Trainer Miles vs. Road Miles, Which is Best?

Here is a great question that comes up from time to time on many forums and blogs.

“Should trainer miles count?”

Here is where it get’s fun. My initial response was “Gang, Miles are Miles.” Then the conversation really picked up steam. I stayed out of it because I have a very strong opinion about logging data and reporting on data especially when it has to do with cycling performance. So I thought I would think it over a couple of days before responding.

First thing first, what is a mile? A mile is nothing more than a unit of measurement of how far one has traveled.  One of the argument’s posed was that since you were not going from point A to point B then the miles should not count! While the bike maybe locked in or rolling along on a set of rollers you are still putting in miles. The wheel turns, the sensor picks up each revolution of the wheel and the sensors data is sent to a bike computer in real time and potentially stored for later retrieval and analysis regardless if you are on the road or trainer.

I train both competitive and recreational cyclists that want to make big improvements in their fitness so that they can reach their cycling and fitness goals. I schedule similar workouts for both groups of athletes. Some of these workouts should be done on the road and some should be done only on a trainer.

Not all miles are created equal…

I will relent on one aspect of this debate. All miles are not created equal. When riding on the open road you should be more alert, using lots of smaller muscles to balance your self, shifting body position and dealing with weather, various distractions and obstacles. While locked in on a trainer you should be even more focused on form, breathing and work intervals. While training on rollers focus must be heightened along with form and cadence.

So will any cyclist see less of an improvement by putting in the same amount miles on a trainer vs. the road? Absolutely not! There are so many factors to take into consideration that it can make your head spin. I already mentioned things like terrain, weather and obstacles but the big gotcha is repeatability and control. We as cyclists have very little control over the many factors when training and riding out doors. Sometimes this will lead to a very positive training result but it can also lead to negative training results and injury depending on the required training.

For instance there are work outs that I have athletes do that require several back to back all out efforts, technique drills and training that require long sustained efforts. These workouts in most cases should only be done in a safe and controlled environment.  I also coach athletes that live in cities where they cannot find a road with out traffic lights or they have so many hills or no hills. This means one thing; we must simulate real life conditions into their trainer sessions.

I will say that no one should ever think that a top performance completed on rollers or trainer will ever be translated to the open road. If I can average 30 MPH on a set of rollers for 30-60 minutes this will not translate into a 30 MPH average on a 20K or 40K Time Trial outdoors. Depending on road terrain and weather conditions I would be impressed if the same athlete held better than 23 MPH average during a Time Trial.

So why even bother with a trainer or rollers if the results will not be the same?

Back to the same response as before: Athletes today need the flexibility to train when and where they want and as often as they want. This is where the trainer comes in. In the case of an athlete who doesn’t have the right road’s available to them to work on their climbing or time trialing then we must move them indoors.

I also saw where many of the cyclists responding to this question were stating that they kept their trainer miles separate from their road miles. This is fine I guess but while I have shown that there is a difference I don’t see the purpose of doing this. While I do make demands of my athletes to log every performance detail they can I am also a realist. There is only so much time in the day to log miles.

Have a great ride indoors or outdoors,

Coach Rob

12 Comments on “Trainer Miles vs. Road Miles, Which is Best?”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Coach Rob. I posted the question to Darryl because I felt that I was getting attitude from some friends about counting the trainer miles in, so I began to wonder if others counted them in too. It certainly is easier than keeping a separate log, especially as Daily Mile has no way to do that. I do find the trainer a valuable tool in keeping up my exercise on days when the weather is too inclement, I’m just too busy, or I just want a change of pace.

  2. Julie you are very welcome. To my knowledge I do not of any online training log software that allows you track the two separately unless you are keeping track in a spread sheet. If you want the ultimate in cycling and training logs give a try. Have a great weekend! Coach Rob

  3. Coach Rob and Julie,

    I’m glad you posted the question on Loving the Bike, Julie. And glad you responded to it here, Coach Rob.

    I have a total mile goal for my year and count all miles (biking, snowshoeing, walking) towards my goal. I don’t have a trainer but if I had one I would count those miles. On winter evenings when I walking or riding outside would be unsafe I’ll walk on my treadmill. I know I’m not really walking anywhere….but I count the miles walked anyway. It’s all miles, at least in view of my personal milage goal.

    There is a way to add a different bike in Dailymile and view your miles based on which bike you are riding. I think you could simply do the same with a trainer if you wanted to keep track of those miles on their own – when you enter a workout go to “more detail” and there is a spot where you can “Attach Gear” and enter information about what you are riding.

  4. You are very welcome and thank you for pointing out that you could set up your trainer as a second bike. This would work in Training Peaks as well. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  5. Ok, my opion is that in some ways a trainer mile can be a littler harder, due to that on a trainer you stop pedaling and the wheel stops. Therefore no coasting like you can do on the open road. But, ride outside in the elements when you can.



  6. I agree. Riding a trainer is tough and can take real mental toughness practice to complete longer work outs. On top of not being able to coast you are also locked into the same position. Other than being able to move your hands aound the bars, standing and shifting back and forth on the saddle it can still be uncomfortable.

  7. Great info Rob. One thing about the trainer vs the open road, is that you can coast out on the open road and on the trainer, you stop pedaling the wheel stops. Therefore, not time to coast.
    I appreciate the discussions like these.

  8. Thanks Bethel,

    One place it is possible to coast when training indoors is with a good set of alloy rollers. The more affordable PVC rollers have little to no coast down. Unfortunately alloy rollers can be quite costly compared to your average mag or fluid trainer.


  9. I count my trainer miles. I wouldn’t say one was better then the other, they are very different though. On the trainer there is no coasting but by the same token there is no wind to deal with. The trainer may help with mental aspects that youh can’t get outside (a gut feeling on my part – no evidence to support that). To me the two biggest differences are 1) nothing beats being outdoors for “hill work” and 2) there is no Wheee factor when on the trainer.

  10. I know this is an old thread but…today in the Pacific NW it’s 35f and drizzling snow, ice pellets and rain. I rode for two hours on my rollers. I did not once have to worry about being taken out by a sliding car or an inattentive driver. I was able to focus on the training. I always ride rollers with 60 or so psi and a rug under the rear roller, so my power output/cadence pretty much match my road numbers. I’ve put in decades of outdoor winter rides, of falling on the ice, of being wet and cold for mile after endless mile, and now, as I approach my 41st year of serious riding, I feel like I’ve earned the right to stay indoors, watch crap on YouTube, and train like I was in Majorca rather than having to suffer. If I was still a cat 1 rider trying to make a name, I’d say get the heck out there and shut up, but I’m not. I’m still willing to suffer, but not risk serious injury just for the thrill of suffering.

  11. I was wondering the same myself, what with the current weather and an injury I now have no choice but use the turbo. So is the general agreement that turbo miles at least equal road miles if not better? I’m not prepared to spend a lot of money on a turbo so I guess hill reps will have to wait.

  12. That was sort of the point of the article. The miles are somewhat different and both have benefits. You don’t have to spend a considerable amount of money to purchase a quality turbo/trainer.

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