Road Bike looks at the indoor options to keep your fitness levels up to speed when bad weather descends.
In the old days pain cave was a dank and dreary place – somewhere you dragged your reluctant body to endure 40 minutes or an hour of churning boredom.
A necessary evil in winter, turbo sessions would keep the legs turning, maybe fight off some weight gain, and if you worked really hard at it, risking almost terminal levels of tedium while
so doing, might just prevent some loss of fitness. But now it doesn’t have to be this way.
Just as cycling outdoors has undergone a revolution in technology, frame materials, training techniques and participation, riding indoors is likewise being modernised and transformed. The noisy turbo hidden in a shed or a basement is going the way of woollen jerseys and down tube shifters. It still works, after a fashion, but the modern alternatives are simply
a whole lot better. The computer game-inspired indoor riding platform, Zwift, is the poster child of this relentless revolution.
Kevin Abt, from Wahoo, maker of the KICKR trainer, says indoor training is undergoing a step change. “If people weren’t interested in indoor training, apps like Zwift just wouldn’t be
appearing. Zwift, paired with KICKR, gives the opportunity to compete on a global stage and people want to spread their competitive wings, racing with a global community. The story is that riding indoors is fun for the first time ever.” But while the fun element shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of its motivational value, riding indoors on Zwift, or using other training programmes, can have a serious training benefit.
“If you ride more indoors, and ride in a structured way, you will be better outdoors – that’s simply a fact,” says Steve Beckett from Zwift. The company is trying to change the way people view turbo-work and for some people that will mean dressing up the wolf of training in ‘game-ified’ sheep’s clothing.
“We are open that we are about the gamification of fitness,” says Beckett. “Some people like being in a very dark place where they are focused only on the numbers. Others like being chased by a monster or climbing up a ladder. But the results can be the same – an
increase in fitness.”
All the razzle-dazzle to make fitness fun comes at a cost. Just as the average price of bikes, clothing and equipment has risen exponentially in recent years, the price tags attached
to some of the very best hardware and software to deck out the ultimate 21stcentury
pain cave can be daunting. But cyclists who take their sport seriously and don’t want to waste months in winter treading water on their fitness are willing to pay it.
“We are seeing growth in all areas of trainers. A lot of cyclists have invested time and money in their fitness and they don’t want to lose it in winter. And people want to quantify their fitness,” says Tim Bayley, UK brand manager for Tacx, a major force in both basic and highly sophisticated turbo-trainers.
Quantifying fitness is one of the big benefits of training indoors – it’s much easier with the modern generation of turbos to train with power as some have power meters built in and many others use technology to make educated, and fairly accurate, estimates.
Bayley goes as far as naming the top three purchases for modern committed cyclists as number one – a great bike; number two – a really good set of wheels; and number three – a smart trainer. Recently retired pro rider Dean Downing now coaches cyclists who are serious
about their fitness and has clients who have bought their own Wattbikes – viewed by many as the ultimate indoor trainer, this level of commitment doesn’t come cheap.
“These guys have got good jobs and disposable income. They’ve got busy lifestyles and work hard at their fitness. They might be riding tough cyclosportives with similar people and
they don’t want to get beaten, so for them, it’s worth it. In winter, if you can get on a Wattbike two or three times a week for 60 to 90 minutes, that’s going to get you seriously fit as long as you’re doing the right things,” says Downing.
GETTING THE TRAINING RIGHT
The ‘right things’ include structured training, using intervals as part of a training programme based either on heart rate or power, and concentrating on your form in the saddle. It’s often easier and more practical to hit and hold precise targets riding indoors, and according to Downing, it can be a more effective session than one done outside.
“There’s no freewheeling, no downhill and no rest,” he says. “There’s also the concentration factor. Out on the road I’d often find myself getting distracted and drifting off. I’d look down and find that either my pedal stroke was all over the place or I was missing my power targets. Inside I’d find that I was thinking about it a lot more.”
