9 indoor cycling sessions

Use these workouts to maintain and build fitness over the winter months

For most, cycling is about the pursuit of fun and fitness in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, modern urban living and bad weather can get in the way. Come winter it’s even worse, with fewer daylight riding hours and nasty road conditions adding to the outdoors-riding deterrent. But don’t hang up the bike and kiss goodbye to a season’s worth of hard-earned fitness, stay at home, set up your own ‘turbo dungeon’ and start laying the foundations for next year’s personal bests with these nine essential sessions from top coaches and athletes.

Heart Rate Training Zones

The zones mentioned in the sessions are based on your maximum heart rate (maxHR). To work out your maxHR, warm up, find a long hill and sprint up it seated. When you feel like you can’t do any more, get out of the saddle and sprint for another 10 seconds. Stop and note your heart rate: your maxHR.

  • Zone 1 (60-65% maxHR): Long, easy rides, to improve combustion and storage of fats
  • Zone 2 (65-75% maxHR): Basic base training. Longish rides, medium stress
  • Zone 3 (75-82% maxHR): For developing aerobic capacity and endurance; moderate volume at very controlled intensity
  • Zone 4 (82-89% maxHR): Pace simulation when tapering for a race
  • Zone 5 (89-94% maxHR): For raising anaerobic threshold. Good sessions for 10 and 25-mile time-trials
  • Zone 6 (94-100% maxHR): For high-intensity interval training to increase power and speed

1. High cadence

“High cadence intervals allow you to improve endurance and speed,” says Lionel Reynaud, creator of the CoachMyRide iPhone app and former coach of the Cofidis pro cycling team. “You will teach your body to burn fat as a fuel source during this workout, so it’s a perfect session if you need to lose weight too. It also improves muscular coordination by using lower gears with a higher cadence.

“The ability to maintain a good cadence of 80-100rpm is essential to maintain your speed for longer, as pedalling an easier gear at a higher cadence fatigues the muscles less than a harder gear in a lower cadence. It stresses your cardiovascular system more but your muscles less — which means staying fresher for longer. These are a must for time triallists.”

Do this

  • Warm up for about 10 minutes, then perform 4 x 4 minutes @ 100rpm and 6 minutes @ 80rpm. Stay in zones 1 and 2
  • Select an appropriate gear so you are able to use these cadences while remaining in the correct zones
  • Stay seated with hands on the drops
  • Relax, look forward and don’t rock your hips

2. One-legged drills

“One-legged drills are much safer on a turbo than the road,” says Reynaud. “They’re also great for technique as they make each leg work throughout the entire pedal rotation."

Do this

  • Warm up for 10 minutes in a low gear, then perform a single 25-minute block at a low intensity in HR zones 1 and 2
  • Every 5 minutes take one foot off the pedal and continue pedalling with the other foot for 30 seconds
  • Change legs and pedal one-legged for another 30 seconds
  • Put both feet back on the pedals and pedal for 5 minutes until the next set
  • Warm down for 10 minutes with easy pedalling and no resistance on the turbo trainer

3. Cadence steps

“I call this the ‘Leg Ripper!” says Ric Stern, senior coach of rstsport.com. “It’s a derivative of a session I’ve used with track pursuiters and is low to moderate intensity. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy!

“Focusing on cadence, this workout will bring your leg speed up rapidly, which is useful for both track riding and road racing. On the turbo trainer its main use is to keep you busy, because it demands constant concentration. The session is a great way of increasing neuromuscular adaptations.

“All blocks are three minutes long, and recovery between each block is always 90 seconds at recovery pace. Heart rate should not reach the goal zones until you’re 30-60 seconds into each block.”

