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Cycling fitness: How to get the most from your indoor training sessions

Riding on the turbo is an efficient way to develop your cycling fitness. We got the experts to explain how you can use your limited time to make the biggest gains

You made a resolution to get fit, dusted off the turbo trainer and you’ve done a few sessions, but it’s harder than you expected and you’re struggling to keep it up; here’s how to make indoor training more fun, efficient, and worth the suffering.

Home trainers, indoor trainers, turbo trainers, instruments of torture — whatever you call them, devices that hold your bike so you can pedal while indoors have never been more popular. You can train in safety, especially in the winter when there’s not enough light for long rides outside working hours, and they keep your bike away from wet and cruddy conditions.

> 14 of the best home trainers for 2021 - get fit indoors

Online training platforms like Zwift and TrainerRoad have boosted the popularity of indoor trainers; retailers tell us that they now sell as many trainers in summer as in winter.

> Zwift vs TrainerRoad: Which is best for you?

We spoke to the experts – ABCC Level 3 Accredited coaches Steve Harrop of Skyhook Coaching Services and Jonathan Melville of BCA (Breakaway Coaching and Analytics) – to find out how you can use your time training indoors to maximise your fitness gains.

“Although you can’t solely rely on training indoors – because if you’re a racer you’ve got to be comfortable handling bikes too – with the right training indoors you can achieve all of the physiological adaptations to energy systems and muscle strength that you need,” Steve notes.

“It also builds mental strength being able to push hard on the turbo, because riding outside is never going to feel quite as hard as it did when you were stuck indoors.

“I’m a massive proponent of training indoors because it’s the most efficient way to use your time.” Here’s how to make the most from your in-the-saddle time indoors…

Choose your place wisely

Garmin Tacx Boost

Ideally, your trainer should live somewhere you can keep it permanently set up, to reduce the faff of starting a session. It should also be relatively comfortable. Putting your trainer in a shed or the garage might seem like a good idea, but will you walk through a blizzard in just bib shorts and heart rate monitor to do a session?

> 10 best heart rate monitors for cycling - get useful fitness data

Instead, set your trainer up somewhere you can keep everything you need (water, towel, computer gubbins if necessary, entertainment) to hand. Preparation is key to this too.

“Think about what you need and get it all lined up before you go,” Steve recommends. “If it becomes a routine, and the more you do it, the less likely you’ll forget.”

It’s also important to make sure your trainer and bike are properly set up on a level, hard surface with an old towel or something like that underneath so the floor doesn’t get damaged by sweat.

Set aside the time and avoid interruptions

Give yourself time when you won’t be pestered or interrupted by family or friends. Let phone calls go to voicemail. Ignore Twitter, Facebook and Instagram alerts.

Tacx Neo Bike Smart in situ.jpg

“You have more control over your training environment indoors,” notes Steve. "You don’t have to worry about rain, close passes, potholes, other road hazards, or variables out of your control. You have the opportunity to be really focused.

“A simple rule for effective home training is ‘I’m training, I’m not to be disturbed’,” Steve suggests. Or you could choose a time when you’re least likely to be interrupted. Very early in the morning before everyone else wakes up is good. By prioritising the ride by doing it first thing means it’s also more likely to get done. If something does crop up, you’ll still have the opportunity to try again later in the day.

Warm up

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It’s tempting to jump on your bike and start hammering away, but it’s far better to build up your effort gradually to give your body a chance to warm up. That’s why just about any indoor training program you’ll find includes a warm-up and cool-down in each session. Don’t skip them.

Choose an objective beforehand

Aimlessly pootling around the lanes on a sunny day can be fun, but aimlessly pedalling away on a trainer gets very dull, very quickly. Rather than just sitting there watching your cadence and heart rate, work to a plan with specific sessions that vary your effort.

British Cycling offers a variety of training plans, and you can do the intervals on a trainer while getting out and riding in the big room at the weekend for packing in the miles.

Steve adds: “Be really specific about what you’re trying to hit, so you know whether you did it or you didn’t.

“It’s also got to be within your reach—an achievable target for that session."

Train with power instead of heart rate 

4iiii HR deal

“I would advocate that anybody who's serious about indoor training should work from power as heart rate is totally different when you’re indoors because when you’re in a hotter environment heart rate goes a lot higher,” Steve points out.

