By Fred Matheny
The No-where Bike
Most cyclists don’t like riding an indoor trainer. They equate it with miserable, mind-numbing boredom. They’ve had it after a few winter weeks of grinding away in the basement while sleet batters the windows and streams of toxic sweat drip from their chins, corroding their beloved bikes. The couch becomes much too appealing.
Even many pro cyclists, whose livelihood depends on staying in shape year-round, can’t summon the discipline to ride indoors no matter how bad the weather. But those lucky dogs have the time and team support to head for southern climes. Most recreational cyclists who detest the vomitron can only slither around on icy roads and battle wind chills that would turn a penguin blue.
Yet indoor training can be a great way to improve cycling fitness and avoid winter weight gain. You need to know only two secrets:
First, understand the advantages of indoor training.
Second, learn to ride indoors correctly.
Riding Indoors Has Advantages
It’s the Anytime Workout. If your days are jammed with job and activities (sound familiar?) trainers are great because you can squeeze in a workout any time during a 24-hour day. The trainer protects you against unexpected schedule changes and darkness.
Is your only exercise time at 6 a.m.? No problem—head for the basement, get on the trainer, and crank away. Can’t ride until you get home from work? Even when your precious daylight training time vanishes as you sit in a late meeting, you can still ride indoors when you finally get home.
It’s the Weather Beater. Let’s face it—riding a bike in cold rain isn’t much fun. In some weather conditions it’s simply dangerous. But you can ride a trainer even if nasty weather has socked your town in a pall of rain or sleet. No soaked feet, no slippery turns, no stripe of gritty water up your backside, no bike to clean and re-lube—and no excuses.
It’s the Time Machine. Cycling outdoors, especially in fall and winter, can devour time. First you have to dress from helmet liner to booties, then ride for 20 minutes through traffic lights to get to good training roads. After each sloppy ride (and it seems that the road is always wet at this time of year) you have bike maintenance. That’s two hours down the drain with only one hour of training.
All you need to do to ride the trainer is pull on shorts and a T-shirt or jersey, fill your bottles, and switch on the DVR. When you’re done, simply wipe off the sweat. Fifty-five minutes in an hour can be spent training.
You’re in Control. The biggest potential advantage of indoor cycling is that you can precisely monitor each workout. You control the duration and intensity. You aren’t at the mercy of traffic lights, flat tires, or other riders’ plans for the day. Regardless of how much more fun it is to ride the open road, indoor training can be a more effective workout for many time-challenged riders.
How to Make Riding Indoors More Enjoyable
Before you head downstairs to start pedaling away in front of Gilligan’s Island reruns, here are some tips for making your trip down Nowhere Road a lot more fun than just watching Gilligan foul up yet another rescue attempt.
Set a Time Limit. Time passes more slowly while you’re training indoors simply because there are fewer things to think about. Your mind isn’t occupied with dodging road hazards and the best gear for the next hill. In short, indoor riding is a form of sensory deprivation.
The solution is to keep your workout brief. A good rule: Never spend more than 60 minutes on the trainer in one session. Get on, warm up, go through a specific and varied workout, cool down, then hit the shower. A trainer is ideal for intense and structured workouts. It becomes a medieval torture machine if you stay on too long.
Vary Your Workout. Never do the same activity on a trainer for more than a few minutes at a time. Shift gears, stand up, pedal with one foot while hooking the other on the back of the trainer, go hard, go easy—anything to give your mind a break.
Get Off Briefly. You don’t need to stay on the trainer for the whole workout. Try this, for example: Warm up for 15 minutes with easy pedaling, then do a series of 2-3 minute intervals at about 85 percent of your max heart rate. But instead of staying on the trainer between efforts and pedaling easily, get off and walk around. Stretch. Get a drink. After two minutes get back on and do another hard effort. You’ll be amazed at how much faster the time goes.
Feast Your Eyes. On a trainer, the brain doesn’t have the usual bike-handling and navigation demands that it contends with during outdoor rides, so it’s important to keep it stimulated. Music works well, but most riders find they also need something to look at. Old movies, TV news and quiz shows work great. Perhaps best of all is a bike race video. There’s something inspiring about watching great riders in action.
Keep Cool. Without a cooling wind, you’ll heat up quickly while riding in your own stale indoor air. So put a large fan a few feet in front of your face to create an artificial headwind. The stream of air will help evaporate the gallons of sweat you produce, keeping your core temperature down for a better, more comfortable workout.
The results of a lab study showed that the cooler the indoor cycling environment, the more work you can do—and the greater fitness you can gain. Endurance time on a cycle ergometer at an intensity that could be maintained for 92 minutes when the temperature was 52 degrees decreased to 83 minutes at 70 degrees and to only 51 minutes at 86 degrees.
Drink Up. Hydration is crucial in outdoor cycling, and this goes double indoors. On the trainer, drink at least one big bottle per hour. Sports drinks work better than plain water because they replace carbohydrate, extending your energy.
Train With Others. Sign up for a cycling class at your local health club. These group hammer-fests are a great way to add variety and interest to your indoor riding and meet other fitness enthusiasts as well.
Another approach is to start a “trainer night” at your home. Coach Arnie Baker, M.D., used to invite up to 70 members of the CycleVets club to his house one evening per week. They would set up trainers on the patio and go through a specific workout. Then order pizza and socialize.
During more than 30 years in cycling journalism, Fred Matheny has written hundreds of fitness & training articles for top bike magazines and websites. Many of his best eBooks and eArticles are on sale in the RBR eBookstore. As a rider, he has raced to medals in state and national championships, plus a senior world record in the Team Race Across America. As a coach, he has worked with hundreds of riders at PAC Tour Training Camps, Carpenter/Phinney Bike Camps, and Dirt Camp.