For many of us the winter months are tough for outdoor training. Freezing cold temperatures, brutal winds, ice and snow make it nearly impossible to ride and train outdoors. Here in New Jersey we were spoiled by a mild spring-like December, but then winter came with a vengeance, dumping a couple of feet of snow on us and bringing bone chilling temperatures that were well below freezing. When true winter descends on us, we are forced to bring our bikes indoors to continue training. The trainer is a great option during the winter, but it can be hard to keep yourself motivated to continue stationary riding day after day. One of the things I enjoy most about cycling is the feeling of the wind in my hair and the scenery flying by, not the feel of the trainer beneath my bike and the view of the wall in front of me.
So how do you make the most of trainer riding and get the greatest benefit when riding outdoors is not an option?
The Suffering and Recovery Model Still Applies Indoors
If you are just pedaling along on the trainer with the same intensity every time you ride you are doing yourself a disservice. You need to put in some really hard efforts on the trainer on certain days and then take it easy on others. At the very least pick a couple of days a week for hard rides and a couple for recovery rides. If you watch TV while riding you might want to force yourself ride really hard (85-90% effort) during the commercials and then recover during the segments of the show in between. Find some training videos like Spinervals™ or Sufferfest™ to at least help you push yourself on your hard days. This will at least get you riding in the right direction.
Don’t Just Pedal, Have a Plan
Have some kind of training plan for your indoor training. Similar to riding outside you can get a much greater benefit from training if you have a training plan, or at least some structured workouts. When riding indoors, the importance of a plan might actually be even greater than it is outdoors. Your hours spent riding should be more about quality and not quantity. You can ride the trainer for twelve hours a week, but if you are not training with workouts that are specific to your goals you are really not reaping all of the benefits of indoor training. You can hire a coach to help with your winter training if you want assistance. However, at the very least, think about what your cycling aspirations are for the upcoming spring and summer and about the types of efforts you will need to be able to sustain to achieve those goals. Your training should be somewhat tailored to those objectives.
For example, if you want to become a better time trialist or triathlete, you will need to be able to sustain a sub LT effort for anywhere from twenty minutes to a couple of hours (not including something like an Ironman which is a whole other level of training). You don’t need to time trial for an hour indoors, but make your intervals longer (10-20 minutes) and hold them at around your time trial effort. Give yourself at least 5-10 minutes of recovery in between each interval. If you want to become a better sprinter, you need to practice shorter more intense efforts on the trainer that may be well above your lactate threshold, but only need to be sustained for thirty seconds or less. Even if you want to improve your general speed and fitness on the bike, there are some workouts that can benefit those goals far more than just sitting and spinning your legs for hours.
Virtual training can be a helpful, although more costly option, for training indoors. Computrainers, Wahoo Kickrs and Cycleops Virtual training (used with a smart trainer), allow you to simulate rides outdoor courses from the comfort of your own home. These devices adjust the resistance on the trainer to simulate going uphill, downhill and everything in between on a specific route. The equipment can be pricey though, ranging from $700-$2000.
Zwift is a newer and less pricey alternative for virtual training. This app, allows you to connect with other riders virtually on a few different outdoor courses. Zwift alone does not adjust the tension on your trainer, but it will sync with your Garmin or other devices to show your stats on the computer screen (with the purchase of a $20 ANT+ dongle). This program motivates by allowing you to ride virtually with other real people. You can work to stick with a group and try not to get dropped and attempt to win King or Queen of the mountains segments or various sprint points. A Zwift subscription is only $10/month and can be cancelled at any time.
Riding your bike on rollers is another indoor training option. This type of indoor training requires more concentration and some practice, but the rollers give you more movement on the bike like you would have on the road. They also might be a good change of pace from the completely static position you are stuck in on the trainer.
Indoor training is hard work, you never get a break from constant pedaling like you would outdoors on a downhill or even coasting for a few moments on a nice flat road. If you are going to put in the work you should get the most you can out of it. Some interval workouts are actually better to do on the trainer because you can really focus on the workout without the distractions of cars and other potential hazards outside. On the trainer it’s not so much about the miles or hours, but about the quality of the workouts you are doing. So make a plan, keep your goals in mind, suffer to your favorite TV show and try to remember that spring is just around the corner.