While we all agree that cycling outdoors is wonderful, it’s not always possible to get outside. Indoor training gives you the chance to turn the pedals and top up your fitness when it’s difficult to head out.
There are a variety of reasons to consider indoor cycling: it’s convenient, time-efficient, not weather-dependent and you won’t end up with a dirty bike. Plus, you can do targeted workouts to improve your endurance, speed, cardiovascular fitness, VO2 max and more.
If you’re new to the world of indoor cycling, you can be faced with a dazzling array of pricey equipment and accessories. However, it’s perfectly possible to get an indoor training setup without breaking the bank.
As a general rule, the more you spend, the quieter and more realistic your trainer setup will be. Step into the world of smart trainers and you’ll get accurate power measurement, plus features such as cadence sensors and adjustable resistance to simulate climbing or target specific training zones.
Our guide to indoor cycling will take you through everything you need to get started. Once you’ve got going, our top five indoor training tips will help you progress further.
Find the right training space
Some people go all-out, turning their garage into a ‘pain cave’ dedicated to hours of indoor cycling.
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, in which 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 up near a surface you can hold on to or in a door frame.
The other thing to consider is noise. Indoor trainers, especially cheaper models, 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.
Choose your preferred type of trainer
There are a few different types of indoor trainer. Your choice is normally between rollers, a turbo trainer, smart trainer or static bike.
Turbo trainers are the most common and range in price, features and complexity, from simple budget choices to high-end smart trainers (more below) 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 rests against a cylinder, which spins when you start to pedal.
This kind of trainer can wear down a grippy racing tyre, so you may want to consider using harder-compound winter bike tyres or purchasing a trainer-specific tyre and popping that on a spare back wheel instead.
From the mid-range upwards, you can find direct-drive smart trainers. These have a cassette attached to the trainer, so you remove your rear wheel and hook the chain onto this cassette, with a skewer through the rear dropouts/thru-axle and the trainer itself.
The advantage here is not having to worry about wearing out your rear tyre: you can just pop your wheel back in when you want to take your bike for a ride outside.
Smart trainers are often quieter and offer a more realistic ride feel when pedalling.
You can either change gear yourself or use ERG mode, which holds you to a determined level of power output.
Smart trainers can also automatically increase and decrease the resistance to simulate changes of gradient or to give you a harder, more immersive workout.
If you’re serious about indoor training, a smart trainer is well worth the investment.
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.
If you don’t know how to ride on rollers you should try it the first few times near something you can hold on to.
Rollers are also compact and relatively easy to pack away, useful if you’re short on space at home.
If you want to splurge on your setup, you can buy a high-tech smart bike 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, measure your pedal stroke, cadence and heart rate, automatically control resistance, and much more.
Get the right indoor training accessories
As our guide to the best turbo trainer accessories explains, indoor cycling 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.
Once you’ve got a water bottle sorted, the second most important accessory is a fan. Because there’s no wind to keep you cool like the great outdoors, you’ll generate an unsustainable amount of excess heat while working hard indoors, even on a cold day.
A fan helps your body use its natural mechanisms to keep you from overheating and is, in our opinion, an absolutely essential piece of kit for indoor cycling.
Otherwise, you can buy mats to place under your trainer, which offer a few benefits: a mat keeps the setup stable and stops it moving about on a slippy floor, and it’ll protect the floor and stop it getting soaked. It will also help reduce vibrations and noise, especially if you have wooden floors.
If you don’t have a trainer mat, consider putting an old towel underneath the bike and trainer 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 before they hit your bike’s paintwork.
If you’ve decided to follow an online workout or use a virtual cycling app, you’ll need to have a screen or laptop set up in front of you, so may need a table or mount.
You might also find a set of speakers or headphones are necessary to hear what’s going on, particularly if your trainer is loud.
Find a workout
While you can hop on and spin away while listening to music, watching your favourite cycling film or tuning into a TV show, you’ll get a much more efficient and targeted workout if you follow a structured training session.
Still, while there are undoubtedly benefits to cycling indoors, it can feel like a chore – particularly if slogging it out during a tough training session. Handily, there are a few different things you can try to make it a bit more… fun.
We’ve already mentioned virtual cycling apps such as Zwift, but this is where they really come into their own. An interactive training app can help provide the motivation and structure you need to thrive.
With Zwift, you can simply free ride around the virtual worlds, or do intervals from Zwift’s library of structured workouts and training plans.
Zwift is also becoming increasingly popular with professional athletes, so you may spot the odd cycling star spin past you.
Platforms such as Wahoo SYSTM and TrainerRoad are focused solely on training, so if you’re not interested in the gamified aspects of an app such as Zwift and just want to get in a hard workout, one of these two might be more suited to your tastes.
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 power or heart rate zones so you know what to aim for when training.
It’s also a good marker to check your fitness progression against, and update your training accordingly to ensure you’re getting the most out of your time on the bike.
Functional Threshold Power (FTP) – or, in other words, how hard you can ride for an hour – is the figure riders normally measure during a fitness test. But critical power is a more than viable alternative.
Fortunately, however, you don’t need to ride full-gas for 60 minutes to determine your FTP. Virtual training apps also offer a range of condensed tests. By taking an FTP test on Zwift, you can establish a baseline in no time at all.
It will still hurt, mind.
Decide how often and how much you want to train
In order to plan your winter training, think about the timing and regularity of your sessions.
The time of day you work out is largely going to be 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, socialising, other hobbies and so on, it may be a case of fitting in a session when you can.
On the other hand, establishing a set routine can maintain your motivation.
That’s not always possible, though, so 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 focused sessions a week, with some longer rides outside on the weekend or your days off work.
Most of all, pace yourself, particularly if you are just getting started. You don’t want to go full bore and tire yourself out – overtraining is still very much a risk, even if you’re training indoors.
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.