Unless you live in a part of the country where it doesn’t rain, you will encounter days you don’t ride outside. Maybe it’s too hot, too cold, too wet, or you just want to ride in front of your TV (this includes none of you, I’m sure).
The biggest problems with cycling in the winter are early sunsets and foul weather. For most of us, who must juggle training with real-world schedules, indoor cycling on a wind or magnetic trainer is the only real choice. Coaches such as Arnie Baker, MD, author of Smart Cycling, incorporate indoor cycling into their athletes’ off-season training by using either these trainers or rollers. Baker’s athletes enjoy working out at home because it gives them time to concentrate on specific exercises to improve their cycling performance. He has his athletes use indoor training during the season as well because he likes to
accurately control the workload from one session to another during certain workouts. This can be done easily on indoor trainers.
Before you complain about indoor cycling as a boring alternative to
“real” cycling, acknowledge some specific benefits. The controlled
environment of a trainer allows you to isolate and concentrate on
specific areas of cycling fitness and technique.
Rollers consist of three round cylinders mounted on bearings and fixed to a frame. A belt connects one of the rear cylinders to the front cylinder to keep the front wheel spinning at the same speed. Rollers sharpen your bike-handling ability because you must rely on skillful steering and balance. They teach you to work on smooth, fast spinning but offer little resistance unless you add a fan or magnetic unit. It takes weeks to be able to ride on rollers and feel relaxed enough to lift your hands off the handlebars. Once you get past the first learning stages, the bike-handling skills you obtain will make you a more confident and successful cyclist.
Magnetic and Wind Trainers
Magnetic, or mag, trainers have powerful magnets and a nonconductive disk that produces resistance and dissipates energy as heat. Performance mag trainers have six resistance settings (low to high) and are controlled by a bar-mounted lever. Wind, or turbo, trainers have two fans with slotted blades that churn the air.
A wind trainer’s greatest advantage is that it closely mimics the resistance you experience on the road – it increases resistance exponentially. If you increase your speed on the wind trainer from 15 to 30 mph, you need to increase power output by a factor of about 8. The disadvantages of wind trainers are the noise generated by the fans and the lack of resistance adjustment.
With mag trainers, resistance increases in direct proportion to speed, which is less realistic, but they do provide enough resistance to elevate heart rate. Several magnetic training units incorporate a small, precisely weighted flywheel that creates a slight coasting sensation and helps you pedal through the dead spots in your stroke for a more realistic road feel. An advantage of mag trainers over wind trainers is that they are much quieter to use.
What Bike Should You Use?
Use an old bike. Enormous pressures are generated on the bicycle when it doesn’t move freely beneath you. The bike you use on the trainer will become wet with sweat and rusted; the headset, with the bike always “going” straight ahead, will get grooved. For these and many other good reasons, don’t use an expensive bike on your stationary trainer. Any old or used bike will do; just make sure it is set up identically to your regular bike.
You might consider changing your rear cogs for indoor cycling, however. The setup that has worked best for most of my riders is a 12-13-14-15-16-17-20-28. The closely spaced high gears allow you to precisely tune the hard efforts. The large 28-cog allows you to work on spin and leg speed without muscle strength or aerobic capacity limiting the drill.
Finally, specific workout plans demand a cadence-equipped computer, which allows you to precisely tune your efforts, see your progress, and record your improvement. A heart rate monitor and/or power meter also provide important feedback about your workout.
Improving Your Riding Technique
Surprisingly, working on an indoor trainer can lead to rapid improvements in riding technique. The isolated environment allows you to concentrate on specific skills without distraction. Spinning, the ability to maintain a high cadence with a continuous application of power, can be improved simply by listening to the trainer’s noise. If you hear a steady “whoosh” on the downstroke, you are not pedaling properly. Concentrate on pedaling in circles. This will help you begin the power stroke earlier at the top and pull your foot across the bottom of the stroke. After a while, you will develop a longer and smoother delivery of power to the pedals.
Another exercise on a trainer that has dramatic results is one-legged cycling (see chapter 2). Most cyclists are not symmetrical in the application of power to the pedals, favoring one leg over the other, and exert more force on the pedal with this leg. The result is asymmetrical pedaling, which leads to loss of power.
