Making the Most of Indoor Trainer Rides

Indoor Trainer
by Associate Coach Taitt Sato

(Updated 2013. Originally published in January 2007)

Gotta ride but it’s dark, sleeting, raining, snowing or ridiculously terrible weather outside? You may not love it, but it’s trainer time.

Now, you may be eying your resistance trainer and asking, “Can I really stomach a full workout on it?” Many riders use a trainer only for warming up before events. Others just skip workouts or cross-train rather than ride their trainers. Admittedly, it can be miserable to grind out long workouts on the trainer. But if you’re serious about your training, you will find a way. This article isn’t intended to encourage you to replace your outdoor riding time. If you have a choice, ride outdoors! But if your choice is between a trainer ride and no ride, here are some tips to help you survive your session:

Stick to your goals even for trainer days. Constant pedaling on the trainer without specific intervals may feel harder than riding on the road, but to get the most out of your training rides on the road, you should be pedaling most of your outside time anyway. In fact, being on the trainer can help you figure out what a constant effort is supposed to feel like. Bottom line: time on the road = time on the trainer.

Gather supplies. Get everything you need in one place so that you don’t have to stop pedaling more than necessary. A hand towel, snacks, lots of extra water (you might sweat more indoors, so be prepared to drink more), reading material, phone, TV remote control. Use a rear tire you don’t mind wearing down on the trainer. Try not to sweat too much on your top tube (drape a rag over the most susceptible spot).

Collect data. If you have a power meter, you can compare various cadences vs. watts vs. heart rate. Set up a mirror and study your form on the bike. Do you ride better on certain foods or drink mixes? Are the saddle and handlebar positions optimal? Is that new chamois cream any good? Trainer rides are good for experiments because you’re close to home and won’t get stranded in the middle of nowhere with the wrong chamois cream or nutrition that upsets your stomach.

Add cadence intervals. Change your cadence occasionally in order to keep things interesting and create some structure in the ride. You can create “intervals” that don’t necessarily change your intensity. You can break up a “Push” ride with a minute or two of spinning tiny gears at the same heart rate or you can break up a “Spin” ride with a minute or two of pushing, also staying in the same effort level overall. You can add surges every so often to simulate the more natural surges of the pack, also without really altering the main purpose of the ride. A ride outside would naturally contain these variations anyway.

Entertain yourself. I nearly always watch TV when I ride indoors. Race videos aren’t for me, but they do inspire many other riders. You can learn tactics from the pros, or just watch the pretty scenery. Catch up on phone calls while you warm up and cool down. If you have a 3+ hour ride, movies can be your best friend. Set your heart rate or power meter to beep if you fall outside your training zones for the day. Then you can just focus on the film. Action movies and physical comedies are ideal as you don’t have to hear every word to follow along. Save the dark, dialogue-driven dramas for another time. If your training setup is too noisy, or if you live in an apartment where you have to keep the overall noise down, DVDs with subtitles on can be a real boon.

Stay cool. On an indoor trainer, you risk cardiac drift if you don’t stay cool and hydrated. Cardiac drift occurs when your core temperature increases, which causes your heart’s stroke volume to go down. As a result, you have a higher heart rate for the same amount of power output. A power meter can keep you on guard for decreased efficiency and quality should you find yourself in cardiac drift land. Talk to you coach about what to do if this happens, but the general view is that if you find your efficiency has dropped off in a ride, you should finish it up in your recovery zone. Remember, even if it’s a cold day, make sure you have proper ventilation and a fan.

Take breaks. It’s ok to take a quick stretch or bathroom break. Just like on your outdoor rides, however, keep your breaks short so you don’t get cold or lose motivation to keep pedaling.

Change clothes. If you find yourself extra sweaty and you have hours to go, consider a change of shorts. Not only will you enjoy the excuse to get off your bike, you’ll be less likely to risk the saddle sore issues that can arise from riding in soaked shorts for very long (see last month’s newsletter for terrific advice on saddle sore avoidance/treatment).

Play tricks. When riding the trainer indoors for hours without specific intervals (isn’t base building fun?), you need an arsenal of mental tricks to keep you focused. Here’s a formula that has worked for me for years. The first half hour is easy mentally, so see if you can get by without resorting to entertainment. Just feel your legs and get comfortable on the bike. Once you’re warmed up, the mental challenges start and you need to get down to business. Make yourself take a sip or bite of something exactly every 15 minutes. This is good practice for outdoors as well. Then, stand for 30-60 seconds every 15 minutes. But stagger these two schedules. The result is that you get to do something every 7-8 minutes. If you don’t have something to watch or read and you’re truly without any entertainment, you need to get tough: make a schedule to spend the first hour planning your next trip, the second hour compiling a to-do list, the third hour solving a personal problem. If you hit the wall mentally and can’t see getting through the next half hour of your trainer ride without cracking, play the alphabet game: pick a topic and every minute (or longer if you’re tough enough to meditate on a word for longer than a minute) find a related word that begins with each letter of the alphabet. Such as “why I’m riding the trainer for 4 hours” (a=”A” races, b=better technique, c=consistent training, d=determination, e=endurance…).

With the right approach you can get through trainer workouts with your training on schedule and your sanity intact. Good luck and happy training!

~Coach Taitt Sato