Indoor Cycling Doesn’t Have to Suck

Indoor Cycling Doesn’t Have to Suck

It may be tempting to wait for the all-clear from the meteorologists to resume training each spring, but the folks you’ll be racing against when the weather improves are training through the winter, and consecutive months of consistent training really do bring levels of fitness that cannot be reached in any other way. That’s why the pros normally head south in the cold months, and why competitive folks who don’t get paid to ride suffer through normal winters on stationary bikes, and why anyone with racing aspirations needs to be getting their hours through the rainy, snowy or windy season, even if they can’t get outside.

For many riders, indoor training is a negative experience, boring at best, and often painful. Indoor training is never going to compare favorably with a ride around Tucson or Mallorca on a sunny day, but it doesn’t have to be awful.

Indoor Training: A Necessity for Some

Train outdoors any time you safely can. Rearrange planned training to put rides on predicted nicer days, and schedule the gym and indoor trainer sessions when the storms are expected to come through. Get your lights together and go out early or late. It may be impossible to ride outdoors safely or consistently enough to count as training in winter in some regions. For riders living in such places, the indoor trainer may be the only realistic way to get the hours of riding that are needed to build racing fitness.

Trainer Riding Doesn’t Have to Hurt

Many riders find the indoor trainer physically painful even on a ride too short to count as serious base building. A rider who enjoys riding three or four hours outdoors might find that they lose interest or even capacity to train after an hour or less on the stationary. Riders who use power meters often notice a loss of up to 10% for the same effort or heart rate when they train indoors rather than out.

There are two main issues that make the trainer physically painful: heat and position. Both are correctable. Exercise generates a lot of heat. Approximately one fifth of the calories you expend pedaling come out as useful work, while the other four fifths come out as waste heat. If you are cruising along at a comfortable 200 Watts on the power meter (typical aerobic training intensity for a local-talent racer) you are generating an astonishing 800 Watts of waste heat. Without a cool breeze, it is impossible to dissipate that heat as quickly as you generate it, and body temperature slowly rises. Riding in a warm room with no wind, body temperature rises high enough that the brain, in an effort to prevent heat stroke, reduces its signals to muscles for any given level of perceived effort. In other words, when you ride hot, you have to try harder and run a higher heart rate to generate the same power. If you train at your normal outdoor heart rate, you make less power and training effectiveness is reduced. If you train at your normal power, your heart rate is higher than normal and you fatigue more rapidly, forcing a reduction in training volume.

Overcoming Indoor Training Obstacles

Indoor training can be made less miserable and more effective by use of a fan. Weak riders generate less heat and may get by with a small fan. Stronger riders will need a powerful, industrial-sized fan, a source of cool air, and possibly a sock or panty-hose full of ice cubes across the back of the neck or a spray bottle to keep the jersey and shorts wet. The strongest riders will need ice-vests or some other powerful cooling tools. 

How much cooling is enough? Contrary to popular perception, being drenched in sweat is a sign of a less effective workout, that your body is struggling to keep itself cool. If you are sweating heavily when training, take measures to keep cooler to make the training more effective, improve your tolerance for longer sessions, and decrease post-ride recovery needs so you can train better the next day.

Saddle and bike position problems also make indoor training painful. When you ride outdoors, you stand to climb or accelerate, you change hand positions to turn, shift or brake. All that moving around can mask a less than perfect saddle choice or bike fit. Even with a perfect set up, too much sitting in one position can eventually cause pain in your butt or hands. You may be able to make your current bike tolerable on the indoor trainer by shifting position more frequently or taking breaks of a few minutes each hour. Boosting the front wheel a few inches can take weight off the hands and shoulders. If riding is painful even with frequent stretches of standing and changes of hand position, examine your saddle choice and bike fit.

(Note: Riding standing on a trainer, one learns a pedaling style that isn’t efficient for outdoor riding so I recommend standing for a few seconds to relieve saddle pressure, but not extended standing training, unless you have a rocking trainer. Standing on one of these doesn’t feel natural, but they can rock enough to allow a relatively natural standing pedaling style.)

Indoor Trainer Riding Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

Being bored leaves your brain free to dwell on physical discomfort, so anything you do to make indoor riding less boring decreases suffering. Making indoor training more interesting improves motivation to do the hours needed to get or stay fit. There are two basic ways to make indoor training more interesting: More interesting training and distraction.

A significant part of training at any time of year should be endurance base. That’s low enough intensity that you’ll have brain capacity for other activities at the same time. When you are doing hard intervals, sweet-spot training or high-skill practice, you should be fully engaged in the exercise and not need distraction.

