Tips for Using Your Trainer: Indoor Cycling for Beginners

Published on 05/13/2023 · 8 min readCycling Expert Mikael Hanson gives some information on the different types of trainers available and a few tips on how to maximize their benefits!
Mikael Hanson, Cycling Expert
By Cycling Expert Mikael Hanson

Indoor training with the NYU cycling team. Photo by Mikael Hanson

Talk of college bowl games and NFL playoffs are always a sign that winter is around the corner. We can now look forward to sub-zero temperatures, blowing winds, and frequent snow flurries; thus, it is easy to get depressed when considering your winter cycling options.

Yes, there is always the gym. But for a cyclist, time on the bike is of utmost importance. For those who dread the thought of indoor riding, there are several things one can do to make riding indoors more enjoyable.

1. Types of Indoor Bikes

The Peloton stationary bike (left), the Wahoo Kickr Smart Trainer (middle), and the Tacx Flow Smart Turbo Trainer (right)

Spin bikes and the various types of bike trainers are the main options for training indoors.

Spin Bike

The first option is a spin bike, like found in your local gym. There are many models to choose from, like Peloton (pictured above), Nautilus, Nordictrack, Schwinn, Stages, Wahoo, and Cyclops. Many of these will connect to online fitness classes.

Though there are major drawbacks to a spin bike: first, its size—it takes up a fair amount of space. Secondly, it is not your regular bike—so its fit and feel are considerably different.

Bike Trainers

This option is perfect for those who want to ride their own bike. There are three options that are each very easy to set up: rollers, wheel on-trainer, and direct drive.

Rollers require a fair amount of balance and are not as prevalent these days. This is because they lack the ability to adequately adjust resistance outside of simply shifting gears. Further, they are not able to connect to some of the more popular indoor cycling apps (more on this later).

Next up are wheel-on trainers, or what used to be referred to as Turbo trainers. This type of trainer is clamped onto the rear axle via the quick release and then a tension bar is raised up to the back wheel to provide resistance. They are lightweight, highly portable, and can be inexpensive. Further, they used to be referred to as ‘dumb’ trainers—meaning they could not link up to web apps. But this has changed in recent years.

With a direct drive trainer, one removes the rear wheel and attaches the bike directly to the cassette on the trainer. These trainers tend to be a tad heavier, quieter, and provide a more realistic feel. Direct drive trainers also started the shift toward “smart trainers.” These trainers offer a wider variety of features—such as the ability to measure power, heart rate, power distribution between legs, and even pedaling efficiency—through apps. Though high-end direct drive trainers can easily cost more than $1000.

2. Proper Environment

Your environment is a huge factor in how comfortable you are while riding. The closed-confines of a small apartment can lead to some stuffy riding conditions. Assuming you already own an indoor trainer, the next thing to invest in is a fan. Even on the coldest winter days, I crack the window a touch and aim the fan at my chest, thus keeping the overheating to a minimum. Make sure you have a towel draped over the handlebars. And for those of you with hardwood floors, put a couple more on the ground around your bike or a mat, as you will sweat. Plus, don’t forget the water bottle.

If riding in your apartment is not an option, many apartment buildings allow you to bring your indoor trainer to their gym facilities. Additionally, indoor training facilities of a non-spin class variety are growing more common. All over the nation, there are many group performance centers. And the benefits are huge: suffering is always more enjoyable when shared.

3. What to Do for Entertainment?

Photo by Intenza Fitness

Assuming you don’t own a “smart” trainer, you might want something to do other than watch the walls. Listening to music is always an option, but this only helps with one of our senses. Personally, I need more stimulation. Riding indoors for me means a chance to catch up on some quality TV. Why not ride while watching your favorite sports team play? Or better yet, how about watching a vintage ride by Bernard Hinault on DVD? For me, my favorite source of entertainment is an old James Bond flick.

