Indoor Cycling 101: Three Types — Virtual Outdoor, Structured Training, & Spin Classes

You may not have thought about it before, but there are a few different versions of ‘indoor cycling.’ While they all involve pedaling a stationary bike, there are many different ways that they connect to apps, use structured workouts, and hold some values over others. This article is a quick guide to the three types of indoor cycling.


Virtual outdoor cycling — These are apps such as FulGaz or Rouvy that pair real-life ride footage with your indoor trainer. Instead of a virtual world like Watopia in Zwift, you will be virtually riding real-life roads in Italy, France, or California. In order to get this footage, these apps put cameras on the bikes of riders who complete these routes IRL, and then upload the footage to the app.

While virtual cycling may be a bit clunkier than pure virtual training apps, they are certainly the most realistic and transformative, creating a virtual reality cycling experience like no other. You can even complete workouts and races on some of these apps, and compete against other virtual avatars on real-life roads.

Structured Training— Forget all the fancy visuals and stimulating gimmicks, these apps are all about structured interval training. TrainerRoad is the most popular example of this style of app, which prioritizes dedicated training rather than group rides, social connection, or racing. TrainerDay is a similar app to TrainerRoad with a few different features and a much lower price.

These apps, such as TrainerDay, include hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of structured workouts designed to make you faster. Some apps will help create a custom training plan designed to fit you and your cycling goals, while others will be more of a free-for-all and let you pick whatever workout you want. In the app, there isn’t much to look at other than your power and heart rate graph. Some apps, like Wahoo SYSTM, including videos of real-life racing to help keep you entertained, but nothing that matches up with your effort like a virtual avatar in Zwift. TrainerRoad is even simpler, with only numbers to look at, it takes a dedicated and focused cyclist to get through these workouts.

Zwift — The world’s most popular indoor cycling app, Zwift, is a blend between virtual outdoor cycling and power interval training. You could even argue that it is a ‘virtual indoor cycling app’ because many of its routes and worlds are imaginary. In fact, the original Zwift world of Watopia is completely made up. Though Zwift does include many real-life routes such as NYC, Innsbruck, Yorkshire, and Richmond, it does mix in a plethora of virtual routes as well.

There are also thousands of workouts to choose from on Zwift — there are literally overall 2000 workouts on the app — which means that you can get all of your structured training done too. However, you’ll need to ride one of Zwift’s routes during the workout, which can be overstimulating compared to the distraction-free backdrops of TrainerDay. 
Spin bike classes

The most popular name in this space is Peloton, which has a dedicated following and a user base in the millions. Spin bike classes are more like following a workout video than they are virtual cycling. There are no virtual worlds, no virtual bikes or avatars, and many times, there isn’t even a power measurement or display. Instead, these apps tell you how hard you’re working based on heart rate, resistance level, and cadence.

Peloton and other spin bike classes include real-life footage of real spin class instructors to guide you through a spin bike workout. These bikes are not smart trainers; in fact, they are exclusively indoor bikes. The spin classes are entertaining and engaging, with high-energy instructors and fitting background music. These classes are designed more for recreational cyclists and fitness enthusiasts than for dedicated cyclists. Nevertheless, spin bike classes have their place in the indoor cycling world, as you’d be hard-pressed to have as much fun while completing a lung-busting workout.

Written by Zach Nehr

Scroll to Top