“Riders are more likely going to stress themselves out looking at their heart rate going up and up. I’ve seen riders back off workouts because they’re looking at their heart rate.

"It produces more limitations in my experience than it helps in terms of trying to measure indoor intensity."

> 12 reasons why you should buy, and use, a power meter

Complete FTP tests fairly regularly

As lots of indoor workouts and training plans you can find online or on platforms such as Zwift are based on your functional threshold power (FTP), it’s worthwhile testing your fitness ability frequently to ensure you are getting the most benefit from the time you put into sessions.

What is FTP? Find out how to work out yours over here.

Subjecting yourself to the torture that is a 20-minute long FTP test is undoubtedly painful but it can be satisfying as a measure of progress.

Complete an FTP test every four to eight weeks, particularly if you’re new to intervals because you’re likely to improve quite quickly.

“It’s not uncommon to see a big increase in your FTP within four weeks,” says Jonathan.

There’s also scope for further improvement by simply getting better at pacing your effort. An FTP test is basically a 20 minute time trial, and it can take practice judging how to give it your all.

“If you aren’t used to testing, you will probably find the first test is a bit of a pancake—it’s a throwaway because you don’t fully understand how to pace the effort."

Jonathan recommends doing a second one a week later. “You will improve purely because you know how to pace it better,” he says. “Not everyone is going to like regular testing, but it is quite important.”

It provides you with an accurate benchmark for subsequent training, which is why training systems such as Zwift and TrainerRoad include FTP test protocols.

Remain specific to your target event

“Ask yourself what are you trying to get out of this session,” recommends Steve.

Plan out your sessions so that they are focused on your ultimate goal, so you make the best use of your time in the saddle. The good thing about training indoors is it gives you a lot of control and so it is possible to remain specific to your target event.

“If you are training for road races, for example, you’re going to need to go above your FTP quite a lot for attacking scenarios,” says Jonathan. “One workout I would recommend would be working on your maximum aerobic power.”

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He explains: “This is working at 105% to 110% of your FTP—you can do this between two and six minutes with one to two minutes recovery, and then five repetitions.”

Whereas if you’re training for events that require you to go for a long distance, say you’re going for your first century or you’re training for a granfondo, Jonathan recommends sweet-spot intervals.

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“Work between five and 20 minutes at about 90% of your FTP so that’s around zone three, with five to 10 minutes recovery, and do that two to four times,” Jonathan explains.

Wondering what ‘zone three’ is? Here’s your guide to the training zones, which explains why they’re important, how to work out yours and how to use them.

Vary your intervals (if no target event)

If you don’t have a target event, then Jonathan stresses that variety is going to be key.

“Quite a lot of riders end up doing the same workout without any progression and as a result they plateau.”

Don’t let that be you…

“If you’re not training for a target event, perhaps you could do a mix of the maximum aerobic power and the sweet spots workout. On Tuesday you do above threshold work, and then on Wednesday you do below threshold work, for example.

“If you are looking for variety, one workout that is quite good is unders and overs—basically, in a single session you’re going both under and above your FTP."

BCA Indoor Training Workout 3.JPG

Jonathan explains: “For example, you could do six minutes in zone three, and then immediately go up to three minutes in zone five, two minutes rest—then repeat that three to four times.”

Steve says: “With riders I train, we don’t just work on one energy system at a time.

“It’s like keeping all the plates spinning—if you ignore any of those plates and it falls to the ground, you’ve got to start all over again and that takes a long time.”

Consider turning off ERG mode

“Try turning ERG mode off on your smart trainer every so often and you may find you improve a lot more,” Jonathan suggests.

ERG mode is where the trainer automatically keeps you at your target power whatever your cadence; so the resistance increases if you’re pedalling at a low cadence, and reduces when you’re pedalling at a high cadence.

“The reason is that it’s kind of an assisted way of completing your intervals. If you have to hold 300 watts, regardless of what you do with your cadence, it will always be a resistance of 300 watts.

“If you turn that assistance off, a lot of people find it a lot harder and generally speaking with intervals, the harder it is, the better.”

Cool yourself down

“With being in a hotter environment, the main aim is to lower your body temperature or your starting temperature because if your body temperature reaches a certain level it will kind of stop,” Jonathan notes.

Overheating isn’t just uncomfortable; you can’t perform at your best if your body is too hot, and you can even make yourself ill.

