Top 5 indoor training tips

Our guide to getting the most out of your indoor cycling setup

Simon Bromley riding a time trial bike on a smart trainer

It’s a cliché, but indoor cycling’s reputation for being mind-numbingly boring was previously well earned.

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Those of us who had a turbo trainer or rollers before the advent of smart trainers, smart bikes and indoor cycling apps will no doubt have painful memories of indoor training sessions which somehow appeared to slow the passage of time itself.

These tools have revolutionised how many of us approach riding indoors, though. Boredom is now mostly a thing of the past, provided you approach it in the right way, and more riders than ever are enjoying the benefits of indoor training

With that in mind, here are our top 5 tips to getting the most out of your indoor training.

1. Get a smart trainer

Smart trainers are a primary reason indoor training doesn’t have to be boring anymore.

Thanks to their ability to control the resistance and simulate courses, a smart trainer enables your indoor training sessions to be far more immersive than would otherwise be possible.

Wahoo Kickr Core smart trainer
Smart trainer workouts are ideal for targeting specific fitness adaptations.
Simon Bromley / Immediate Media

Want to be a better climber but don’t live near any mountains? A smart trainer can simulate gradients and replicate much of the feeling of climbing long, steep climbs. This can be especially helpful if you’re training for an event like a gran fondo or sportive.

Although nothing can match the experience of actually being outside in the mountains for real, a smart trainer paired with a virtual cycling app like Zwift, RGT Cycling or Rouvy comes admirably close.

A smart trainer doesn’t have to be super expensive either.

Yes, you can spend loads if you want to, with top-end options like the Tacx Neo 2T and Wahoo Kickr among the best smart trainers we’ve tested, but budget alternatives like the Tacx Flow Smart offer an affordable entry point into interactive indoor cycling, with fewer compromises than you might expect.

2. Be prepared before you start your session

One of the benefits of indoor cycling is how incredibly time-efficient it can be.

With no interruptions from traffic, road junctions and the like, it’s far easier to maximise the potential of every minute spent on the bike when training indoors.

Doing so means being properly prepared before you get on the bike, though. Having all of your essential accessories ready and within reach will help you avoid any unnecessary interruptions to your flow.

Turbo trainer accessories for Zwift
Having everything you need ready and within reach will help you avoid interruptions to your training session.
Immediate Media

For example, if you’re doing structured interval training sessions on TrainerRoad or Wahoo Systm, or a Zwift Workout, you don’t want to run out of water in the middle of a long interval at FTP (Functional Threshold Power).

Likewise, if you’ve joined a virtual group ride or Zwift race, having to stop to refill a bottle, or having to get off the bike because you’ve forgotten to turn on your fan, likely means losing the draft of the group you’re in, and the end of any hopes of a good result.

Here’s our list of essential turbo trainer accessories;

  • Fan for cooling
  • At least one full water bottle. Take two if you’re not sure how long your session will last
  • Towel or set of sweat bands
  • Fully charged wireless headphones
  • Trainer mat
  • Table for your phone or smart device
  • Some food or an emergency gel / energy bar

3. Have a goal

If you’ve got all the kit and taken one giant leap into the world of interactive indoor cycling, the next thing to do is formulate some kind of goal or plan for each session.

You can have plenty of fun exploring virtual roads, but following a training plan or doing events, group rides or races, is, in our experience, even better.

Wahoo SYSTM
Signing up for a training plan can help keep you motivated and on the path to improving your fitness.
Wahoo

There’s nothing quite like a competitive edge for allowing you to access the inner depths of your suitcase of courage, or a training plan to hold you to account and give you the motivation you need to start a session.

And, just like in the real world, being sociable and joining a community can massively enrich your experience.

On Zwift, you can join one of the many races, events or group rides happening every day or set up your own Zwift MeetUp and invite whoever you’d like to take part.

If you’re using a different indoor cycling app, you can use a third-party communications app, such as Discord or Facebook Messenger, to meet digitally and ride together on your indoor cycling app of choice.

