Why the hell would anyone want to ride inside?
OK, so it may look like the bike trip that takes you nowhere, but adding indoor riding sessions to your cycle training can be hugely beneficial. For a start, it allows you to ride whatever the skies are doing. We may have been blessed with fantastic weather this year, but please remember that this is Britain, a country that averages 133 days of rain or snow annually and as we drift into the colder months, the idea of riding outside is going to become a lot less appealing and perhaps even impossible.
What’s more, if you make sure that your indoor sessions are structured and workouts are targeted, you can improve almost any aspect of your riding from your speed and stamina to your anaerobic fitness. You might even end up fitter than you were by the time the weather cheers up enough for you to do some ‘real’ riding again outside.
Hmm, so how do I get started?
Well, if you don’t have a gym membership with access to static bikes, you’re going to need to set up your own indoor training area – or pain cave – at home. This will need to be an indoor area that has at least enough space to set up your bike, your trainer and a table. It could be in your shed or garage, it could be in a spare room. It could even be in your bedroom if it’s big enough or if you’ve got a very understanding partner. Ideally, though, it needs to be a space that you can afford to devote to your indoor training exclusively so that you don’t need to keep assembling and dismantling your bike/trainer set-up each time you want to use it.
Am I going to have to fork out for lots of expensive kit?
Not necessarily. On a basic level, all you really need is your bike, a turbo trainer or some rollers (both of which can be found at the bottom end of the market for as little as £50), plus a table to store anything you might want within arm’s reach. Although as indoor training is hot and thirsty work, we’d also recommend having a bottle or two of water, a fan – especially if the room isn’t particularly well ventilated – and a couple of towels to hand.
Drape one towel over your handlebars and use it to mop your brow/neck/chest, and place the other one below you where it can catch any errant drops of perspiration as well as help keep you and your set-up more stable. This being the world of cycling, though, there are, of course, all sorts of fancy and more expensive gadgets and add-ons you can invest in. To get an idea of what’s available, check out the accessories box-out on the end of our indoor trainers buyer’s guide on page 54 of this issue. The feature will also give you an idea of the different types of trainers available.
The different types? You mean there’s more than one?
There’s quite a wide variety, actually. Turbo trainers are probably the most popular and use various methods of resistance – magnetic and fluid being the most common. At the top end are the much pricier smart trainers that have become more commonplace in recent years. These can hook you up to online training apps. Alternatively, you could go old school and invest in a set of rollers.
What are rollers?
Rollers are the original indoor training aid for cyclists and have been about almost as long as the bicycle itself. In fact, in 1899, Charles Minthorn Murphy trained on rollers in preparation for his successful attempt to become the first cyclist to ride a mile in under a minute (earning himself the moniker Mile-A-Minute Murphy in the process!). Modern rollers usually consist of three cylindrical drums, or rollers (two for the rear wheel and one for the front), which you then ride freely on top of. A belt usually connects the middle roller to the front one, causing it to spin when you start pedalling, simulating the road moving beneath your wheels. Since the only thing holding the bike upright is the momentum from your pedalling, you get a very outdoor feel to your indoor ride.
So you’re not attached to the rollers? Erm, sounds tricky…
They can take a bit of getting used to, yes. So make sure you set up your rollers on a flat surface next to a wall, within a door frame or by some furniture that’s heavy enough to support your weight. You then put your bike on the rollers, and – using your stabilizing surface for balance – swing your leg over the top bar, sit on the bike, clip in one foot then the other and start pedalling. Once you feel comfortable turning the pedals, try letting go of your stabilizing surface and ride with your hands on the bars in the usual position.
To get off again, simply reverse the process. What you will find when you’re on the rollers, particularly during the first few pedal strokes, is that your bike will probably start weaving until you’ve got the wheels spinning at a sufficient speed. It can feel a bit unnerving, but if you think about it, it’s similar to when you try to start pedalling outside in too high a gear.
So make sure your bike is in an easy gear before you start and don’t let go of the supporting surface until you feel you’re in control. Vital to that, of course, is keeping your balance, so keep your weight off your front wheel, pedal as smoothly as possible, and look ahead as you would out on the road, rather than down at your front tyre. Remember to stay relaxed, too. It’s perhaps easier said than done when you first start riding on rollers but it’s the true key to using them successfully.