2021 Vacmaster Cardio54 training fan - indoor setup.jpg

“If you can in any way lower your starting temperature when you exercise that is going to help you quite a bit,” recommends Jonathan.

Basic things such as drinking cold water and using ice packs and fans are all going to benefit you.

When you’re training indoors you’re static. It's easy to forget that you don’t have air flowing over you to evaporate sweat and keep you cool. Without a breeze, you can overheat really quickly so get a decent fan going to move the air.

“You don’t get brownie points for sweating unless you’re doing it for a very specific reason, like Tom Pidcock to prepare for the Olympic Mountain Bike race in Tokyo’s humid conditions,” says Steve.

An effective fan also protects your bike from sweat. A cooling airflow means sweat evaporates off you, rather than dripping onto your bike to rot expensive components.

You can get a 16-inch pedestal fan for around 20 quid, so there’s no need to suffer. There are options with remote controls too if you want to add to your arsenal of geekery.

Or Devon-based cyclewear brand NoPinz has a unique solution with its indoor training specific SubZero kit that’s designed to actively cool the body’s core temperature, with garments including bib shorts featuring pockets in which ice packs can be placed.

Drink fluids and replenish electrolytes

Even with a fan, you will sweat a lot when training indoors, and much more than if you’re outside riding in the cold.

“It’s going to be a lot more humid and a lot hotter when you’re indoors doing an indoor session,” Jonathan notes.

It’s vital to replace this lost fluid so keep a bottle handy and take frequent, small drinks.

Topping up on electrolytes pre- and post-workout is also something you should consider when completing a session in an indoor environment.

“Consider drinking a lot more electrolytes during and after the workout because you’ll be sweating a lot more,” says Jonathan.

You can take electrolyte drinks – we have reviews of these over here. You can get sodium from just adding table salt to your food, but do bear in mind that the powdered or tablet form electrolyte drinks will also tend to have other beneficial ingredients such as potassium and magnesium.

“One thing you could consider doing is weighing yourself before the session and then weigh yourself afterwards,” Jonathan suggests. “A kilo is a litre, so if you’ve lost a kilo—which is possible—then you’ll need to drink at least a litre to replenish that amount of lost fluids.”

> Cycling hydration: Is 1 water bottle or 2 best on long rides?

Pay attention to your technique

Indoor sessions can be a good place to start focusing and improving your riding technique. It’s a safer and controlled environment.

“If you want to work on your pedal stroke, you can do that through torque work with a higher resistance but a low cadence,” says Jonathan.

> Cycling cadence: how fast should you pedal?

“You have a lot more control and you can be quite specific about the intensity and cadence you need to hit when training indoors because you can always set the turbo trainer to what you need to do.”

Steve agrees and recommends one leg exercises to help with technique and strength on both rides for improvements.

“If you’re trying to pedal efficiently in circles, single-leg pedalling—when you’re on a static trainer and held in one place—can be really beneficial,” he says.

Get connected

2021 Zwift Hide Display - 1

Indoor training platforms such as Zwift and TrainerRoad make turbo training a lot more interesting, and can be a great distraction for pushing through your legs burning.

John Stevenson said: “I have to confess here a convert’s zeal. I’ve dabbled in using a trainer now and then over the years, but always found it hopelessly dull. But I’ve enjoyed sharing Zwift’s virtual road with other riders, and I’ve been following a program created by former pro and time trial specialist Marco Pinotti aimed at building fitness for beginners.”

Other members of the road.cc crew are big fans of TrainerRoad, which they say is better for structured training.

Club together

Many clubs and shops — especially the more racing-orientated ones — run group turbo sessions. This is a favourite training technique of road.cc tech ed Mat Brett who says, "I find them more fun and you work harder in a group."

If you fancy sticking to your home turbo spot you can still meet up with others on the virtual roads of platforms such as Zwift. Prior commitments to go on a ride with others—even if it's online—are really handy for getting the session done, as actually starting a session can be the hardest part.

Anna has been hooked on bikes ever since her youthful beginnings at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit. As an avid road and track racer, she reached the heady heights of a ProCyclingStats profile before leaving for university. Having now completed an MA in Multimedia Journalism, she’s hoping to add some (more successful) results. Although her greatest wish is for the broader acceptance of wearing funky cycling socks over the top of leg warmers.

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