Beginner’s guide to indoor training: all you need to get started

Find the right space, training equipment and workout to boost your fitness

While we all agree that cycling outdoors is wonderful, there are plenty of reasons to add indoor training to your repertoire. It’s convenient, it’s not weather-dependent and you won’t end up with a muddy bike and wet kit. Plus, you can do targeted workouts to improve your stamina, speed, cardiovascular fitness and more.

If you’re new to the world of indoor training, you can be faced with a dazzling array of pricey equipment and accessories. However it’s perfectly possible to get a good setup without the breaking the bank.

As a general rule, the more you spend the quieter and more efficient the trainer setup you’ll get, often with features such as cadence sensors, adjustable resistance to simulate climbing, and even power meters and sensors that detect the smoothness of your pedal stroke.

This guide will take you through all you need to consider to get set up and started with indoor training. We’ve got loads more advice, focussed workouts and tips online so you can refine your workout as you progress.

Smart trainer, turbo trainer or rollers?
Smart trainer, turbo trainer or rollers?

1. Find the right training space

Some people go all-out, turning their garage into a ‘pain cave’ dedicated to hours of indoor training. However, if you’re just getting started you don’t need to go quite that far.

You’ll need an area, ideally inside or at least sheltered, that you can set up your bike and trainer, plus a little shelf or table at the front.

Any space will do, but if you want to keep it set up to make hopping on for a quick session more efficient, you’ll want it out of the way of normal life activities.

Bear in mind that the equipment is fairly heavy and that you are likely to sweat a fair bit, so a wipe-clean floor is preferable to a carpeted area. If you only have a carpeted area, put down something like a mat first to protect it.

If you’re planning on using rollers rather than a turbo trainer (more on each below) then unless you are already skilled in getting started on them, you may prefer to set them up near a surface you can hold on to or in a door frame.

The other thing to consider is noise. Indoor trainers can be quite noisy machines and you’ll be standing up and powering along on it while you’re training. If you live in a shared house you may want to keep it away from quieter spaces, or find a relatively soundproofed room to do your workout.

2. Choose your preferred type of trainer

There are a few different types of indoor trainer.

Turbo trainers are probably the most common and range in price, features and complexity from simple budget choices to high-end smart trainers with all the whistles and bells.

All turbo trainers work with a bike. At the cheap to mid-range the bike fits onto the trainer with a skewer through the rear axle and the rear wheel resting against a cylinder which spins when you start to pedal.

You can increase and decrease the resistance on most smart trainers to simulate riding uphill and to give yourself a harder workout.

This kind of trainer can wear down a wheel, so you may want to consider purchasing a turbo-trainer specific one that’s much more hardwearing and popping that on the back wheel instead.  

Towards the mid-range of the spectrum, you can also find direct-drive turbo trainers. These have a cassette attached to an internal housing, so you remove your rear wheel and hook the chain onto this cassette, with a skewer through the rear dropouts and the turbo itself.

The advantage here is not having to replace the rear tyre: you can just pop your rear wheel back in when you want to take your bike for a ride outside. Often these also quieter.

Rollers are great for improving balance while training
Rollers are great for improving balance while training

Rollers consist of two parabolic free-spinning cylinders on which the bike stands. When you start pedalling, the cylinders rotate to simulate the ground moving beneath your wheels.

Since there is nothing holding the bike upright other than momentum from pedalling, they give a more natural-feeling ride. This is both an advantage and disadvantage: it’s great for improving core strength and balance, but can be tricky to get started, hence why you should try it the first few times near something you can hold on to.

If you want to splurge on your setup you can buy a high-tech smart trainer that’s designed solely for indoor cycle training. These aren’t your regular gym- or spin-class bikes, they will usually offer the ability to monitor your power output, your pedal stroke, cadence, heart rate, and much more. Wattbike is one such example.

3. Get the right indoor training accessories

Indoor training is hot, thirsty work and you are likely to sweat buckets. Make sure you have a bottle (or two!) of water in easy reach so you can drink as you train.

You can buy mats to place under your trainer which offer a couple of benefits: a mat keeps the setup stable and stops it moving about, and it’ll protect the floor and help stop your floor getting soaked. If you don’t have one, consider putting a towel down underneath you instead.

Keep another towel on the handlebars to catch drips and wipe that hard-earned sweat from your brow (and neck, and chest, and back…). You can even buy a special sheet that fits over your bars and top tube to catch those errant drips.

Because of the heat, it’s a good idea to exercise in a well ventilated area if you can, and set up a fan to blow air at you throughout your workout. Believe us, that cooling air is absolute bliss!

If you’ve decided to follow an online workout or join an online program such as Sufferfest of Zwift, you’ll need to have a screen or laptop set up in front of you so may need a mount. You may find a set of speakers or headphones are necessary too to hear what’s going on, particularly if your trainer is loud.

4. Find a workout

While you can hop on and spin away while listening to music or watching your favourite film or TV show, you’ll get a much more efficient and targeted workout if you follow a program.

BikeRadar has a range of turbo trainer workouts available online
BikeRadar has a range of turbo trainer workouts available online

A quick Google search will throw up plenty of options, from guided programs to online videos that will take you through different workouts to focus on everything from fat burning to endurance to HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training).

While there are undoubtedly benefits to indoor training, it can feel like a chore. Handily, there are a few different things you can try to make it a bit more fun.

Online programs such as Zwift sit somewhere between an online training program and an online multiplayer game. As you ride, an avatar of yourself navigates a course through a virtual world with other riders around you — all training in real time in their homes and pain caves around the world.

Zwift is also popular with athletes so you may spot the odd cycling star spin past you.

Zwift and Sufferfest also have a variety of online workouts you can do.

5. Do a fitness test, then repeat

We’re not going to lie, this is going to hurt.

A baseline fitness test is, however, very useful for establishing your heart rate zones so you know what heart rate to aim for when training. It’s also good to check your fitness progression against, and update your training accordingly to ensure you’re getting the most out of it.

6. Decide how often and when you want to train

The time of day you work out is going to be largely determined by what fits in with your lifestyle and preferences. Some people find that they work out better in the morning, others in the evening. If you’ve got other commitments such as work, family, classes, other hobbies and so-on it may be a case of fitting in a session when you can.

The first thing worth noting is that anything you do is better than nothing — 30 minutes three or four times a week is worth more than a rare two-hour session.

A good baseline to aim for is three 30- to 40-minute focussed sessions a week, with some longer rides outside.

Most of all, pace yourself, particularly if you are just getting started. You don't want to go full bore and tire yourself out. It's better to start at a sustainable level and keep it going, then up the duration or frequency of training when you feel you can handle more.

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