I'm going to spend some bandwidth on my blog and YouTube channel talking about indoor training. It might seem like an odd topic for a coach/athlete who lives in San Diego where we're lucky to be able to ride outdoors year-round. What can I say? I'm a fan of indoor training year-round and think it's a tool that most athletes - and in particular steady-state athletes like TTers and triathletes - should use year-round as well.
Even before the advent of smart trainers, I beat my CycleOps Fluid 2 into the ground. Make no mistake, however, the development of the direct-drive smart trainer (e.g. Wahoo Kickr, Saris Hammer, etc.) was a game-changer for indoor training.
Since my first ride on TrainerRoad in August of 2018, I've done 567 rides on the TR platform, many of them custom workouts. I am no longer a TR user (though I still advocate for the company and platform for some people), and I generally prefer Zwift as my indoor training eye candy. I've spent 29 days, 21 hours, and 8 minutes of my life zipping around Watopia and the other worlds on Zwift since 2019. (More on how to get the most out of Zwift in another article). So suffice it to say, my butt has spent a lot of time on stationary saddles over the last five years.
Let's get into why I believe every cyclist and triathlete should spend some time training indoors year-round:
Let's face it: riding outside isn't getting any safer anywhere. While this may not be a major concern for those living in more rural areas, those of us in more urban/suburban settings - even more permissive ones like San Diego - seem to have negative interactions with drivers nearly every day when we are out on the road.
As a husband and father of two little girls, this is a genuine concern for me, but I don't want to give up riding the bike altogether. My indoor training setup makes it so riding on the trainer for 3 or 4 hours is tolerable, sometimes even fun, and preferable to going outside (for me, at least).
My wife definitely prefers my garage riding for this reason.
There are a number of factors that make indoor training more convenient than riding outside:
No flats to derail training rides or cost you time in the saddle.
Easy access to additional nutrition and restrooms.
No need to fully kit up to ride, bibs, socks, and shoes will do.
A bit less maintenance to get going on a ride (e.g. tire pressure, charging taillights, etc.)
Whether you opt to run your preferred training platform on a laptop, smartphone, or tablet, you have options to multitask while riding.
For example, I use my laptop to run Zwift, but during easy rides, it's usually just running the background as I control my trainer via my head unit (more on this in another write-up). In the foreground, I can do my coaching continuing education, FaceTime with athletes, do bookkeeping for the two businesses I own, review my athlete's workouts and comment on them, read articles, surf the web, watch basketball games or movies, listen to podcasts or audiobooks, etc.
Come interval time, all that stuff goes away so I can focus on the effort, but then when I go back to riding easy, I can get back to work (or whatever!).
If you're time-crunched, endurance riding on your trainer is a great option to get some easy aerobic ride time in while being able to do other things at the same time. It's a training hack and a life hack at the same time!
In the winter, when the sun doesn't come up until 7 am and it gets dark at 5 pm or is cold, it can be challenging to motivate yourself to get outside. In the summer, when it's 90 degrees and the sun is baking, any duration of ride can become quite a slog in the heat. Rain? Snow? Wind? Locusts? Who cares?
Indoors, you never have to worry about daylight or high-visibility clothing and lights. Depending on your setup, you might not have to worry about heat or cold, either, and don't underestimate the impact of staying out of the sun on those really hot summer days. Even when it's 84 degrees in my garage, with my awesome cooling fan setup, it never feels as bad as baking in the mid-day sun, and I don't have to get up at 5 am to beat the worst of the heat.
Improved Workout Quality
This is particularly true for longer sustained work or long over-under sets. Most of my athletes know that I push intervals of 15 minutes or longer as a general rule. It can be really hard to find roads suitable for such long intervals. Your trainer makes that a non-issue, as the only limitation is how long you can tolerate the work.
While stop lights and pedestrians won't ruin a workout outside, they're definitely a distraction, and sometimes once you have your mojo going on a threshold workout, that microbreak can break your focus and make it tough to get going again.
Most people who ride exclusively outside lack the ability to sustain higher powers for long periods unless it is something they make a point to work by seeking out those roads or quiet long climbs every week to get this type of work in.
Depending on where you live, you may have to ride for a while or load up the bike in your car and drive, to get to roads suitable for this type of training. If you work, it's just another barrier to getting quality time in.
With a good trainer setup, you can be on the bike, warmed up, and going at your threshold sets much more quickly.
There are a lot of ridiculous thumb rules out there about how trainer rides count for some "extra" time on the road. I don't believe in these rules largely because I focus on pedaling as much as possible when I'm outside anyway, and my coasting time is very low on any ride I do.
That said, there is a component of time efficiency to riding inside for everyone, and for some more than others. If you're one who coasts a lot, then yeah, a 3-hour session on the trainer where you pedal the whole time will be more efficient than going for 3 hours and 30 minutes or 4 hours to get 3 hours of pedaling time in. It's also substantially harder to pedal for 3 straight hours with no breaks than it is to just go for a 3-hour ride outside including stops and coasting.
Finally, every time you hit a stop light or have to wait outside, you're adding time to that ride. This could be just a few minutes, or it could be quite a bit. When you're a busy athlete, every minute counts! What if you could get just 10 additional minutes pedaling on every ride you do? That adds up over the course of time.
I want to be clear that I am NOT advocating that you do all of your training inside. Personally, I focus on my sustained interval work, some of my shorter endurance riding, and recovery rides. 4+ hours on the trainer can be difficult, boring, and tedious... so I prefer to do my long rides outside. I also prefer to do my very hard intervals outside as well (VO2max, anaerobic repeats) and I ALWAYS practice my sprinting outside.
You also need to practice your bike handling and get comfortable riding with other people around you.
I think the best training balances indoor training, outside long rides, and appropriate group riding for what you are hoping to achieve. For me, the core of my interval work will almost always be on the trainer for all the reasons spelled out above.
Coming up: tips on how to make your indoor training more tolerable and effective! Stay tuned...