IRONMAN 70.3 World Champion Andy Potts is an indoor riding fan. Photo by Nils Nilsen.
Training indoors on your bicycle might just improve your cycling more than any other part of your training regimen.
by Kevin Mackinnon
It wasn’t until I spent a winter training for Japan’s Strongman Triathlon that I truly learned the benefits of indoor training. A tough Eastern Canadian winter made riding outdoors impossible, which left me riding a set of rollers and watching more than a few movies and basketball games. By the time I got onto the plane to Japan, I had logged hour after hour on the bike, but only about four of them had been outdoors.
To my surprise I had the bike ride of my life.
As I began to explore the world of indoor cycling, I found that there are multiple options for improving your cycling fitness within four walls. Here’s a breakdown of its benefits.
Spin classes are popular, and for good reason (although they shouldn’t make up the bulk of your training). Spin classes can provide an excellent workout filled with lots of hard interval- or strength-oriented training, and it’s tough to beat the camaraderie and energy that infuses these popular workouts. The downside? You won’t get the same level of triathlon prep that comes with training on your own bike.
Many bike-training studios offer a good happy medium by providing trainers, which allow you to bring your own bike. While transporting it can be a bit of a pain, it’s worth it: even the best spinning bikes won’t duplicate the triathlon biking position.
As long as you have even a bit of room, you can also get all your training done at home on rollers or on trainers. Rollers are like a treadmill for your bike: The wheels sit on three “rollers,” which turn with your wheels. Riding on rollers isn’t easy—it can take weeks to truly master the balance required to stay on them while you’re pedaling. Once you have mastered the process, though, they can be a great way to enhance your balance and bike handling skills.
Bike trainers don’t require anywhere near the same kind of balance to ride because your rear wheel clamps into the trainer. Some of the more advanced trainers, such as the CompuTrainer by RacerMate, an IRONMAN partner, can be hooked up to a computer and provide real-time graphics. (Less-expensive options are available, too, which have less bells and whistles but will still provide excellent training opportunities.)
Even if you live in a completely flat area, when you’re riding outside you inevitably have the opportunity to coast every now and again to give yourself a bit of a break. That doesn’t happen during indoor rides. While some high-end trainers have motors that allow you to simulate downhills, most trainers will force you to work throughout the ride. The consistent effort is one of the factors that makes indoor training more efficient. Like running on a track or riding in a velodrome, the conditions are also very consistent, allowing you the opportunity to do test sets and gauge your progress. (A time trial ride outside, for example, might be affected on some days by wind conditions. A trainer workout won’t be as susceptible to that.)
There are also fewer distractions when you’re training inside. Heading out for a long ride and chatting with a buddy or group of friends can take a lot of time, but you might not be getting as much out of the workout as you could. Putting your head down and hammering for an hour on the trainer might give you more bang for your buck.
The most famous proponent of that strategy is American IRONMAN champ Andy Potts. For Potts, riding on a trainer promotes high-quality training. He doesn’t have to deal with stop lights, traffic or other riders—he can focus completely on the workout at hand and get the most out of his time on the bike. Since he finds his indoor training works so well, he only rides outside during races.
Surprisingly, he’s hardly alone on the pro front when it comes to almost-exclusive indoor training. Meredith Kessler is another multiple-IRONMAN champion who rarely rides outside—typically once every couple of weeks unless she’s racing or at a training camp. Much of Kessler’s training is done while teaching indoor classes at a bike studio in San Francisco.
Riding with a group
Former pro and now coach Troy Jacobson started teaching an indoor class in the early ’90s at a local bike shop. The popularity of his classes led to the Spinervals video series, which now boasts well over 100 workouts with a variety of different sets and types for athletes of all levels. Following these sessions at home can provide the feeling of a group atmosphere and added motivation for your sets.
While the Spinerval workouts will simulate the feeling of riding with a group, there are lots of endurance cycling centers opening up that offer the opportunity to truly feel the group atmosphere while riding your own bike, either on one of their trainers or on your own.
While there doesn’t seem to be an exact formula comparing indoor vs. outdoor time on the bike, athletes and coaches universally agree that quality indoor time on the bike can certainly be a useful part of your training. Many of the athletes I’ve coached over the years have done well at full-distance races based on a couple of indoor sessions a week of 60 to 90 minutes, with a longer ride up to race distance on the weekends.
It was that experience in Japan that convinced me that indoor training could, and should, be an integral part of any training program. Since then, I make sure that I get at least one indoor session in every week, even in the summer months, and encourage the athletes I coach to do the same. The results have paid off time and time again.
This story originally appeared in June, 2013.
Kevin Mackinnon is a former pro triathlete and coach who is now Editor in Chief of Ironman.com