Getting Started With Indoor Training
It is now the second last week in January.
According to my Strava data, last season I did my first gravel ride on April 8th, and my first MTB ride on April 21st.
That gives about 12 weeks of pre-season training starting now.
Why do indoor training?
Without getting technical, bike fitness is not maintained when you are not riding. Any riding in the off-season is good for you, but when you reduce your activity, your cardiovascular and metabolic systems both relax, often significantly. Muscular detraining happens in as little as 2 weeks, meaning that often what you gained over months of riding in the summer is essentially lost, and you’re back to almost square one when you start your next riding season. (You can check out this W/KG article if you want to learn more). But you already knew that because your first rides often feel really hard and strenuous. You may have also gained some mass over the past few months. It happens. And while there are great benefits to cross-training and doing other winter specific activities, your cycling specific physiological skills are not necessarily being maintained.
Riding indoors is efficient, easy, and can provide a lot of benefits depending on how you approach it. Some of us ride all winter on fatbikes which is also a great way to log hours riding and maintain different elements of your riding skills. But for most people to maintain and improve cardiovascular and muscular strength, riding on the trainer with a plan will yield better and faster results. And it's much easier to squeeze in a 1 hour ride every second or third evening in your basement.
Whatever you’ve been up to, if you plan on being bike-fit for the start of the season, you should consider doing some indoor training to get ready.
12 weeks is a perfect amount of time.
Doesn’t indoor training really suck?
Not that long ago, cycling training often consisted of long hours on a stationary bike or rollers at moderate levels of work. Heart rate was the way to track and guide effort. For a lot of people, it was boring. Too boring for many. But now we have smart trainers and virtual ride worlds and devices that measure and report power output rather than body strain as heart rate. There is a wide variety of software available and some of it is amazing! Real coaches have planned it all and almost anyone can follow it to success. Zwift is a virtual environment with hundreds of thousands of other virtual riders and many courses and road loops. It has been a game changer for many people. So, even if you once tried indoor training and hated it, now is a good time to take another look.
How to get started
There are a few ways to approach this.
Any time you spin in the off season is good time. If you are brand new to indoor training and want to learn some fundamentals, you could go to a spin class put on by your local bike store. You could go to spin classes once a week, which is social, gets you on the bike and will help you learn some technique, but once a week is not enough training to make much difference to your body. Ideally you need to ride 3 times a week to maintain and build, which is where an indoor trainer at your home comes in handy.
You have to find a set up that is moderately enjoyable to ride indoors for 45-90 minutes at a time. (I’ll talk about equipment and how much this costs later) A stationary trainer that holds or replaces your rear wheel provides the most flexibility in how you can train. Because the stand holds you and your bike upright, you can focus on spinning smoothly, your intensity, how high your heart rate is, and other training aspects during your indoor session. And you can ride slowly if you are recovering without worrying about falling over.
Once you find a place to setup and add some equipment, you can start riding. You can spin while listening to music or watching Netflix at low intensity, or you can find spinning class videos, such as Spinervals, online or on YouTube and follow along. This is an easy and accessible place to start. If or when you decide you want to see greater benefits with your training, then you want to look at an online training program with structured training. Online software like Trainer Road or Zwift is easy to use, effective, and even fun. I highly recommend jumping right into structured training. You can also read about how Zwift completely changed Sandra's outlook on indoor training.
There are a lot of programs available to help you train. Right now, for most people, I’d say the best structured training programs are Zwift or Trainer Road. Sufferfest is also a great option, but it is oriented a little more to serious cyclists and is harder training overall with longer and more frequent workouts in each training plan. The only free app out there these days is the Kurt Kinetic Fit app (Android & iOS) which has a decent selection of basic workouts. For more options, you can check out DC Rainmakers Software App Guide. You could also hire a coach, or plan out, organize and complete structured training manually, without software, but it takes a lot of knowledge end effort for most people. Training software lets you jump right into it.
Trainer Road has a lot of program variety and is moderate to hard for most people. Zwift might be the friendliest and easiest program to start training with, and has hard programs for hammerheads too. In every program, workouts are designed as a plan that structures your time on the trainer for maximum gain. Novice programs are 3 (sometimes 4) sessions a week. (I typically do 3 structured days a week with extra indoor and outdoor rides) Most workouts are 60-90 minutes, although you can select shorter ones if you are time crunched. Each software gives you power targets based on an initial fitness test and on-screen instructions that tell you how to ride. Your equipment displays your power in the software and you adjust your intensity to achieve your targets. Rides area sequenced and the software tells you when to do them, so you don’t try to do too much. Rest days are important. If this sounds complicated, it isn’t really. The coaches behind each software have done all the thinking and planning for you. You just need to figure out how much you are going to train each week, for how long, and at what style. Riding your trainer 3 times a week will help your conditioning a lot and prepare you to start next season strong.