What are the downsides of using rollers?
For a price (usually more than $500) you can get smart rollers that will replicate the resistance created by inclines, but otherwise most basic rollers offer little resistance options. As we’ve said, they also require some tenacity and can be a little daunting for some. On the plus side, they’re lightweight and easily packed away. They also develop your core strength, as well as your bike-handling skills, balance and pedal stroke technique – which probably explains why, despite their simplicity, many top pro riders still swear by them.
Ok, so tell me more about turbo trainers…
Like rollers, turbo trainers work in conjunction with your bike, but instead of your bike sitting freely on top of the device, the back end is clamped into the trainer, so that when you start hammering away on the pedals you stay in one place rather than zooming off and smashing through the wall in front of you.
The accompanying instructions will explain how to clamp in correctly, so be sure to follow them. The majority of turbo trainers, particularly at the less expensive end of the market, typically do this by a clamp that grips the rear wheel axle (in most cases, you’ll need to replace the standard quick- release skewer with one specially designed to fit the clamp).
Your bike’s back wheel then pushes against a roller that’s attached to a resistance unit. As you move more upmarket, you’ll find more ‘direct drive’ turbo trainers. These also secure your bike to the trainer via a skewer through the rear dropouts but are more integrated in the sense that you also remove your bike’s back wheel and attach its chain directly to a built-in cassette on the trainer. Unlike the vast majority of roller units, both these types of trainer offer resistance when you pedal, either by the use of wind, magnets or a combination of magnets and fluids.
Wind, magnets and fluids? What’s that all about?
Simply put, a magnetic or mag trainer uses a magnetic flywheel to provide turning resistance against your back wheel. Most have the ability to adjust the magnetic force on the unit to vary the resistance that you are pushing against via a trigger switch mounted on your handlebars. The resistance on fluid trainers is largely created by a propeller inside a fluid-filled chamber which turns and churns as you pedal.
Wind-resistance turbo trainers, meanwhile, are something of a dying breed these days, largely down to the amount of noise they generate (and presumably the number of household bust-ups they cause). Resistance is provided by blades spinning in the air with you controlling the resistance – much like you would with a fluid trainer – by changing gear on the bike.
So which is best to go for? A mag trainer or a fluid trainer?
Well, as you’d expect, both have their pros and cons. Mag trainers are usually the more affordable of the two and there are stacks of great options available (again check out our buyer’s guide on page 54). They have adjustable resistance, which is great for both changing and measuring your efforts, and they’re also quiet compared to wind trainers. Newer versions also use electromagnetic resistance that can be controlled via a remote or a dedicated smartphone app.
Fluid trainers, meanwhile, tend to be more expensive and critics of older models claim that they can lose some of their resistance during longer rides as the blade spinning inside the water-tight chamber has a tendency to heat the fluid up, causing its visco melastic properties to change. Some models (such as the CycleOps Jet Fluid Pro Trainer) get around this by including a built-in cooling system that helps control the fluid’s temperature. Fluid trainers are also quieter and offer what is widely thought to be the better‘road feel’.
You also mentioned smart trainers…
Yep, if you’re super serious about your indoor training and have had a minor lottery win of late, then a smart trainer may be the way to go. Smart trainers do exactly the same job as regular turbo trainers in that they allow you to undertake focused training sessions at home on your own bike, but they do this with added bells and whistles whose complexity increases in direct correlation to the amount of cash you drop.
Using wireless connectivity (usually ANT+ or Bluetooth, or in some cases both), they can hook up your trainer to all manner of apps, devices, training programs and meters. In doing so, they can turn your pain cave into a science lab, surrounding you with virtual worlds to ride in, allowing you to control the resistance you experience as you turn your pedals with the swipe of a finger over your smartphone’s screen, all while monitoring your heart rate, cadence, power outputs, speed and calories burned. As mentioned above, though, this can be an expensive club to join – although prices start at around £400, a top-end, standalone smart trainer like the superb Wattbike Atom will set you back $2.000.
Anything else I should consider before buying an indoor trainer?
