Cycling: Inside or Outside?

I’ve spent many hours and miles on bicycles over the course of my life. I commuted to work by bicycle for most of my career, in all sorts of circumstances – some more risky than others. I continued cycling to work most days even after we moved to Boston and even during the winter. (I’ll admit here that the rather extreme snowfall in February 2015 – over 100 inches of snow in a month in which the temperature didn’t get above freezing – had me driving to work for months.) But even when I cycled to work here in Boston, I logged many “miles” each week on a trainer in our basement. I shifted those inside miles to a gym after we downsized to a condo in the city, and post-retirement winters here in Boston eventually found me riding almost exclusively in the gym.

Each spring over the last few years, I’ve moved back outside when the weather allows. The first few rides are typically a challenge – it’s on the edge of cold, and, more importantly, the wind can be rather fierce. But there eventually comes a ride when everything comes together and I’m reminded (as if I’d forgotten) why I love riding out in the open air. A recent article in the Washington Post suggests this is a good move, noting research indicating that outside exercise is better for the mind than an equivalent amount of inside exercise.

But the decision to move back outside is more complicated this year for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve reshaped my cardio exercise routine to focus on maintaining particular heart rates – a combination of zone 2 exercise (4-5 days a week) and zone 5 exercise (1-2 days a week). This compares to earlier winters in which I rode pre-programmed intervals on a trainer without paying all that much attention to heart rate or other metrics. This is really easy to do on a trainer – a little investigation identified a watts setting for zone 2 that would get my heart rate to a particular level and keep it there with only minor variations. And I have a similar approach to zone 5 rides, except that do this in intervals, with several reps combining 4 minutes or so at a very high watt setting with 4 minutes at a very low watt setting. (Some might recognize the influence of Peter Attia here.) It’s very, very difficult to maintain this sort of precision on an outdoor ride, especially since much of my riding these days is on a trail following the Charles River, where there are no hills to push higher heart rates. And I’ve found the last few months of riding to be even more effective than years of riding outside. I’ve always been slim (having chosen the right parents in this regard), but I’ve lost 20 pounds, mostly by disappearing the rather distressing abdominal fat that I feared was an inevitable result of years on the body. And I’m regulating my blood sugar levels much better, offering some hopes that I might avoid moves toward insulin resistance and the type 2 diabetes that runs in my family.

A second reason is that I’ve come to depend on time in the gym to keep up with a wide variety of podcasts (including, not surprisingly, the podcasts of Peter Attia). But there are many other podcasts in my feed, covering topics from contemporary politics and culture to technology (with a particular focus on linux, emacs, and other FOSS projects). I’m disinclined to give up those podcasts, but I’m reluctant to give up other activities to make room for them. Adding podcasts to exercise time, I’ve found, is a win-win.

So I’m struggling to come up with a schedule that has me spending some time on the bike in the gym and some time riding along the Charles River. Complicating this plan further is my yearly goal of marking my birthday by riding as many miles as years that I’ve been alive. So I need not only to move at least some of my rides outside, but also build up time on those rides so that I can endure 70 miles in the saddle by mid-summer.

A first-world problem, I know. And one that can be solved.