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Most of us probably spend our days in an office somewhere indoors and in front of a computer screen. There’s eight, nine, ten hours of this before returning home where we might squeeze in an hour or two of ride time. If we’re lucky, we head outside, but increasingly, those mid-week intervals or crunch-time rides are spent pedaling on a stationary trainer, in front of yet another screen.
Zwift has undoubtedly revolutionised trainer time, transforming it from a solitary torture session into more of a game or virtual group ride to help you pass the time.
Riders worldwide praise the program for its entertainment value, while simultaneously increasing their motivation and fitness.
However, health professionals are growing increasingly worried by this trend as we are spending more and more time indoors, and less time outside. In fact, health agencies in the US and Australia report that we are spending 90 percent of our time indoors. Cyclists tend to be a more outdoorsy bunch than the average person, but it’s still a jarring statistic.
We dove into the research and talked to sports psychologist Dr. Kirstin Keim to learn why you should put on a rain jacket, suck it up, and brave the elements from time to time.
How does the saying go — a walk a day keeps the doctor away? Perhaps there is some truth in that statement. There’s a wealth of research on the multitude of mental and physical health benefits from spending more time outdoors.
Anxiety, stress, depression, even a lack of concentration or self-esteem can all be eased by some quality time in nature, especially when combined with exercise. So much so that doctors are now prescribing nature time — called “green exercise,” “nature RX”, “Park Prescription,” or ” Dose of Nature” — to patients to aid in the treatment of various health issues.
The calming sights of forests and bodies of water have been shown to be especially beneficial in improving moods and lowering levels of cortisol — a.k.a the “stress hormone.” Additionally, time outside has shown to lead to clearer and more creative thinking.
One study of 280 participants found that along with lowering stress hormones by more than 15 percent, time outdoors also lowered average pulse by almost 4 percent and blood pressure by just over 2 percent.
And fresh air doing you good is not just a thing people say. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the concentration of air pollutants is commonly two-to-five times higher indoors than outdoors — and even up to 70 percent in some environments. These common pollutants include carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, flame retardants and pet dander, many of which rank in the top environmental risks to public health. Symptoms like headaches, brain fog, fatigue and breathing issues can all be alleviated by more time spent outdoors.
All of the above applies to nature walks and camping trips as much as mountain bike or gravel rides, or even a blast along Beach Road in a bunch ride.
Vitamin D is a vital chemical for the human body, a little do-it-all that helps the body absorb minerals like calcium and phosphorus for strong bones, and also plays an important role in brain development and muscle, cardiovascular and respiratory functions. It can even act like a hormone and is linked with the brain’s release of serotonin — a.k.a the happiness hormone.
But unlike most other vitamins and minerals, the body is able to produce it on its own with a little help from the sun (UV rays).
Vitamin D is absorbed through sunlight, and due to our tendency to spend most of our time indoors, Vitamin D deficiency is now a worldwide pandemic.
In children, severe Vitamin D deficiency can lead to stymied growth and rickets. In adults, symptoms include muscle and bone weakness, brittle hair and nails, and fatigue.
Many people take Vitamin D supplements to counter the lack of sun exposure. However, Vitamin D supplements don’t contain tryptophan, which is needed for your body to make more serotonin. Vitamin D produced in the skin has also been shown to last at least twice as long in the blood compared with ingested vitamin D.
The good news is that it doesn’t need to be sunny for your skin to absorb Vitamin D.
According to the US National Institute of Health, cloudy days, sunscreen, shade and one’s skin pigment do cut down on the amount of Vitamin D produced, but not altogether.
But it’s coooolllld!
The nip in the air does have its benefits, says the American Heart Association, as exercising in cold weather has been scientifically shown to boost your mood, increase circulation, and burn more calories. Those cyclocrossers are onto something!
Unlike in extreme heat, our bodies are better able at regulating temperature when dealing with cold weather, enabling you to go longer and farther. Cold weather forces your heart to work harder to warm your blood and distribute it properly, which means you are strengthening your heart and increasing circulation.
There’s more to riding and racing than Mileage, Vo2s and Watts
Sports psychologist Kristin Keim fields many questions from her clients. Among them is how to get through indoor workouts. She tells them to get outside instead.
“I think it’s an old paradigm, even if it’s getting popular with Zwift and things. You are racing indoors! It’s a fad, I know, and some people are getting pretty addicted to it, but we also know that it’s not good for your body to be in that stable position for hours on end.
“From a neurological and physiological standpoint, it is so static. And when you are actually riding (outdoors) you’re never static like that. There’s more to riding and racing than just miles, Vo2s and watts. I’m not saying that you don’t need to get in those intervals if you’re at the top level, but honestly, just slaving away on a trainer all winter does no one good.”
Handling skills and practice
The way Keim sees it, riding in the cold or the wet is good for bike-handling skills and preparing for the myriad of road and weather conditions that one might experience in a future race or ride.
“If you’re a racer then you need to train in the conditions that you are going to race in. You need to look at it as skill building. Why avoid the rain if you may very well end up racing in the rain? You need to be practicing descending in the rain, cornering in the rain, because yeah, it’s going to rain during a race at some point in your career,” she said. “It’s about adapting your skillset to the elements and environment.”
Plus, it’s a mental challenge in both learning to adapt to the environment and in suffering.
“You’ll be able to train your power and Vo2 better on a trainer, but that alone isn’t bike racing. Bike racing is inconsistent. Going outside in the rain, you’re getting a full-body experience. You need to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable,” Keim said.
Recognising that motivation to go out in the cold, windy or wet weather can be hard to come by, Keim recommended company.
“Misery likes company, so bring a friend or make it a point to point, where you ride to this really cool coffee shop or something. Or do hill repeats to stay warm or go mountain biking — make it an adventure.”
The burn-out risk
The winter season is a time for change, Keim stressed, and one does not get that from riding Zwift year-round.
“You need to mix it up. Your body gets so used to being in a certain position and that is not good. You need to train adaptability. Winter is for continuing yoga and strength training and mixing it up instead of just riding all the time. I truly believe that those athletes [who take a break from riding] are less injured, more consistent and stronger. The body — physiologically and mentally — needs change, it needs diversity,” she said.
“And from a neurological point of view, your motivation is not just a cognitive narrative. Training like that will lead to overtraining syndrome and burning out. You need to take care of your whole self and your well-being. You need to get outside and not be trapped inside with your fan on in the garage. It’s great to keep your fitness but I would beg to differ that that person is not going to have a consistent season or their motivation will start wavering.”
The wind in your hair, the freedom, the adventure. Are you finding that on your trainer?
“Where’s that stimuli, where’s that spark? What’s your why?” asked Keim. “Of course, [riding in poor conditions] is not for everyone. And everyone should figure out what recipe works for you. But I am a huge proponent of getting outside to do your training because that’s what racing is or that’s why you started to ride — to be outside, to adventure, to see things.”
Trainer workouts certainly have their time and place. The ability to train, and do intervals specifically, free of interruption from traffic, road signs or weather conditions is extremely valuable and time-efficient, yet from a health point of view, experts say nothing beats exercising outdoors.
“Nature provides an added value to the known benefits of physical activity. Repeated exercise in nature is, in particular, connected to better emotional well-being,” one study summarised. “The emotional well-being showed the most consistent positive connection to physical activity in nature, whereas general health was positively associated with physical activity in both built and natural outdoor settings.”
So it basically comes down to a balance: Get your fitness gains on the trainer when the weather and time are too much of an obstacle, but don’t let a little bit of rain or cold scare you off either. It might just do you a world of good.