As you’re most likely going to be using your own bike, check its compatibility with any trainer you’re thinking of buying. Check whether it offers different attachment options such as bolt-thru axle adaptors and, for direct-drive trainers, different freehub options. Think about how easy you’re going to find the trainer to store when it’s not in use. If space is an issue, look for a trainer that has folding legs or, in the case of rollers, a unit that can fold in half. Although some newer trainers are claimed to be almost silent, all trainers make noise even if it’s just producing a humming vibration that may annoy others as its transmitted through walls, floors or ceilings.
The more expensive the trainer, the less noise it should produce, although you can take sound-proofing measures yourself by standing the trainer on rubber matting such as an old yoga mat. Finally, although trainer crashes are rare, you can improve the stability of your trainer by making sure your set-up is level. Some turbo trainers come with front-wheel blocks, if not you can improvise by putting a stack of magazines under the front wheel to make sure it’s the same height as the rear.
What’s the best way to start training?
As with your regular cycle training it pays to have a plan with specific, measurable, attainable and realistic goals to help you maintain motivation. This is especially true when you cycle indoors which, no matter how funky and fun technology can make it, will never have the same allure as an outdoor adventure. So decide what you want to achieve over the winter months.
Don’t just aim to maintain ‘base’ fitness, instead see your indoor sessions as an opportunity to really work on something that you’d love to improve That way, when you hit the open road again with the return of the good weather, you can stun everyone with your supercharged climbing or sprinting, or how much weight you’ve shed.
Work out what it is you’re riding for and use that to help you pick exercises that will keep you engaged. Mix up your training, too. Your workouts need to be structured but varying them will keep things interesting. So establish a checklist of drills to build each individual session around.
I’ve heard that indoor training is boring…
This is the most commonly heard whinge about indoor riding but it doesn’t have to be boring. Goal-setting is great for keeping you focused, but these days there’s also all manner of external stimuli to keep you entertained. If you set yourself a goal of a two-hour endurance ride, for example, why not do it in front of a film?
A TV with surround sound is the ultimate addition to any pain cave, otherwise a tablet, laptop or even your phone is a potential mini cinema. Watching something inspiring also helps, so why not seek out a classic film like A Sunday In Hell or Breaking Away on YouTube – both are great ways to fill a couple of hours. YouTube can also be a rich source of structured workout videos, ranging from beginner’s spin to high-intensity interval training blasts.
Otherwise, there are online services such as Zwift that can act like a mix between an online training program and a massive multiplayer online game, offering everything from structured workouts and social group rides, to races. As you ride, an avatar of yourself navigates a course through a virtual world with other riders – all training in real time in their own pain caves across the globe.
It even attracts the pros, with the likes of Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel spotted on there. A subscription costs from £12.99 per month, but you can sign up for a seven-day free trial before committing. Go to zwift.com to discover more. Other online training platforms worth exploring are Sufferfest (sufferfest.com) and TrainerRoad (trainerroad.com).
When and how much should i train?
When is really up to you – or rather it’s determined by when you can fit your sessions in around work/ family commitments. It’s why it pays to have your trainer permanently set up over winter, as it allows you to hop on and have a quick spin without too much faffing about. Aim for three focussed half-hour sessions a week with a longer ride when time permits. The emphasis should be very much on the shorter sessions, though, rather than saving everything up for one long ride. Three short, structured workouts a week will improve your fitness far more than grinding out one steady, lengthy ride. Also, when you first start out, pace yourself. Begin with a level that you find sustainable, it’ll help you to stick with your training right through winter. After all, you can always gradually increase your efforts as and when you feel you’re up to it.
Any other tips?
Consider fuelling. If you come home from work and jump on the trainer for a session, chances are you won’t have eaten since lunch. If that’s the case and you haven’t eaten within three or four hours of your planned ride, you’ll need to snack on something around an hour beforehand to avoid the risk of bonking. Hydration is also important. You’re exercising inside, remember, so you will sweat – a lot! Also, remember to start slowly, just as you would when you ride outside. Don’t just leap in the saddle and start hammering away, be disciplined and do a proper warm-up and cool-down-just 5-10 minutes easy spinning either side of your training session will help you to avoid fitness-thwarting injuries. After all, as far as your body’s concerned, a ride is still a ride whether the miles your legs, heart and lungs have chomped are in the real world or in the virtual one that you’ve created in your garden shed.