Ask the Experts: The Best Ways to Improve Cycling Indoors

As the years go by, and technology improves, we have begun to see a shift in training from outdoor to indoor specific riding. With trainer technology allowing you to connect Bluetooth to riders around the world, or syncing specific efforts to your smart trainer, it is hard to argue against the benefits that indoor training can bring you. Riding the turbo trainer used to be a “winter only” activity, but the benefits of the indoor trainer can be seen year-round with many professional cyclists and triathletes using it for targeted specific sessions. Why? Well, the indoor trainer allows you to focus only on the effort at hand instead of the multitude of factors you need to be aware of: cars, pedestrians, potholes, stop signs, the list goes on! Besides, some of the best outdoor rides are those where you get to explore no strings attached! 

Staring at your head unit for 50 intervals may not be your cup of tea when venturing into the great outdoors, but how do you bring the same energy to riding indoors intervals? Can you still stay motivated while staying stationary? The answer is yes. It just takes a little bit of attention to detail, consistency, and fans; lots of fans.


Indoor Cycling Details Matter!


When clipping into your bike with a 2-hour indoor ride ahead of you it can be easy to let your mind wander and lose focus on the task at hand. Potentially you are passing the time watching a TV show or movie or maybe catching up on the previous week’s races. Whatever it is, we can lose focus on our own riding form and become sloppy. When you are riding indoors, are you attentive to your pedal stroke? Are you engaging your core and holding good posture? When was the last time you did a systems check to ensure your hands and shoulders are loose and relaxed? These may seem small but are important to ensure that the time you are placing into your indoor riding will translate to power and proper form when you get outside and hit the roads. The old saying holds true that practice makes perfect, only if it is perfect practice. So how can you remain focused when your brain may be drifting off elsewhere?

  • Be Intentional: set specific goals for your trainer sessions: is this an interval session? An easy ride? Or general endurance? Try setting power or heart rate targets you want to hit for the ride. These types of numerical targets can hold you accountable throughout the session so you can remain on track. 
  • Do Multiple Systems Checks: what is a systems check? Are you gripping your bars tight and making your hands go numb? Loosen up! Pretend you are playing the piano for a few seconds to bring some relief to the tension you’ve been holding. Are your shoulders hunched up to your ears? Take a deep breath and exhale, bring your shoulders down, or give your arms a good shake (since you are on a trainer this should cause no risk!) How about your core and back? Is your abdomen engaged creating a straight or flat back? Or are you arched and dropping your pelvis? Having good abdominal engagement will help you produce greater power and decrease the risk of back pain associated with a weak core. Finally checking in with your feet. How is your pedal stroke? Are you pedaling with a smooth push/pull technique? Or do you find that you are hitting dead spots in your pedal stroke? Try repeating a systems check every 10-15 minutes during your ride to ensure bad habits are not creeping up on you! 

Consistency and Specificity are Key


Balancing a work-life, family, and additional responsibilities can certainly lead us off track of our goals. Using the trainer as a tool that provides consistency to your routine regardless of the time of day, outside weather, or other factors can help you stay on track. Only have time in the morning but it’s too dark to ride outside? The trainer allows you to be flexible with your sessions in order to hold yourself accountable. 

Plan out sessions that you can repeat or build off of to avoid plateauing. Hitting a key session once in a blue moon can feel good in the moment, but without stressing your system consistently you may not be able to progress from this. Building continued fatigue and endurance, plus resting will allow you to make greater gains in your cycling than one-off sessions alone.

One important place to start is in developing a baseline for your current fitness. Not everyone’s power inside will be the same as their outdoor power. Knowing where your current fitness levels are will help you plan the best road map to your success. Looking for a way to calculate your current Functional Threshold Power (FTP), then check out this article here which dives deep into 4DP power. This power test gives you a comprehensive view into your strengths as well as weaknesses. Not everyone is going to excel at a 20 minute time trial effort, but perhaps you do excel at all-out anaerobic 60-second efforts. Not only can you use this information to perform sessions that target your weaknesses, but to also do sessions to increase your current strengths.  

Now that you have your training schedule figured out and your current fitness baseline, you can build a schedule focused on your own personal goals. Trying to set a PR in a 40k TT? Make sure your indoor sessions are targeted towards achieving this goal. Looking to hit a peak power of 1500 watts? Again, making your sessions specific to your goal is vitally important to achieving success. Training VO2 efforts for every session is a great way to get in a good workout and work up a sweat, but are they helping reach your goal? Be mindful of the work you are doing, and consistent in the pursuit of your goal 


Stay Cool and Hydrated


One of the biggest hurdles of riding indoors is getting past overheating. When riding outside we are constantly feeling the wind on our face, even on those really hot days. When stationary we do not experience the same cooling methods and all of this movement requires energy. Humans are not the most efficient. On average only 25% of the energy you generate on the bike is placed into the pedals. So what happens with the other 75%? This is lost in the form of heat. For example: when producing 200W, your body is having to deal with roughly 600W of heat energy. So how can we cool ourselves down? Fans, and plenty of them.

In order to reduce heat, your body goes through two related processes:

  1. Opening blood vessels directly underneath our skin
  2. Evaporative cooling…sweating! 

When riding indoors, the cooling effect we experience outside is reduced to 0. Without having a powerful fan, or multiple fans, you won’t be able to get the same evaporative cooling effect from sweat. Once your core temperature rises, your performance will quickly start to deteriorate. Now your indoor session has become hard for all the wrong reasons. 

Aside from loading your indoor pain cave up with fans, what else can you do to avoid overheating? Hydration! Making sure you are on top of fluid loss and electrolytes/carbs is key to combating increased body temperature. Keep in mind that everyone sweats at different rates, therefore fluid intake will be different for individuals. How can you figure out your own fluid intake needs? The best thing you can do is to weigh yourself before an hour-long workout. After your workout, remove your sweat-soaked kit, dry off, and weigh yourself again. You then subtract your post-ride weight from your pre-ride weight. Then subtract the weight of water you drank during your ride (A standard 24oz water bottle is 0.68kg). This will give you the total amount of water loss. Divide this number by the duration of the ride in hours and you will end up with your sweat rate. This will roughly be the amount of water you should aim to consume each hour of riding. There are limits though, your body won’t be able to absorb much more than a liter per hour. If you find that you lost more than 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of fluids during that hour, you should seriously consider getting an additional fan to help improve the evaporative cooling effects of your sweat.


Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training.  While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships, and World Cups on both the road and track.

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