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Indoor Riding

For Inside Triathlon

January, 2000


1999 Joe Friel

            In some places, riding inside on a trainer is the only riding there is in the winter. Athletes who live in these cold, snowy regions soon learn that the trainer is their best friend when it comes to developing the fitness necessary for spring races. Skiing, snowshoeing, and other cross-training activities done outside are great for developing cardiovascular fitness, but they are not the same as cycling. In order to prepare the muscular and nervous systems to race on a bike, at least some time must be spent riding.

Efficient and Effective

            Even for those who don’t live in the frozen northland the trainer can be a great way to train. Bike trainers can make your tight daily schedule somewhat easier. When there is little time to ride, you can get a quick workout on a trainer in far less time than on the road with its stoplights, traffic, flats, and dogs. This is especially beneficial in the winter when days are short.

            For far less money than joining a health club, a trainer allows you to get in a great workout. There is also no waiting for equipment and the bike will always fit you just right.

            Trainers also make for precise workouts. On the road there are always confounding circumstances such as a hill that isn’t quite long enough, a “flat” course that has rolling hills in it, or an intersection to slow down for when doing intervals. None of this is a concern on the trainer. You can do the workout just as it was intended. For this reason alone, there are riders who even do some of their summer training indoors.



            There is considerable difference in how much indoor trainer work individual athletes can handle. Some ride inside day after day in the winter and even include weekly three- and four-hour rides on a trainer with no problems. Others dread getting on a trainer and have a hard time making it through an hour. It’s best to pay attention to these signs of your tolerance for monotony and train accordingly.

            To be on the safe side, I generally advise riders to train inside no more than three workouts in a row. If kept from riding outside on the fourth day, select an outdoor alternative. Also, I limit indoor workouts to 90 minutes regardless of what the on-road schedule called for. I make slight exceptions to these rules for riders who have a great tolerance for training, but this is rare.


Types of Trainers

            There are four general types of indoor trainers to choose from. The one that has been around the longest, and still is one of the most effective, has small fans that produce the resistance. These “wind” trainers are good in that the resistance increases exponentially as speed increases linearly just as it does on the road. These are not as sophisticated as the other options, but are also among the least expensive trainers available. One disadvantage, however, is noise. If you live in an apartment, a wind trainer will definitely disturb your neighbors. But if you can use it in a garage or basement, the noise will bother no one but you—and maybe your spouse and dog.

            Magnetic trainers are quiet, compared with wind trainers, but the resistance increase with a linear rise in speed is also linear. On the road the load goes up at a higher rate of change than does the speed. This means the workouts don’t have as realistic a feeling on a “mag” trainer as on a wind trainer.

            Another option is “rollers.” These are excellent for developing a fluid pedal stroke, but are not as good as wind or mag trainers when it comes to developing other fitness abilities such as muscular endurance or force. If you use rollers also purchase a wind or mag trainer.

            The top end of indoor training devices is clearly the CompuTrainer. If you find indoor trainers boring, this will help. You may even find yourself looking forward to riding indoors. Besides making training into an interactive experience, the CompuTrainer also allows you to complete self-tests, determine lactate threshold heart rates, and train indoors with power. The cost of a CompuTrainer is about the same as for a good bike frame. But if indoor riding is a big part of your winter, or you simply want more accurate training data, this is the way to go.

            If you like the idea of training with power, a power meter, such as the Power-Tap, can be used whether you train indoors on a wind or mag trainer or outside on the road.


Indoor Training Set-Up

            Some riders leave an old bike set-up on an indoor trainer all winter. That way, if forced inside by bad weather or working late, they can start the workout quickly—before they get out of the mood. That’s easy to do when it’s cold, snow is falling, and you’ve had a long day at work or it’s early in the morning.

When setting up a near-permanent indoor workout spot, include one or more fans. Without some way to cool off, heat build-up will increase the perceived effort of any workout and heart rate will be higher than normal.

Since sweat production is prodigious with indoor training, fluids and a towel are also necessary. Be sure to protect your bike from sweat damage, especially the headset.