Training Plan Considerations for Indoor Training

Whether you train indoors or out, you should be sticking to a periodized training plan. So long as you have a good base, you can transition to racing fitness in a couple of months so aim to maintain your base and just enough intensity to avoid going crazy through the “off season”. It may be tempting to race on Zwift, do kick-butt Peloton workouts, or back-to-back Sufferfest videos all winter, but always consider how your choice of workout fits into the bigger plan. Hard training starts the peak clock ticking and you don’t want to peak before the season, or at least that should be a deliberate choice if you make it. Don’t train hard to spice things up or maintain motivation at the expense of the bigger picture goals. Rather than ride really hard and bring on your peak prematurely, play with cadences or zig-zag your heart rate or wattage across your endurance zone on an endurance base day.

The indoor trainer is a perfect place to work on pedaling drills to improve smoothness or develop a complete pedal stroke. You can do one-legged or breathing drills on the trainer too. Such exercises make riding more interesting, but once you have mastered them, continuing to do them can actually be counterproductive to your riding ability, so eventually you will want to switch to just pedaling for hours, and you’ll probably need distraction to do high volume training indoors. In motor learning terminology, “part practice” is good for learning new skills, but “whole practice” is required to refine a skill and bring it to mastery level. 

Get Creative with Indoor Riding

One common way to make indoor riding more interesting is to watch videos. Be careful with “training” videos, since they generally encourage you to do a particular intensity that may or may not be compatible with your scheduled training. Same thing with programmed Peloton or Zwift workouts. Join groups that are riding in a way that supports your goals. If the workout intensity is consistent with the intended training, do it. If not, skip it for now.

Training videos will be great on interval days. On the other days, check out action flicks or slap-stick comedy since you don’t need to be able to hear clearly or really focus intellectually to enjoy those. Bike race videos can be inspirational as well as entertaining. If the announcer is good, you might even learn some racing history or team tactics. Just be careful if you’re watching a curvy race while riding rollers!

Getting together with others for an in-person or Zoom “Tour de Garage” and just chatting can make the time pass more quickly, as can audio-books. And of course, if your plan calls for two hours of training, the fact that your buddy only wants to ride for 50 minutes is no excuse.

Listening to music or the news can help the time pass. Be careful with the tempo of your music. Pick something that feels right when you are doing the intended training for the day. Music that gets you fired up for a race might be a bit too intense for a recovery ride.

Some of my clients actually do productive work while training. With a book rack on the bars, they can read a newspaper or a novel while riding the drops. With a keyboard on the book rack, and a screen on the table in front of the bike, they can answer email or do other computer work while sitting up and pedaling at a low zone-2 effort. Combining a headset with the computer and keyboard, they can pedal while doing all kinds of office work, except maybe getting coffee for the boss.

Most of these forms of distraction work better on a quiet trainer. A quiet trainer is also less likely to annoy your housemates or neighbors. As a general rule, fluid-resistance trainers are much quieter than wind or magnetic resistance ones so I recommend them even though they are a bit more expensive. Fluid trainers also have a much more natural road feel than magnetic trainers, making them more enjoyable. Electronically braked trainers can also be quiet and have the added benefit of programmable resistance to match video courses.

No matter what drills you do or what great distractions you use, you may well need to take a break or breaks during a multi-hour indoor session, and that is okay. With good cooling, indoor training is generally much more efficient than outdoor. Indoors, you never coast down a hill or through a corner, stand at a stoplight or deal with a flat. You don’t wait for teammates to be ready to go. Depending on where you ride, 25% or more of outdoor riding time can easily be spent coasting or standing still. At best, a few minutes of each hour is spent not pedaling. Indoors by contrast, virtually all the time spent on the bike is pedaling time. It is fine to take five minutes off each hour to pee, stretch, get a snack, adjust the fan or start a new video.

No Whining

Race judges won’t ask how much training you did or even how much it hurt. All that matters is how fast you ride the course compared to the other racers. Developing the fitness to ride competitively requires many bike hours. In my experience, a consistent eight hours per week including regular rides of three hours or longer is the minimum to develop the sort of fitness that lets one race strongly through much of a season. More hours continue to yield improved competitive ability for most riders at least up to 12 hours per week. Riders with more time and good recovery ability continue to benefit from additional hours in the months before racing starts. Talk to your coach about how many hours you could beneficially add. 

If you are finding outdoor training too dangerous or impossible for other reasons and you want to be competitive in race season, you’re going to need to do some trainer time. You can’t plead for a better placing in your race because you hate indoor training so much, but neither do they award bonus places for suffering unnecessarily. If you can’t train outdoors enough to get fit, do whatever you can to make the indoor trainer tolerable, and then do your hours. Rest assured, the riders you’ll be racing against are getting their hours, at least the ones you need to worry about.

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching manage all aspects of our athletes’ preparation for racing and other cycling endeavors. Our programs cover fitness, skills, technique, psychology and weight management for optimum performance. If you need help navigating your training, Coach Scott can help.