To alleviate this problem, try this exercise: Place one foot on a 16- to 18-inch box. With the other leg, force yourself to pedal smooth circles for 5 to 10 minutes. This technique will improve your ability to apply power over a longer portion of the crank circle because you do not have the inertial support of the other leg. After several weeks of alternating work with both legs, slip the trainer into a very low gear and, using both legs, attempt to pedal with a smooth application of power. This is what professional cyclists refer to as pedaling with suppleness.
As with any workout, spend a few minutes warming up and cooling down before and after each session on the bicycle. Cycling indoors is quite different from cycling outdoors. Indoors if you don’t have a cooling system, you will be overheated within five minutes. It is easy to forget how the wind keeps us cool. Use a fan or ride in the coolest part of your house. Try riding in an unheated garage, where it is cooler than a house but where you do not have to fight the cold winds of winter. Remember to fill your water bottle before you start your workout.
Cycling to music is a personal choice. Make a couple of training tapes of your favorite songs (preferably songs with a strong beat) and put on your headphones. Use a cyclocomputer to monitor your progress.
Chris Carmichael, coach to Lance Armstrong and other professional cyclists, recommends not spending more than two hours at a time on the trainer. He has seen many inexperienced riders spend a great deal of time on stationary trainers, peak too soon in the season, and then fade by midseason.
If you want to emerge in February or March in the best early-season shape of your life, here is the indoor-cycling program for you. Each workout is designed to provide variety, build the cycling muscles, and train your body’s different energy systems.
- For general conditioning, find a resistance-and-gear combination
that elevates your heart rate into your training zone. After you warm
up, raise your cadence to 85 to 100 rpm, maintaining your heart rate at
no more than 85 percent of your maximum.
- For climbing strength and to become accustomed to pushing
larger gears, put the bike into a low gear or, on a trainer, increase
to the resistance that forces you to drop your cadence about 15 rpm.
Maintain this cadence for a few minutes and repeat several times during
a training session. Many find it helpful to place a 4-by-4-inch block
under the front wheel to simulate riding up a hill. Vary the ride by
occasionally getting out of the saddle and pedaling at 50 to 60 rpm.
Gradually build up to 10 minutes while riding out of the saddle.
- For speed work and to work on your anaerobic capacity,
intervals on a trainer are just the answer. You can structure interval
programs similar to those you use on the road. The key is to remember
to not overwork.
You can perform the following technique-specific workouts on trainers. You also can perform variations of these workouts on indoor stair-climbers and rowers.
- Hard – easy intervals. Start with a 10-minute hard effort
followed by 2 minutes of easy spinning for recovery. The next interval
should be 8 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy. Each hard interval decreases
by 2 minutes but increases slightly in intensity. The easy 2-minute
interval remains the same. The workout ends when you reach 2 minutes
hard and 2 minutes easy.
- Ladder drill. Ride progressively harder gears. Start in
a relatively low gear and ride for one to two minutes (keeping the same
cadence), then shift to the next-higher gear, and to the next, and so
forth. When you’re finished with the highest gear you plan to ride,
ride back “down the ladder.” Usually, riding up four or five gears is
sufficient for a good workout.
- Ladder drill variations. There are dozens of variations
for the ladder drill (e.g., hard gear, easy gear, back to hard, up two
gears, down one). You also can vary the cadence, increasing it to 110
or 120 rpm, but always keep it above 80.
- Speed intervals. To develop speed, throw in some
intervals: 10 to 12 all-out, 15-second pedaling sprints, alternating
with 45 seconds of easy pedaling.
- Power intervals. To develop power, try three to six
repetitions of three minutes at 90 rpm in a big gear, with three
minutes of low-gear spinning between efforts.
- Zone workout. Here’s a good workout when you want to do an endurance ride at a specific heart rate zone.
For example, if you want to work out between 75 and 80 percent of your maximum for a good aerobic workout, follow this plan:
- Warm up for about 5 minutes, starting with low to moderate gears,
and gradually raise your revolutions per minute or gearing until your
heart rate is 75 percent of your maximum.
- For the next 30 minutes, keep your heart rate within the 75 to
80 percent target zone. That’s the range you calculated before getting
on the bike. The challenge of this workout is to keep your heart rate
there. If it rises above or falls below this zone, decrease or increase
- Cool down for 5 to 10 minutes until your heart rate is below 110.
A final tip: Ride your trainer only every other day. Otherwise, you’re likely to get stale. On days you don’t ride, get your aerobic workout by rowing or stepping. You also can row or lift weights the same day you ride.