The winter months are well and truly here in the Northern Hemisphere and, with the risk of bad weather or poor light blighting many a ride, cyclists will be turning their attention to the turbo trainer, indoor bike or rollers to keep their training on track.
It’s easy to understand why; indoor cycling has a range of benefits, from beating bad weather to targeting specific training goals when you’re short on time.
From the pros of the peloton to riders new to the sport, almost anyone who turns the pedals can benefit from training indoors. We caught up with three expert coaches to find out why.
One of the biggest benefits of using a turbo or gym bike for your training is how little time it takes compared to going out for a ride. If you’re short on time – and who isn’t? – riding indoors can help you squeeze in a training session when you otherwise wouldn’t.
“It’s convenient, it’s set up ready to go and there’s no time wasting,” says Matt Rowe of Rowe & King Cycle Coaching. “You can get on the bike, warm-up, and you’re into a session; cool down, finish, in the shower, done.
“If you’re planning on doing that outside, you’ve got to find a route and, if you live in a city centre, you’ve got to get out of the city. By the time you’ve even warmed up you could have done your whole session.”
What’s more, and as we’ll come on to, the specificity and uninterrupted nature of indoor cycling means you can make big training gains in a relatively short amount of time.
Beat bad weather
This one goes without saying. Because indoor cycling takes place out of the elements, you don’t have to deal with the worst of winter weather – be it rain, wind, snow or ice.
The right winter gear can go a long way to keeping you comfortable outside, but sometimes riding in poor weather is just unpleasant.
There’s safety to consider, too. If the roads are covered in snow or ice and you don’t want to miss your workout, stick to the indoor trainer.
Train with power
Smart trainers are equipped with built-in power meters, allowing riders to target specific training goals with much greater precision.
Take an FTP test to determine your zones, then you can follow power-based workouts – whether you want to improve your endurance, climbing performance or sprint speed.
Smart trainers also offer external resistance control. You can either set a specific wattage for the trainer to lock on to or allow a third-party app such as Zwift to control the trainer based on the demands of your workout. That means, if you’re doing an interval session, you’ll hit the exact numbers required to get the most out of the workout.
“Smart trainers and smart bikes are now so powerful they are essentially a lab-standard bike at home,” says Dr Dave Nichols, cycle training consultant for Wattbike.
“The fact you have the ability to control power, to give targeted intervals and the bike will hold that wattage target for you, is pretty much as good as any laboratory setting,” adds Nichols.
Ride without interruptions
That leads us to the next benefit: indoor cycling allows you to ride without interruptions.
When riding on the road, it can be hard to complete a specific training session – particularly targeted intervals – without your rhythm being disrupted by the undulating nature of a route, or the need to stop for traffic or junctions.
Indoor training removes those interruptions and uncontrollable variables, so you can focus solely on completing your workout.
Keep it consistent
The structured, focussed nature of indoor cycling also ensures consistency from one training session to the next. If you have a goal in mind, whether that’s completing your first century ride or racing as an elite-level rider, indoor cycling allows you to keep your training on track.
“Every session counts,” says Nichols. “If you go on a club ride, it depends on who’s there. On an indoor bike, it’s about you and what you need to do to make the most of your training ride.
“It’s predictable, you know how it’s going to go, what it should feel like and whether you’re improving or not. It’s a really good environment for setting and doing training.”
However, it’s important not to lose focus on why we ride – getting out into the great outdoors. You can use indoor training to complement outdoor riding, not replace it.
It’s more interesting than ever
If your perception of indoor training is slogging away for hours in a cold garage or spare room with just a wall in front of you to look at, then it might be time to rethink a turbo session. Interactive training apps have brought indoor training to life.
“The key to training is consistency and having the motivation to get on the bike, and things like Zwift are a great way of motivating yourself to train,” says Matt Bottrill of Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching.
Nichols agrees, adding: “[Indoor training] is much easier to get on board with than about 10 years ago when it meant sitting on a noisy, wheel-based trainer in your garage. Now, you can be in that virtual world, doing it with friends at the same time and you’ve got races and group rides you can do, too.”
Focus on technique
Indoor training allows you to focus on technique, most notably your pedal stroke.
“If every pedal stroke you make requires 0.5% less energy, and you make 1000s of pedal strokes within a ride, that’s going to seriously add up,” says Nichols.
Bottrill recommends using the indoor trainer to work on your dead spot – where you lose efficiency and are not producing any power.
“Doing drills in training to work on your dead spot is a great way of improving, especially for those riders who are new to cycling,” he adds.
Ride anywhere, at any time
You don’t need to invest in a smart trainer or smart bike to feel the benefits of indoor training. Most gyms have some form of spin class or static bike, while there are also specialist turbo clubs at certain studios.
You can also combine indoor cycling at the gym with weight training or other off-bike exercises, Bottrill says. That’s particularly the case in winter, when the off-season gives you an opportunity to work on other areas of your performance, alongside targeted sessions on the indoor trainer.
Indoor cycling: how to get started
Want to train indoors? Here are four ways to get started.
All turbo trainers require the use of a bike to function. On entry-level models, the rear wheel rests against a cylinder and resistance is adjusted manually, while at the top end, the rear wheel is removed and your bike is connected to the trainer via a cassette.
This not only enables third-party resistance control (so resistance can be controlled via a training app, hence why it’s ‘smart’) but also offers a more realistic ride quality and improved power measurement. Mid-range, wheel-on smart trainers are also available.
Indoor training bike
For riders who have the space (and budget) for a dedicated indoor training bike, there are a number of models on the market that will leave you with a seriously high-tech piece of kit for your home.
In fact, a range of brands launched a dedicated indoor training bike in 2019. As well as shaking up the smart trainer market, Wahoo has its own Kickr Bike, while power meter specialists Stages launched the Stages Bike. The Wattbike Atom is another popular option and all offer the ability to track a wide range of metrics.
Indoor training bikes are inevitably bulkier than turbo trainers that can be packed away, but having a dedicated indoor machine set up and ready to go means you just need to jump on to start your workout.
Although they might look odd, rollers are essentially a self-propelled treadmill for the bike. Like turbo trainers, they require a bike to be used, but there’s no installing a rear wheel or connecting the drivetrain to a cassette – simply pop your bike on the drums, get up to speed and ride.
Although great for improving your leg speed, core strength and balance (with nothing holding you and the bike upright other than momentum), it’s not normally possible to adjust (or automatically control) resistance in the same way that you can with a smart trainer or indoor training bike.
Although not typically as focussed or realistic as the other indoor training tools described here, spin classes are easy to sign up to and can help keep your motivation up through winter – especially if you’re new to cycling.
Most gyms will offer regular group spin classes, while higher-end boutique studios will include clipless pedals and sessions that target specific training techniques, such as HIIT and intervals. Some even offer power-based training, replicating the type of sessions you might complete on a smart trainer or smart bike.