Which software is better?
Zwift ($18.99/m) or Trainer Road ($14.99/m)?
For me, I like hard workouts and I like to be focussed. Trainer Road is highly structured training with detailed plans and a lot of plan options, such as 3, 5 or 7 days a week of training over 6, 8 or 12 weeks, and a huge library of workouts. Most workouts also have shorter (and longer) variants so you can adjust the duration to match your available time. It is very empirical, and graph based. No fancy graphics. Just you and the numbers and coach Chad's on-screen text instructions. Some people find this intimidating or boring. I like it because it's clear and concise. The software controls the trainer resistance during workouts, so when it tells you to pedal hard, you have to pedal hard, and you can’t get away with much slacking. But it also works really well with many regular, inexpensive trainers using a feature called “virtual power”. I used Trainer Road for 3 years on a standard Kurt Kinetic fluid trainer with virtual power by simply changing gears manually and adjusting my cadence to match the target power. This is effective and relatively cheap.
Zwift is a virtual riding and racing world with graphics and hills and a social component that also has structured training plans. It’s basically a road bike video game where you ride around with other people. You can actually do group rides, join race teams, and do other special ride events. It can really help pass the trainer time with fun visuals, on-screen encouragement, and an experience that simulates riding outside with uphills and downhills and even drafting other riders. It has a lot of game elements that are designed to keep riders engaged and promote fun. And it has structured training plans and workouts too, although not quite as extensive as other programs. Zwift has a lot of variety and seems to be really good for many people, especially people new to online training. People seem to stick with their training plan which is really important. (really, really, important) If you have an electronic trainer, Zwift controls the resistance to simulate hills, wind, road bumpiness and it works really well. Zwift also runs with virtual power which is very effective when doing their structured workouts.
Most online software is similarly priced from $9.99 to $18.99 per month. Many programs allow you to turn-off payment when you are not using it during the summer, so if you start in January and stop at the end of April, your total cost for Zwift would be $75.96. Less than one massage. You can also consider this cost versus a monthly gym or cross-fit membership. I pay annually for Trainer Road ($99.00) because I use it in the summer too, and I pay monthly for Zwift for the winter months. Both are definitely worth the price to me.
What equipment do you need?
Indoor trainers have been around for a while. For most people, a trainer that holds your back wheel like setup #1 below is ideal for any and all training. If you want to do power based training using online software, there are 2 equipment setups that you can consider, setup #2 (lower cost) and #3 (expensive) below.
Setup #1: Classic Trainer ($50.00 - $250.00)
A stationary trainer provides great flexibility in how you can train. If you are just interested in spinning your legs while following YouTube spin-class videos, almost any trainer will work. You should be able to buy something used for $50.00 - $100.00 online. New non-smart trainers can still run up to $350.00. A used Kurt Kinetic or CycleOps Fluid trainer for $150.00 is a great deal.
Setup #2: Speed & Cadence Sensor + Classic Trainer ($100.00 - $600.00)
The simplest and cheapest way to start training using power targets is to add speed and cadence sensors to your bike and buy a classic trainer that is suited for virtual power. Your online software will use the data from the speed sensor to determine you power while you turn the cranks. It works very well for our purposes of training. Trainer Road and Zwift both have lists of supported trainers so you can check to see if a particular model will work. If you can, stick to Kurt Kinetic, CycleOps, Blackburn and Tacx trainers. You can often find some of these trainers used for $99.00 online. Again, a used Kurt Kinetic or CycleOps Fluid trainer for $150.00 is a great deal. Because there are new smart trainers starting around $500.00 these days, I probably wouldn’t recommend buying a new classic trainer for more than $250.00. You are better off to find a cheap used one and save up for a smart one.
For sensors, I recommend the Wahoo RPM Speed and RPM Cadence sensors which you can buy for about $60.00 each. I’m a big Wahoo fan and these small pods are easy to install and move between bikes. But there are lots of other comparable speed and cadence sensors that work well too such as Garmin sensors which should also be available at your local bike store.
What if you already have a power meter on your bike?
