While we all agree that cycling outdoors is wonderful, it’s not always possible to get outside.
There are also a variety of other reasons to consider indoor cycling: it’s convenient, time efficient, it’s not weather-dependent and you won’t end up with a dirty bike. Plus, you can do targeted workouts to improve your stamina, speed, cardiovascular fitness 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 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, focused workouts and tips online so you can refine your workout as you progress.
High end, direct-drive smart trainers such as the Tacx Neo 2T offer a raft of features, but do you really need them? Simon Bromley/Immediate Media
1. 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, 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 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.
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 rests against a cylinder, which spins when you start to pedal.
Wheel-on trainers clamp your bike on to the trainer via the rear dropouts. The rear wheel then spins against a drum that provides resistance. Simon Bromley
This kind of trainer can wear down a grippy racing tyre, so you may want to consider using harder compound winter tyres or purchasing a trainer-specific tyre and popping that on a spare 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 are also quieter.
Most smart trainers can automatically increase and decrease the resistance to simulate riding uphill and to give you a harder, more immersive workout.
It’s this functionality that allows virtual cycling and training apps such as Zwift, RGT Cycling and The Sufferfest to recreate the elevation profile of virtual courses.
Direct-drive trainers such as the Elite Suito replace the rear wheel, and mount directly to the bike frame. Simon Bromley/Immediate Media
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.
Rollers require concentration and balance, making them slightly trickier to use. Simon Lees
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, your pedal stroke, cadence, heart rate, and much more.
Wattbike is one such example, but other brands including Stages, Wahoo and SRM have joined the party.
3. Get the right indoor training accessories
As our guide to the top 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, you’ll generate an unsustainable amount of excess heat while working hard, 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.
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, and it’ll protect the floor and help stop your floor 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 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.
If you’ve decided to follow an online workout or use one of the previously mentioned virtual cycling apps, 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 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 programme.
You can just get on the trainer and pedal freely, but you’ll be surprised at how incredibly boring this is. If you can find some sort of game or structured workout to follow, you’ll have a lot more fun. David Rome / Immediate Media
A quick Google search will throw up plenty of options, from guided programmess 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 cycling indoors, it can feel like a chore. Handily, there are a few different things you can try to make it a bit more fun.
Virtual cycling apps such as Zwift sit somewhere between an online training programme and an online multiplayer game. You can simply free ride around the virtual worlds, or do intervals from its 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.
Apps such as The Sufferest and TrainerRoad are focused solely on training, so if you’re not interested in the gamified aspects of an app like Zwift and just want to get in a hard workout, one of these two might be more suited to your tastes.
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 power or heart rate zones so you know what heart rate 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 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 focused sessions a week, with some longer rides outside on 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.
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.