Do this

  • Warm up for 5 minutes in recovery zone 1
  • Ride in zone 2 at a cadence of 100rpm
  • Ride in zone 2 @ 110rpm
  • Ride in zone 2 @ 95rpm
  • Ride in zone 2 @ 115rpm
  • Ride in zone 2 @ 110rpm
  • Ride in zone 3 @ 115-125rpm
  • Ride in zone 3 @ 110rpm
  • Ride in zone 3 @ 120rpm+
  • Ride in zone 4 @ 95rpm
  • Ride in zone 4 @ 105rpm+
  • Cool down for 5 minutes in recovery zone 1

4. Over-geared intervals

“This workout adds strength training to an endurance session,” says Reynaud. “Use it in the second phase of the endurance cycle (4-8 weeks), once you’ve built a small endurance base.

“Over-gearing sessions could be compared to weight training on a bike. The strength component of the fitness gained from this session is good for climbing or riding for a long time at medium intensity.”

Do this

After a good 10-minute warm-up, perform 40 minutes in zones 1 and 2 with the following cadence changes:

  • 10 minutes @ 80rpm (easy gear)
  • 5 minutes @ 60rpm (big gear)
  • 10 minutes @ 90rpm (low gear)
  • 5 minutes @ 60rpm (big gear)
  • 10 minutes @ 80rpm (low gear)
  • Warm down with 10 minutes of easy pedalling. Stay seated throughout with hands on the drops.

5. Strength and conditioning

“The problem with single-sporters,” says Ironman triathlete and sports conditioning coach Seb Navarro, “is that your body gets so efficient at cycling that other muscle groups can get ignored, leaving you vulnerable to injury. This off-bike routine, which includes strength and conditioning exercises, core work and stretches, sounds a lot but should only take about 20-30 minutes.”

These sessions will improve your neuromuscular pathways through repetition and improve muscular endurance. “As you build up it might seem like you’re doing a lot of repetitions,” says Navarro, “but this will be nothing compared with the number you would make in even a normal one-hour ride.

“Perform both exercises in a slow, controlled movement — holding onto a chair for balance if you need to.”

Do this

Single-leg squats

  • Stand upright with one leg supported behind you on a chair
  • Squat down by bending both legs until you have about an 80-degree bend in the front knee, then straighten up again
  • Keep your abdominals clenched and chest out throughout
  • Repeat 20-30 times then change legs
  • Perform 2-5 sets, with 30-60 seconds’ rest between sets
  • Start off gradually and progressively build up the duration, number of sets and repetitions as well as intensity by carrying weights

Single-leg step-ups

  • Find a step that will give you about a 90-degree bend in the knee at the starting position
  • Exhale, clench your abdominals and step up, keeping your torso upright, so both feet are on the top step
  • Inhale as you step back down again with the same foot
  • Change leg and repeat 20-30 times per leg
  • Again, build up progressively

6. Technique and lactate threshold

“If you only have 40-50 minutes to spare, this turbo session is for you,” says Troy Jacobson, head coach at training website Spinervals.com. “Focusing on pedalling skill development and lactate threshold training, this workout will boost your fitness as well as your efficiency, so you can ride faster for less energy. Aim to do these a couple of times a week in winter.”

Do this

  • Warm up for 5 minutes (small ring, 15t sprocket) @ 90-100rpm to gradually increase your heart rate
  • Start with 3 x 30-second hard tempo efforts (big ring, 15t sprocket) @ 85-95rpm to increase heart rate and warm up the legs
  • Pedal easy in small ring for 1 min
  • Leg speed drill: 6 x 20-second fast legs intervals (small ring, 15t sprocket) @ 110-130rpm, with 20 seconds recovery in between, gradually increasing cadence with no bouncing
  • Pedal easy in small ring for 1 min
  • Pull up drill: 6 x 20-second intervals (big ring, 12-13t sprocket) @75-85rpm, focusing on the upward pulling phase of the pedal stroke, engaging the hip-flexor muscles. This can also be done one leg at a time. Pedal easy for 20 seconds between efforts
  • Pedal easy in small ring for 1 min
  • Stand up drill: 6 x 20 seconds (big ring, 15t sprocket) @ 85-95rpm. Start each interval in the saddle for 10 seconds, then transition smoothly to a standing position for 10 seconds. Pedal easy for 20 seconds back in the saddle between each effort
  • Pedal easy in small ring for 1 min
  • Lactate: 3 x 4-minute tempo intervals at lactate threshold (85% HR max), @ 75-85rpm (big ring, 12-14t sprocket), with 1 minute easy-pedalling recovery between each effort
  • Cool down for 5-10 mins in zone 2

7. Base builder

“This endurance and cadence workout is good for building your aerobic base and pedalling technique throughout the winter,” says Jacobson. “For base building keep in zones 2 and 3; for building technique and core stability you need to avoid bouncing at higher cadence work.”

