bonded together by the effort of the tribe. And if you regularly hit the same class, you might end up developing friendships at the smoothie bar post workout.
Outside, it’s no different. Cycling is as much of a group sport as it is an individual sport, which is why you often see bike gangs riding together in a pack (or a Peloton in a pro race). When tackling long distances, you can ride farther and longer with more people by drafting (or breaking the wind resistance) off one another to preserve energy. There are few quicker ways to bond with some new friends than by tackling a long ride, hard climb, or epic adventure together—and then cheersing with some beers afterward.
Not sure where to start? There are tons of cycling clubs always looking for more people to join in on the fun. If you’re new to riding outside and nervous about riding alone, just head to your local bike shop and ask about beginner groups or women’s rides. Most likely, you’ll find one in your area and make some new friends in the process.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, both indoor and outdoor cycling are equally awesome and offer a lot of similar benefits. But are they the same in terms of circumstance, workout, and payoff? In a nutshell, no. To put it plainly, riding 20 miles on a Spin bike is not the same as riding 20 miles on the road.
Regardless, figure out which one works best for you and your lifestyle. The answer can be both! Spinning is often a gateway drug to outdoor cycling, so although it may seem daunting at first, keep an open mind to spinning your legs outside. No matter which you choose, crushing a cycling workout of any kind is sure to make you feel like a total badass on a bike.