In part 1 of this article, I talked about the benefits of using an indoor trainer. In part 2 I will talk about the tools that you will need to do these workouts and some that you don't need, but may want. I'll also talk about ways to make your indoor workouts less boring and more effective.
- A strong fan: I put this even before an indoor trainer because I simply cannot overstate how important good air flow is when riding indoors. Approximately 2/3 of heat loss is via evaporation and without good air flow, that evaporation is severely restricted. If you want tangible proof of this, take a ride on a 90 degree day. You may not feel like you are overheating until you stop at a red light. Suddenly, your face gets red, sweat runs down your face and you like your skin is about to melt off. One of the most common complaints athletes have about indoor workouts is that they can't generate as much power indoors, or that their heart rate and perceived exertion are higher indoors when riding at the same power. 90% of the time, this is because they are overheating. The problem is not that the temperature is too high but that they don't have proper air flow. My recommendation is simple: you need a strong fan that is capable of simulating the air flow you would have on the road going 18-25 mph. Normal house fans are not strong enough unless you have about six of them! High powered/industrial fans can get expensive but you can find some good ones, such as this one in the $50-$70 range. Next, you have to use it. If you don't like the feeling of a fan blowing right on your face because it dries out your eyes, point the fan a little bit downward or wear a pair of clear sunglasses.
- An Indoor Trainer: There are 3 major types of indoor trainers designed for personal use: 1) Magnetic, 2) Wind and 3) Fluid. Generally speaking, Fluid trainers are the most quiet and have the most realistic “road feel”, but they are the most expensive ($300-$500). Magnetic trainers are a bit less expensive ($200-$400) and often provide various levels of resistance, but do not simulate outdoor riding quite as well. Wind trainers are the least expensive ($100-$200) but they are extremely loud, especially when doing high intensity efforts. Electronic trainers such as CompuTrainer, CycleOps Power Beam and Tacx iGenius are magnetic trainers with power measurement and computer interfaces that allow course simulation and/or “virtual reality” training. Some of you may be wondering about Spinning Bikes and other Indoor Cycles (as opposed to rear-wheel mounted trainers), but for most cyclists I would advise against these. Although they can be adjusted quickly for use by different riders and will eliminate rear tire wear, they tend to be very expensive ($500-$4000) and the fit and feel will never be exactly the same as your road bike. These trainers also lack the portability of rear-wheel mounted trainers. Keep in mind that even if you keep your trainer in the same place all winter, you will want to bring with you to some races when a warm-up is necessary and you can't/don't want to warm up on the course or road. Whichever trainer you choose, make sure that there is enough range of resistance to allow you go easy even at higher cadences and hard even at lower cadences. By the way, junior cyclists may wish to use senior gearing in this phase of training in order to get enough resistance when doing low cadence/high intensity efforts.
- A trainer tire: Riding an indoor trainer will accelerate tire wear, thereby increasing the risk of flat tires when you ride on the road again. Unlike normal tire wear, trainers will cause tires to "square", meaning that they wear more in the middle, giving the tire a square or flat look, which can interfere with cornering on the road even if there is still enough rubber to provide adequate flat protection. Some may wish to use a "trainer tire", which wears more slowly and produces less heat, though it cannot be used outdoors. There are also some trainers that support the bike without the rear wheel, thereby eliminating rear tire wear altogether. Another option is to simply switch your rear wheel out to another wheel with a trainer tire or an old tire when riding indoors. If you are lazy like me though, you just use your regular old wheel and tire and pay attention to the rear tire wear, making sure to replace it when necessary.
- A riser block: Most indoor trainers include a riser block that is placed underneath the front wheel in order to keep the bike level. For some workouts, additional lift is desired to better simulate a climb. This can be done either by placing a large book or 3-5” wooden block underneath the riser block. Some riser blocks have different settings that can allow for additional lift.
- A sweat towel: Even with proper air flow you will get sweaty, so it's nice to droop a small towel over the handlebars, top tube or front wheel to wipe off the sweat. The towel also protects your headset, stem and front hub from sweat, which over time may cause corrosion. Also, it's nice to have somewhere to blow your nose since "snot rockets" usually aren't cool indoors...
- A trainer mat: It's nice to have something under your trainer to prevent slippage and protect the floor underneath from your sweat, scratches and markings from the trainer as well as dirt from your shoes and the bike. Nicer trainer mats, such as this one from Cycle-Ops can run you $60 or $70, so if you don't want to go that route, try a beach towel or yoga mat.