It's also worth mentioning that if you do have an actual power meter on your bike, you can use almost any classic trainer and software without using virtual power, since the power meter will measure and transmit your output. This is one of the most accurate ways to train with power. And while a true wheel, crank or pedal based power meter works on your bike both indoors and outside and can provide a lot of training value, the cost of this equipment and the required accessories is quite high, although it can be less than a smart trainer. There is also some additional complexity and you need to make upgrades to your bike, so I don't advise this direction for riders just getting started unless you are planning to train seriously for competition. But, for athletes already invested, you already have the necessary equipment and the transition to power based indoor training should be pretty straight forward. DC Rainmaker is my favourite site for detailed information about all things power related.
Setup #3: Smart Trainer ($600.00 - $2,000.00)
Just to be clear, setup #2 above can be a 100% effective training setup for just about anyone. Investing in more expensive equipment can get you more accurate measurements for power and other metrics, and it can change the riding experience, but the fundamental theory and practice is exactly the same, so the potential training benefits are essentially the same. Smart trainers open up additional training opportunities and efficiencies, but that comes with a high cost.
Since 2016, the smart trainer market has exploded and there are a lot of options available for purchase. There are many online reviews, and probably the most detailed and comprehensive reviews are from DC Rainmaker and GP Lama.
This is a product most people should buy from your local bike store to make sure that you have some support for setup, and warranty. If your favourite shop doesn't have trainers or sensors in stock, they can order everything you need.
And another smart thing to do is buy your trainer using a credit card that offers extended warranty protection. My American Express doubles the manufacturer’s warranty which give you a little extra protection in case something goes wrong with your unit.
Wahoo and Tacx trainers are probably the best products in the smart trainer category. I’m a Wahoo fan. Both companies make smart trainers that use your rear wheel, and trainers that replace your rear wheel. Both types work well.
If you can afford it, get a wheel-off trainer for best performance and feel. I have a 2018 Wahoo 4thgeneration Kickr ($1699.00) and I love it. The other trainer I considered was the Tacx Neo ($1899.00) but I prefer the feel of the Kickr. The best value in this category is the Wahoo Kickr CORE ($1199.00) which has a slightly smaller flywheel than the Kickr, and slightly lower maximum resistance which, for practical purposes, is not a limiting factor for normal humans. Both brands universally connect to every type of device and software. As I said, I prefer Wahoo but both are amazing and Tacx has some additional unique features for advanced training.
On-Wheel trainers are also really good and less expensive. They are slightly less accurate and have slightly lower maximum resistance ratings, but unless you are over 90kg, super strong, or get very serious about the accuracy of your metrics and training, on-wheel smart trainers are great too. One benefit to on-wheel trainers is that it's easier to switch bikes, which makes it good for sharing with someone else. For on-wheel trainers, the Wahoo Kickr Snap ($799.00) is my pick. It has universal connectivity like the Kickr and great maximum resistance for its price. (You only need to add a cadence sensor since it does not ship with one) The Tacx Genius trainer is the equivalent product at slightly higher in price, with slightly higher resistance. There are also less expensive Tacx on-wheel models with good reviews.
I will also add that Wahoo updated all their product designs in 2018 and as of late January 2019, there are some known and ongoing product issues which they are dealing with. My experiences dealing direct with Wahoo Customer Support have been amazing and I remain a Wahooligan fanboy. Tacx also has some known issues, and I have heard mixed reviews on custom service through their distributors. In any case, if you purchased this product from your local bike store, they should be able to help out with warranty issues. (So support your Local Bike Store when you can!)
What else do you need?
A Laptop, Tablet, Phone, AppleTV, and maybe a TV or Monitor
The trainer and sensors need to talk to your choice of software so you need a laptop, iPad, tablet, phone or AppleTV (for Zwift) connected to the internet for this purpose. The main difference using any device is the size of the screen and where you can position it while you are riding. You need to be able to see and read the on-screen instructions during your workout. Trainer Road has well designed apps that show the target numbers and graph clearly and it works fine on a phone sized screen. Zwift is essentially a video game, so a bigger screen provides a more immersive experience. Zwift on an iPad is pretty good. On a 40” TV it’s really good. And If you have an Apple TV or Chromecast device, you can stream your tablet or phone on to your TV to get a bigger image. You probably don’t need a 40” TV for Trainer Road, but I like it anyway.