Do this

  • Warm up for 5-10 minutes with 3 x 30-second intervals in the big ring/15t sprocket, and 30 seconds soft-pedalling recovery in between
  • Pedal easy for 1 minute
  • Perform 8 x 20-second high cadence intervals (small ring, 15t sprocket @ 100-120rpm), with 20 seconds rest between. Focus on keeping your upper body relaxed and not bouncing in the saddle
  • Pedal easy for a minute
  • Do 4 x 7-minute aerobic tempo intervals (big ring, 17t sprocket @ 80-90rpm), with 30 seconds rest in between each effort. Focus on keeping your heart rate in zones 2 and 3
  • Pedal easy for a minute
  • Finally, do 6 x 20-second high cadence intervals (small ring, 15t sprocket @ 110-130rpm), with 20 seconds rest between each. Keep your upper body still and let your legs do the work

8. Core stabilisers

“Increasing the stability of your core muscle will brace your spine, and give you a solid and more efficient pedalling platform,” says Navarro. These two exercises will strengthen your rectus abdominals (six-pack), external obliques and TVA (traverse abdominals).

Do this

Glute bridging

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and your arms out to either side
  • Start the exercise by clenching your abdominals and squeezing your glutes, then raise your hips until there is a straight line from your shoulders to your knees
  • Hold for 15-60 seconds, then slowly lower your hips to briefly touch the floor before repeating
  • Start with two sets of 20-30 repeats, with 30-60 seconds’ recovery between sets

Plank

  • Start at the top of the press-up position, engage your core muscles, then bend your elbows and lower your weight onto your forearms, so your body forms a straight line
  • Keep your abdominals and glutes clenched and your spine in a neutral position, and hold for 15-60 seconds.

9. Stretches

“Cycling uses a limited number of muscles in a restricted range of movement,” explains Navarro, “and this can cause the over-used muscles to tighten and work against their opposing muscles, reducing joint mobility and potentially leading to injury too.

“Look to repeat each of these stretches two to four times after a workout, and don’t forget to breathe throughout the stretch.”

Do this

Cossacks stretch

  • Start standing with feet just wider than a shoulder width apart
  • Crouch down onto the ball of one foot, bending one knee while the other leg stays straight, supported by your heel
  • Now stretch your inner thighs
  • Next, twist your body to face the straight leg’s toes and lean forwards to stretch your hamstrings
  • Finally, twist all the way back round so you are facing away from the straight leg’s toes (now your foot will be upside-down with toes on the floor) and you can stretch your hip flexors
  • Hold each stretch for at least 60 seconds

Glute stretch

  • Lie on your back and bring both knees up towards your chest and place your right foot just above the left knee
  • Place your right hand through the hole you have created with your legs and hold the back of your left leg, resting your right elbow on the inside of your right knee The other hand holds the back of the left leg as well
  • Next, pull your left leg towards you while exerting a small amount of pressure with your elbow to the inside of your right knee. You should feel a stretch in your glutes. Hold for at least 60 seconds and change legs

Top turbo tips

  • “Staying hydrated before, during and after a turbo session is vital if you want to get the best out of it,” says Lionel Reynaud.
  • “Some turbos, especially ones with fan resistance, can make a lot of noise and vibration,” says Dave McQuillen of sufferfest.com, “so set it up downstairs on a solid floor, or better still in a shed or garage.”
  • “Even with a fan and an open window you’re going to sweat,” says McQuillen. “So towels for face, floor, bike…”

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine – the manual for the modern road cyclist. Try your first five issues for £5 when you subscribe today.
  • Discipline: Road
  • Location: Bristol, UK

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