Going No Where Fast

Indoor training sessions should be organized just as on the road. This means a warm-up, the workout, and a cool down. The warm-up should be at least 10 minutes of slowly increasing effort. Don’t leave this out in an attempt to get the session over with quickly.

More than likely, your indoor training sessions will seem harder than they do when outside. Almost everyone reports this. That may result from heat build-up or the greater psychological stress of going no where fast. Because of this I’d recommend doing more intervals and less steady state workouts when indoors.

Nearly any workout you do on the road can be done on an indoor trainer. Sometimes it’s just a matter of applying a little ingenuity. For example, raising the front wheel five to six inches will simulate hill-climbing position. While watching a videotape of the Tour de France, you can cruise along when the peloton is on the screen and work hard when the breakaway group is shown. The accompanying sidebar lists a few basic trainer workouts.

Going Slow

Indoor trainers are also effective for recovery workouts any time of year. Easy, spinning sessions done on a trainer are especially important if you live in a hilly or mountainous area where flat courses are not available.

Indoor trainers are available through bike shops or catalogs. The prices range from about $100 for a basic wind trainer or rollers and up to about $1500 for a top-of-the-line CompuTrainer model.


Joe Friel is the author of The Triathlete’s Training Bible. A free monthly newsletter and answers to frequently asked questions on the topic of this article and others are available on his web site at http://www.ultrafit.com.



Indoor Trainer Workouts


Long Ride. To develop or maintain aerobic endurance, ride at a low effort. Shift through the gears or change resistance to simulate rolling hills. Stay seated on “hills.”


Pedaling Skills

Spin-ups. Every five minutes gradually increase cadence to maximum over a 30-second period. Maximum is the cadence you can maintain without bouncing. As the cadence increases allow your lower legs and feet to relax—especially the toes. Hold your maximum for as long as possible. Repeat several times.

Isolated Leg. Place one foot on a chair or stool and pedal only with the other leg. Maintain a cadence of 80-100 rpm and concentrate on smoothing out the “dead” spot at the top of the stroke by “throwing the knee over the handlebars” and by pushing the toes forward in the shoes as the foot approaches the top position. Change legs when fatigue begins to set in. Repeat several times.



Big-Gear Climbs. Raise the front wheel five to six inches. Increase the resistance of the trainer and select gears that put you in the 50-60 rpm range while working hard. Stay seated on this “hill” for about two minutes. Work up to about lactate threshold effort (start of heavy breathing). Concentrate on position on the bike and smooth pedaling. Recover for three to five minutes after each climb. Get in six to 30 minutes of climbing within a workout. Do not do this workout if it causes knee discomfort.


Muscular Endurance

Cruise intervals. Complete three to five intervals that are each four to six minutes long. Intensity is about lactate threshold. Cadence is what you would use for a race. Recover for one to two minutes after each work interval. Get in a total of 12 to 20 minutes of work intervals (for example, 3 x 4 minutes). Stay relaxed, aerodynamic, and closely monitor your breathing.

            Hill cruise intervals. This is the same as cruise intervals except done with the front wheel raised and greater resistance on the trainer.


Anaerobic Endurance

Intervals. Do three to five intervals of three to four minutes duration each. The cadence is high—higher than what is typical for the hardest portions of a multisport race. Intensity of each interval is above lactate threshold. Recover by spinning easily for the same duration as the preceding work interval.

Pyramid intervals. These are done the same as the above intervals except the they are 1-, 2-, 3-, 3-, 2-, 1-minutes long. The recovery after each is equal in duration to the preceding interval. Recover by spinning easily.



Jumps. Do three to five sets of five jumps each for a total of 15 to 25 jumps. Concentrate on producing explosive power from the very first pedal stroke. Each jump is 10 to 12 revolutions of the cranks (each leg) while standing on the pedals. Cadence is very high. Recover by spinning easily for at least one minute between jumps and five minutes between sets. Maintain good form on each jump.


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