4. Keep It Fun, but Have a Game Plan

Sure, watching Aaron Rodgers or James Bond will help pass the time, but you still have to think about your workout. For me, the off-season is prime time to work on form and technique—as even the most accomplished cyclists can reinforce proper pedaling skills. Like a swimmer in a pool, a cyclist should use the warm-up period at the start of their ride to work on drills.

Warm Ups

After an easy 10-minute spin on the trainer to warm-up, phase two of the warm-up should be some good, old-fashioned pedaling drills. Start off with some high-cadence work, doing 30–60 seconds at 100 rpm, then 110 rpm, 120 rpm, then try 15 seconds at maximum rpm. Repeat this series several times through with an aim of keeping the bouncing to a minimum and working on a smooth yet quick leg turnover. The more efficient you are at higher rpms, the better your pedal stroke will be at your average ride cadence. After the high-cadence drills, it is time for some isolation work.

In cycling, we have one-legged pedaling drills. In this drill, the rider will take one foot off the pedal and rest it behind him on the frame of the trainer. Then in a moderately easy gear, he will pedal with only the other foot. This drill isolates the leg and more importantly that hip flexor responsible for helping pull through the back side of the pedal stroke.

Start with 15–20 seconds on the right leg, then finish out the minute with both feet on the pedals, then do the 15–20 second interval with the other leg. Repeat this process four to six times through, and over time, gradually increase the duration of the isolation drill (20 to 30, 30 to 40 seconds, and so on).

Main Ride

With the drill work out of the way, now it is time for the core portion of your ride. Given the time of year, why not try adding some spice to your indoor ride? Do a modest threshold interval or standing hill climb whenever your football team has the ball; throw in a 30 second sprint for every touchdown or turnover; try a large-gear seated climb for the duration of every car chase James Bond gets into. Just use your imagination, and I ensure you will see the time fly by. Plus you'll get a great workout on top of it.

There are also a host of training videos to invest in as well as a growing number of on-line training options. But a word of caution here: the off-season months are meant to be just that—off season. Do not fall into the trap of cranking out one hard core indoor ride after another, as sometimes one just needs to watch a football game and do some steady (albeit boring) base building work.

5. Try Interactive Entertainment Methods

Screen shot from Zwift. Courtesy of Mikael Hanson

As for your indoor entertainment options, they are numerous and range from something akin to a hardcore rock video to something like an arcade game for cyclists. Let’s take a closer look at some of these.

The 800lb gorilla in this space is Zwift. It’s an online gaming experience with graphics on par with Grand Theft Auto; but instead of a game controller, you are playing via your bicycle. In this format, you can ride with friends from around the globe or just jump into any ongoing race. During Covid, Zwift even held a virtual Tour de France, which many professionals participated in. Additionally, there is now an entire virtual racing season and even a virtual world championships hosted by Zwift.

SufferFest offers several videos with different activities, intensities, and durations to help guide you through a proper workout. Sufferfest has over 30 videos, with titles like Fight Club, Power Station, and Nine Hammers. Videos run about $15 each, but many are now only available on the app, which requires a subscription at $10 per month.

Next up is Pain Cave, which gives you access to their library of workouts that are a great mix of class-room like work (complete with instructions on what training zone and rpm you should be riding) paired up with actual footage from bike races. Pricing runs along industry lines at $10 per month, or $100 for a full year.

Another app-based program is Trainer Road. This service is less about flashy videos and more about letting the rider select any one of a number of pre-designed workouts based on what they want to accomplish. Threshold intervals, VO2 interval, hill repeats, etc: you have over 800 to choose from. Pricing is about $12 per month, or a full year for $99.

Final Thoughts

Photo by David Hellmann

While all of these apps are great fun and offer remarkable indoor cycling workouts and even training plans, keep in mind you’re still in the off-season. Keeping things fun is of utmost importance. December and January are when cycling should take a back seat to perhaps other forms of cross-training, as you recharge your cycling batteries.

To explore more Cycling articles as you pursue your journey in the sport, check out the Expert Journal here on Curated.

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