- Indoor riding clothes: Indoor riding clothes differ a little bit from outdoor riding clothes because comfort and sweat wicking are more important than aerodynamics and weather protection. Personally, I like to wear a pair of bib shorts and a base layer over the straps. I don't wear a jersey for indoor workouts, though I admit that there are times I wish I had a pocket to put my phone or a remote for the TV.
- Proper fuel and hydration: Because indoor workouts are usually shorter, many athletes don't do as well fueling and hydrating themselves. To make things worse, since workouts are often done in the early morning or evening, they don't eat enough beforehand and they start the workout not having eaten anything for 4-10 hours. If you are doing the workout in the morning, make sure to have at least a small breakfast beforehand. If you're in a rush, even an energy bar or a pack of energy chews will do. If you are doing the workout in the afternoon or evening make sure to have a good snack in the middle of the afternoon or between coming home from work/school and the start of the workout. During exercise, try to drink 20-40 oz. of fluid per hour including some sugar (I prefer one bottle of water and one bottle of energy drink). One of the nice things about riding indoors is that because your rear wheel is fixed you can take your hands off the bars whenever you want and grab a drink. Just as with any intensity workout, make sure to have a recovery drink within 30 minutes after completion of exercise. While this may be easier than ever when training at home, if you are riding or driving to a group indoor session, make sure to pack one in advance.
- A TV and/or Computer: Necessary to avoid complete boredom during indoor rides is some sort of entertainment. Most people love to watch race or helmet cam footage, as it is instrumental in visualization. It's never too soon to start thinking about tactics. Alternatively, some people may wish to catch up on their favorite TV shows, though when doing high intensity workouts I would advise keeping it pretty low-brow, as brain function tends to be impaired when your heart rate is over 190! For those that don't have a indoor training room with it's own TV, a laptop makes a good portable entertainment system and the internet connection allows for viewing online streaming content as well as Cadence TV. I will talk more about Cadence TV later, but in summary it is an online workout software with hundreds of structured workouts available. Most CTV workouts use helmet cam footage from various races and rides as the video feed.
- A Cadence sensor: If you don't have a cadence sensor on your bike, get one. Most intervals have a prescribed cadence range as well as a desired power/HR/perceived exertion and proper cadence is critical to do the workout properly. Varying cadence can also be a good way to add variety and structure to longer intervals. Some trainers have cadence sensors that can be strapped onto your bike, but they're a pain in the butt and if you forget to take it off at the end of the workout you might pull the wire apart. Also, if you buy a computer for your bike, make sure that it measures speed from the rear-wheel, as some computers that read speed from the front wheel won't even turn on indoors.
- A Power Meter: Some high end trainers include power measurement, but a Power-Tap, SRM, Quarq, Vector or Stages power meter combined with a regular old indoor trainer can work just fine and if you go that route you still have the power meter when outdoors. Having the power measurement allows athletes to do their workouts at the proper zones, recognize fitness improvements and recognize when they are fatigued or over-heated. For those that don't have a power meter or have access to an indoor trainer with power measurement, a rear-wheel speed sensor is the next best thing. While there is little correlation between speed and power outdoors (due to ever-changing gradients, wind and road conditions), there is actually a good correlation indoors, at least once the trainer and tire warm up and provided that the trainer resistance setting is constant. If you do this, you will have to experiment a little bit, but experience will help. For example, you might figure out that 22-22.5 mph feels like about Zone 4. Therefore, when you do a zone 4 interval, the goal is to stay inside that speed range. Likewise, zone 5 is a little faster and zone 3 is a little slower. As you get stronger and stronger, the speed that you can do at that zone goes up. While this method is no substitute for a power meter, the difference in price of $1000-$1500 can make it appealing, especially for beginners.
- A heart rate monitor: One of my pet peeves is when athletes stop using their heart rate monitors when they get power meters. In my mind, this is like getting rid of the coolant temperature sensor in your car just because you have a speedometer. Power and heart rate are two completely different measurements, so it's not as simple as "Power is the better measurement". Power is a measure of the work that you are doing over time. Heart rate is your body's reaction to that work, or at least one of it's reactions. There is no doubt that heart rate is an imperfect measure of exercise intensity, but that doesn't mean it isn't valuable, especially when coupled with the power measurement. Heart rate can provide clues that your fitness has improved, you are fatigued, you are overheating, dehydrating or bonking, or that you are getting sick. Best of all, they are easy to use and cheap (you can get a basic HRM for $20). And again, for those that have not yet made the leap to a power meter, heart rate can be a good measure of exertion, especially for longer steady-state intervals in controlled conditions.
