Your Guide to Indoor Cycling


, by Chris Case

Photography by: BBernard

Not long ago, indoor cycling was the domain of the hardened, determined loner—a necessary evil for those unwilling to see their fitness dip in the winter or reluctant to brave the conditions outside.

No longer. Riding indoors has quickly become many cyclists’ preferred way to train through the winter. For others, it is a racing season unto itself.

But riding indoors comes with unique characteristics. The physical properties of riding on a trainer make the workload different from riding outside, and heat management is a concern. For those looking to build toward a traditional outdoor race season, it takes discipline to prevent every session from turning into an all-out race.

We look at three key aspects of indoor cycling, and offer recommendations to reap the biggest rewards.

The science of trainers

When we ride a trainer, our interaction with the bike differs from when we ride outside. First, the static nature of most trainers has an effect on our biomechanics. These differences can impact our power, heart rate, and our perception of how hard we’re working for any given effort. An indoor ride of one hour produces a different training stimulus to an outdoor ride of one hour.

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This can make it difficult to know if the training zones we should use inside are the same as those we use outside.

“The science is still out on whether you should adjust your training zones for indoor riding,” says Dr. Stephen Cheung, a professor of environmental physiology at Brock University in Canada. “There’s a lot of individual variability—some people can match their level indoors to outdoors, and others just can’t for whatever reason, be it the physics of the trainer or for mental reasons like boredom.”

Photography by: TorwaiStudio

Dr. Cheung suggests performing a traditional power test on your trainer, especially for those who spend several consecutive months primarily training indoors. The results of the test will help you determine if you need to adjust your zones for your indoor sessions.

Once you’ve established accurate zones, some trainer workouts can have advantages to outdoor training, especially in regards to specificity. These include certain high-intensity interval sessions and neuromuscular work. Why?

“It comes down to the quality of the intervals,” Dr. Cheung says. “You know you will be able to bang out those intervals without interruptions from traffic, stop signs, terrain changes, and so on.”

The advantages are so favorable that even in the summer, Dr. Cheung uses the trainer for specific interval work because of the efficiency and quality of the efforts, without the danger or distractions found outside.

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On the other hand, certain types of rides are best avoided on the trainer; for example, true sprint efforts. Your form and power production will be suboptimal when your bike is locked to the ground.

The slow base endurance ride is also difficult to complete on the trainer. First, it can be mentally taxing; furthermore, the temptation to go faster and get caught up in racing is hard to resist. Most coaches and experts suggest you leave the long, slow endurance miles for outdoor rides, or a “combination” ride.

Some people can match their level indoors to outdoors, and others just can’t for whatever reason, be it the physics of the trainer or for mental reasons like boredom.

When the weather or other circumstances prevent you from getting outdoors for a full-distance endurance effort, consider this approach: Prepare everything you’ll need to ride the trainer, then head outside for as many hours as you can tolerate, before returning home and immediately jumping onto the trainer to create one big, combined ride of several hours or more. (Or go for a long nordic ski, then return to your trainer.)

Heat management

When you plant yourself indoors, any cooling effect from the wind is removed. That’s why replicating that air flow through the use of fans is so important

“Don’t underestimate the impact of heat stress when riding indoors,” says Dr. Cheung, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the physiological effects of extreme temperatures, both hot and cold. “If we don’t replicate the wind effect, we’re not going to be effective at eliminating heat from our bodies through the two main pathways. And the effects can be dramatic.”

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Outside, we benefit from evaporative cooling as sweat evaporates from our skin, and we experience convective cooling when, as blood near the surface of the skin, heat is carried away from our bodies via moving air.

To mimic the outdoor environment, Dr. Cheung recommends placing a large fan at a good distance in front of you, for sheer volume of air flow. Then place a smaller fan closer to you, off to the side, and directed at your torso or head. If you train in a cold garage space, the amount of airflow you need will be lower than if you train inside a heated home or gym.

The other consideration for indoor cycling is hydration. Simply put, if you can’t fully replicate outdoor airflow, sweat rates will increase and, therefore, the volume of fluids you need to replenish will also increase.

Photography by: TorwaiStudio

But it isn’t a dramatic increase; you will never need to double the volume, for example. The latest research, including some of Dr. Cheung’s findings, suggest that the effects of acute dehydration aren’t as bad as we once believed.

The gamification balance

Virtual cycling programs like Zwift have revolutionized indoor cycling by gamifying the experience. This can be both good and bad.

If every trainer session turns into an all-out race, you risk developing burnout or overtraining, or you may just hit your peak in March when your key races are still months away.

Of course, Zwift isn’t the only game in town. Other applications like Xert are geared more toward specific training goals and adaptive training workouts. So, if you’re focused on training rather than racing, consider a program that uses A.I. to drive the training prescription.

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If you need a little racing, by all means head toward Zwift. One of the best things about the gamified atmosphere is that there’s always someone to ride hard with; if you are a person that hates intervals, you can use that to drive your efforts.

Used strategically, indoor sessions have several benefits: they can keep motivation high; they can be used to sprinkle intensity or key threshold workouts into your base season; and they can stave off the winter training doldrums. The key is to limit the number of sessions that become virtual world championships.

“Gamification can be both a blessing and a curse,” Dr. Cheung says. “High intensity efforts have a role in training in the winter. But you have to pair that with discipline; there should be a goal each day. That’s driven by your annual training plan and what you’re trying to accomplish in any given phase. In that way, I like to use the hard rides and races on Zwift as the reward, as something to look forward to.”

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