BikeRadar Zwift Group Ride
Doing group rides or races is a great way to socialise or indulge your competitive edge while riding indoors.
Simon Bromley / Immediate Media

4. Take a fitness test

If improving your fitness is a goal for you, then setting a personal benchmark to measure yourself against is a key step.

Though there are exceptions, most indoor cycling apps use FTP as a means of adjusting your training zones for interval-based workouts.

Because of this, having a reasonably accurate FTP setting is crucial to optimising your training.

There are two standard ways of taking an FTP test on Zwift. The classic FTP tests involve a warm-up protocol followed by a 20-minute maximal effort.

Zwift FTP Test
Zwift’s FTP test uses a 20-minute maximal effort to calculate your current fitness level and determine your training zones.
Zwift

If you’re using TrainerRoad, there’s also an option of an FTP test comprising of two 8-minute maximal efforts, with a short rest inbetween.

There are also Ramp tests in both Zwift and TrainerRoad, which begin easy then progressively ramp up the power until you hit your limit.

You only need to do one, but after each test is complete, each app will do its internal calculations for you automatically and give you an FTP figure.

For those who really enjoy punishment, there is another, unofficial way to test your FTP; a virtual mountain time trial up the infamous Alpe du Zwift.

The longer duration of the effort up this 12.22km climb (my personal record stands at 49:29) typically results in a more accurate FTP setting, and going for a PR time can offer some extra motivation.

It’s by no means the easy option, though, so save it for a day when you’re feeling motivated.

Zwift Alpe du Zwift
Alpe du Zwift’s 21 hairpins are a great testing ground for those who like a challenge.
Simon Bromley / Immediate Media

Instead of FTP, Wahoo Systm uses what it calls 4DP (Four Dimensional Power) instead. 4DP tests four different aspects of your fitness, ranging from endurance all the way through to sprinting power.

As a result, System’s Full Frontal fitness test is longer and more varied than typical FTP tests on many other indoor cycling apps.

Wahoo says having this extra information about your current abilities enables Systm to tailor workouts to your personal strengths and weaknesses with greater specificity.

Systm also includes its version of a ramp test, called the Half Monty, which can be used to update your fitness numbers without needing to do the Full Frontal test every single time.

Wahoo Systm 4DP
Wahoo’s 4DP power profile is designed to build a more detailed picture of your strengths and weaknesses as an athlete.
Wahoo

5. Use ERG mode strategically

ERG mode is a setting that tells a smart trainer to hold you at a set power output by automatically adjusting the resistance to match your cadence.

There can be a temptation to use it for all workouts, as it can take away the need to perform big gear changes between intervals, and make it easier to precisely hit the target power level at your preferred cadence.

All of that is great, but ERG mode isn’t suitable for every kind of workout, so it’s best used strategically.

Female cyclist using Zwift on a television
ERG mode holds you at a set power output during workouts, by automatically adjusting the resistance of the smart trainer to match your cadence.
Zwift

ERG mode is fantastic for steady intervals lasting around 30 seconds or longer. In these instances there’s plenty of time for the trainer to ramp the resistance up and down smoothly.

For shorter intervals, though, it can introduce problems.

When doing sprints in ERG mode, undershooting the required power will cause a smart trainer to keep adding more resistance, in an attempt to tease more effort out of your legs.

If you can’t stay on top of your cadence, it’s easy to fall into what’s known as the “spiral of death”.

This is where the trainer keeps increasing the resistance causing your cadence to keep slowing, which prompts the trainer to increase the resistance even further. Eventually, you grind to an exhausted halt.

Man riding a smart trainer
ERG mode isn’t ideal for full-on, out of the saddle efforts, so it’s best used strategically.
BikeRadar / Immediate Media

If this happens to you (as it has to me), don’t panic. Simply stop pedalling for a few seconds, and your smart trainer will automatically ease off the resistance and allow you to get back up to speed.

That aside, being able to smoothly click through the gears as you ramp up the power in a sprint is also an important skill to practice.

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If you’re training on Zwift and using the Zwift companion app on your smartphone, it’s possible to turn ERG mode on and off during a workout. This can be a convenient option for workouts containing a mix of interval types.