- Rollers: Rollers are indoor trainers where the rider balances on top of 3 cylinders that look like rolling pins. Rollers can help balance, core strength, leg speed, technique and concentration. They work particularly well for recovery, indoor endurance and technique workouts but most do not work as well for high intensity and in particular, low cadence workouts, so I wouldn't recommend rollers as your only indoor trainer. That said, if you are looking for another great tool to add to your indoor training arsenal, they are great. If you haven’t ridden rollers before, here is a great video on how to use them.
There are many DVDs or streaming workouts out there that you can buy, but most of them get old after doing them a few times. In addition, many are extremely high intensity. That's not necessarily a bad thing... high intensity workouts have their place, but doing them too often will result in over-training and burnout. High intensity workouts shouldn't be at the expense of technique, endurance and recovery workouts. If every workout is a workout to exhaustion, there's a good chance that these things are being neglected.
This is where I believe that Cadence TV has an advantage over it's indoor workout competition. When you sign up for Cadence TV, you can log on at any time from any computer that is connected to the internet. You can choose from hundreds of workouts in all different categories. Up pops the workout with your specific Power, HR and PE zones listed. You can see what interval you are doing now, how much time is left in the interval and what is coming up. I love using Cadence TV (as both an athlete and a coach) because it allows me to do workouts that are too complicated to do outdoors or even indoors without prompts. Using Cadence TV makes it easy because you can just follow what's on the screen. Workouts include valuable instructions from the coaches, but some athletes wish to listen to their own music as well. On top of everything, at $4/month you can't beat the price.
At this point, many of you may be saying, "OK, got it. I can ride indoors for 1-2 hours and do all of my intensity sessions on the trainer, but what about the longer endurance rides? Isn't winter all about base training and long slow distance (LSD)?" Indoor endurance rides can get pretty boring and to a certain extent there is no way around that. Even with the coolest, state of the art virtual reality trainers, I'm not alone in saying that I would still rather be riding outdoors than indoors for longer rides. A couple years ago, I wrote this article for Cadence about this specific topic, so I won't repeat the whole thing here. All I will say is that if you have good winter clothes and a mountain bike you can get outside most days in most parts of the U.S., but even the toughest winter warriors will have days when riding outdoors is not safe. For that handful of days, a little bit of flexibility and creativity goes a long way. My rule of thumb is to cut down on the prescribed volume by 30% when riding indoors to account for the lack of stops, coasting time and "junk miles". But the best "trick" here is to add variety. Have a structured workout and try not to do the same thing for more than 10 minutes, even if the only change is to change your cadence or add a 5-10 second acceleration every so often. Riding in a group, with a training partner or a coach can really help make the time pass quickly as well.
Like all training, indoor training requires discipline. On top of all of all the "regular training challenges", indoor rides can be boring and temperature regulation is always difficult and sometimes impossible. Those that procrastinate or don't plan well; those that ride too easy because no one is looking or too hard because they're bored will pay the price in the long term. If you neglect your winter training you will come into spring unprepared and if you try to ride outdoors no matter what the conditions you will put yourself at risk for crashes, hypothermia and burn out.
Aside from just "toughing it out", there are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Make it habitual. Having a goal in mind and envisioning yourself standing at the top of the podium only goes so far. When you make your training a habit, you stop arguing with yourself about it. You just do it.
2. Have a plan. I'm not going to give you the hard sell on coaching here. All I am going to say is that it makes a big difference to have a structured plan to get you where you want to go rather than flailing around wondering if you are doing too much, not enough, or just the wrong things. A coach will give you that plan. A good coach will make it interesting for you too!
3. Think ahead. Again, this concept isn't unique to indoor riding. Planning ahead can help in every aspect of your training. Look at the weather forecast. Lay out your clothes the night before. Have your bike set up on the trainer ready to go. Sign up for a group indoor training class and figure out how to arrange your work/school schedule in order to get you there on time.
Indoor rides are not a replacement for outdoor rides. If possible, you should try to get outside at least 1-2 times per week year round. At the same time, don't be scared to ride indoors. Aside from being safe and time efficient, indoor rides can be fun and extremely beneficial. They are more than just a just a way to ride when it's dark and cold, they can actually be better for you than riding outside sometimes, even when outdoor conditions are good. Learning how to do indoor workouts right this winter might just be the difference between being off the front or off the back next spring!
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!