It is worth noting that when your partner also trains with Zwift, who gets to use the big TV during co-training sessions becomes important. It doesn't matter who purchased the TV, it automatically became a "Relationship TV" once installed in your shared training space, and you will need to work out a suitable sharing methodology. This is also true for shared Bluetooth speakers and music selection during the training session.
Bluetooth LE or Ant+ Wireless ($20.00) on your devices
If you are using a Macbook, iPad or iPhone, your trainer and sensors will connect using Bluetooth so you don’t need anything extra. Android phones are usually good with Bluetooth LE, but Android tablets are hit-and-miss, so you need to test connections using the sensor setup app to make sure everything works.
ANT+ is a different way to connect training devices wirelessly but must be added to your laptop. You may need an ANT+ USB dongle to connect your trainer and sensors. Most PC's do not have the correct type of Bluetooth so you will need to add the ANT+ USB device. Some software on Mac's will only use ANT+ to read sensors, so you may also need it on a Mac. If you are using Zwift you don’t need the ANT+ dongle because they have a Companion phone app that will handle the connections and transmit them to your laptop via the internet.
Connecting everything is not as hard as it might seem, but it could take 15 to 30 minutes depending on your level of digital savvy, so just don’t expect to hop on your new gear and start Zwifting 5 minutes after you unpack it.
Heart Rate Monitor ($60.00)
More data is better for training. Trust us, it is. If you don’t have one, get a heart rate monitor so you can see the strain on your body during workouts. You can also wear it on your outdoor rides and record the heart rate data in Strava to see how your body is working on those rides too. It’s easy to learn about heart rate zones online and it helps you to understand your physical limits during exercise. If you have a health tracker or FitBit and it broadcasts heart rate as Bluetooth, that will usually work with training software too. If you are going to buy a monitor, I like the Wahoo Tickr. Chest strap monitors are generally considered more accurate than other types, but get something.
A Trainer Specific Tire ($40.00 - $60.00)
Several manufacturers make tires specifically for use on indoor trainers. These tires are harder than regular tires and last longer. They are also supposed to be quieter. If you are using a mountain bike for you training, you will need a smooth tire or trainer tire, but if you are just starting out with a road bike, you don’t necessarily need one. You will wear out your regular road tire though, so you will have to buy something at some point.
A Strong Fan ($20.00 - $200.00)
Make sure you have a fan that can cool you down. You will need it. If it has a remote control, even better. (because you will forget to turn it on and start your workout) This adjustable Blower model by Lasko is so strong we only run it on the lowest setting. A remote On/Off switch is also handy because you will start riding and forget to turn the fan on. We also have a fancy Wahoo Headwind fan that can automatically adjust itself based on your heart rate or cadence or power. It’s cool, but I really only use the remote control app. You can get 2 of the blower fans and remotes for less. Anything you already have will work to start.
A Training Log (Free)
You’re going to be working hard and you will eventually want to examine your progress and accomplishments from your training. I suggest you immediately start tracking your efforts by linking Strava to your training software to keep track of everything. You can sign up for a free account and then link your training software. Trainer Road and Zwift will automatically share your data with Strava so you can keep a record of everything. A free Strava account is sufficient for this purpose, but you can pay for premium features to help you analyze the data. Other more complex analytics programs, like Golden Cheetah, will import your historic data from Strava if you decide you want more powerful analytics, so just start using Strava and you are set-up for future tools.
So that is a lot of information. It’s not really that hard to get started, but between equipment, sensors, and software there are bunch of different things to purchase and piece together. This post highlights what has worked for us over the last 5 years and continues to work well.
If you are still not sure about jumping in, Sandra describes her experiences in this post, "Indoor training with Zwift was a game changer for me!". Take a look.
We also have a private Facebook Training Group where we share ideas and training specific interests and ask each other questions about what is working. This has given us some great insight in how to start training and keep training through the off-season. If you decide to get into indoor training, you can join too.
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You have 12 weeks before riding season is in full swing.
Make the most of it
Links: (opens in new window)
More about power based training setups on the Trainer Road Blog:
Trainer Road - Power Based Training Setups
Wahoo guide to indoor trainers:
All About Indoor Trainers
ANT+ USB Dongles:
Buy on Amazon.ca
Mike McGuire is an MTB instructor with Ride Ottawa who loves riding bikes all-year, bikepacking with friends in remote places, and training indoors every fall, winter and spring in anticipation of next MTB and Gravel season. He also loves to XC ski, snowboard, fly drones, and share his knowledge about biking, skills, and training.
He is based in Ottawa, Canada.