Zwift, for those unaware, is a cycling app that allows users to interact and compete with others and ride through a variety of virtual landscapes with a bike on a trainer. It’s basically like a video game, and it’s taken the cycling world by storm. These days, as we’re deep into January, my Strava feed is mostly filled with these rides as temps below 20 and long hours of darkness relegate my fellow cyclists to their basements and garages to spin in place with eyes tuned to a screen.
I’d be lying if I said I never thought it sounded sort of nice to be able to just hop on the trainer for an hour for a quick workout rather than spending a half hour deciding what to wear for changing elements or dealing with inevitable frozen fingers or toes when you get the wardrobe choice wrong. I can’t deny that indoor trainers certainly can provide an excellent workout in a shorter amount of time than it takes to venture out for a jaunt in the cold. But I tried spinning on a trainer in summer 2020 when an injured thumb prevented me from riding at all for a couple weeks and it is definitely not for me. After a couple sessions I decided that I’d rather lose cycling fitness and just go hike and run than spend one more minute on that thing. Same goes for “challenging” (I prefer this term over “bad”) weather — I’d rather adapt and figure out what I can do outside and how rather than pedal in place, even if it means a less effective workout.
I don’t ride or run solely to be fit. I like being fit, and I am always trying to become stronger, because it helps me do longer rides. I like seeing how far I can push myself. I like being able to ride all day and not be absolutely wrecked. I like the group of strong people I typically ride with and want to continue to be able to keep up with them. I always have big riding goals in mind which require a certain level of fitness and I try to ride a certain amount each week to maintain or build that. But being fit in itself is not my primary motivation and those goals are not the end game. Each ride is the motivation and enjoyment of every day is the true goal.
I love to be outside, even when it’s cold and wet. I love to feel the elements and the fluctuations in temperature and the sun peeking out from behind the clouds. More than anything, I ride for my mental health, and there is a huge aspect of that therapy that is lost indoors. Exercise is only a fraction of the equation. Fresh air, sunlight, varied scenery, a little bit of discomfort and the exhilaration that comes with beating the elements are the other parts. Quite honestly, I hate exercising indoors. I know I should be doing more yoga and strength training to help stay injury-free and complement my long outdoor efforts, but it’s so hard to bring myself to do those things because I get bored when I’m not moving through a landscape. Regardless of how uncomfortable, I’d rather have a windburned face and chilly appendages any day. To ride through a vast array of conditions is one of the most rewarding aspects of doing long rides.
Gearing up for a chilly winter ride is part of the experience. It’s a ritual. Stare at the pile of options for a while, check the weather one more time, actually get dressed, see what Evan is wearing and question my clothing choices, remind myself that I’ve been doing this for a while and know how to dress myself for the cold, see what everyone else is wearing when they arrive, second guess my choice again… There is something about this process that I relish. I wouldn’t want to do it all year — one of my favorite parts about summer is the ability to just go ride in a tank top and shorts every single day and not think about it. But for the rest of the year, gearing up for variable weather conditions is a puzzle I have yet to consistently master, which adds to the fun.
This is not to say that getting out the door in the cold is an easy task. Even after years of doing it, I still lack motivation at times. This year has seemed particularly hard, maybe because throughout December and early January we keep getting teased with periods of warmth that didn’t allow for true cold weather acclimation earlier in the season. We also didn’t have snow until recently, and temps in the teens or 20s without snow is particularly unmotivating for me. On some days, half of me wants to curl up on the couch and hibernate with a good book, but I have big rides early in the spring to train for and as soon as I’m out the door, I’m always glad to be in the crisp air. It is always worth it.
By no means am I judging anyone for their choices about how to exercise in the winter — some folks just do not want to go out in the cold and that’s okay. I do, however, encourage anyone who is feeling apprehensive about getting out in winter to at least try it. The barriers aren’t as high as you think, the cold isn’t as uncomfortable as you fear, and there are many rewards to be reaped. I am not necessarily anti-Zwift, but I am definitely pro-outside.