And then there’s the weather. Even a hardened pro cyclist like Downing has an aversion to getting wet. “I was quite famous for hating the rain. Sometimes instead of going out with the lads for a three-hour chain gang in the rain, I’d do two hours on the Wattbike. The solid training was brilliant. In fact I’d say it was more useful, in training terms, than going out on the chain gang.” ‘Smart’ or electronic trainers are the platform around which the modern
pain cave is built, although they need not cost quite as much as the Wattbike. The Wahoo KICKR, in part helped by its use by Team Sky both for indoor training and for race warmups,
is dominant at the top end of the market, although it’s seen serious competition from Tacx.
To get the best from a smart trainer it needs to be paired with software that will provide a sophisticated training programme, allow you to race online or simply provide some form
of visual distraction – and sometimes all three at once. It’s a broad topic, so let’s get some answers to some basic questions.
IS IT GOING TO MAKE ME FITTER?
It’s the $64,000 question. Your new pain cave might not cost quite that much, but is the investment in all this technology really worth it? Or is it just a series of expensive gimmicks that satisfy those without enough commitment to do it the traditional way?
“Hi-tech resources enable people to maintain a training programme throughout the winter at a certain intensity and in a time-efficient way. It makes training more accessible and easier to do – and that’s got to be a good thing,” says Stephen Gallagher of Digdeepcoaching.com.
“If you don’t train indoors, you have to ask yourself what else would you have done that day? You might have gone out wrapped in a lot of clothing in the dark and the cold and completed a long, slow ride. You might have risked a crash or illness. Or, you might have
done absolutely nothing.
“There is some resistance to this tech-based training. People will say, ‘Eddy Merckx never had a smart trainer and it didn’t do him any harm.’ Similarly, there was resistance to the use of heart-rate monitors in the 1980s when they first came in, and there was resistance to the use of power meters, but now they are widely used and accepted,” says Gallagher, who provides the coaching brains behind the Sufferfest videos. “But the simple message from these types of training tools is, if it works for you, it works.”
SIMPLE TIPS TO MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU
• You will get the best results from the hi-tech pain cave if the sessions are integrated into a properly structured training programme. Ask a coach to devise a programme based on the
tools you have to hand.
• If you have the appetite for research and some basic sports science knowledge you can devise your own programme. Failing that, off-theshelf training programmes from companies like TrainerRoad can produce good results.
• Remember that not all indoor sessions have to be at high intensity. Variation in pace and intensity and recovery periods are as important for indoor training as they are for road-work.
• While an all-indoor programme is possible, it’s probably not desirable. At least one outside ride a week should be completed if possible.
• Establishing a baseline before you begin a programme is essential. The best measure is FTP, or functional threshold power. A coach can help you establish this, but if you prefer
self-testing, using the set-up that you are going to use through winter is a practical option, as the software companies make it easy to follow the required protocols.
• Once the baseline is established, it can be used to gauge the intensity of each session. After a block of training, typically around four to six weeks in length, a re-test to find out if the programme is working is highly advisable.
• If you are using different power meters inside and outside, remember that they may give different readings. If you can fit your ‘outside’ power meter to your indoor set-up you can
work out the offset and compensate when completing similarly paced indoor and outdoor sessions.
APPROACHES TO INDOOR TRAINING
While having a personal pain cave is for many the dream scenario, there is another way: group cycling classes. Indoor cycling has recently undergone omething of a revolution; they are serious, focused group riding sessions with a real emphasis on performance.
One of the attractions of group classes is that everyone’s figures can be displayed at the front of the class, for those who are competitive, or made private for those who aren’t.
It’s an interesting variation on group riding as everyone can suffer equally and regardless of physical ability still remain in the same space. The sound of other people struggling and breathing heavily discourages slacking off, helping to maintain your motivation and push harder.
Richard Collier is a cycle coach, Wattbike trainer and indoor cycling instructor. He believes that group classes have some advantages over individual turbo sessions. “You can’t beat having someone nearby working hard, and this applies just as much to a group ride or an indoor class. I treat an indoor class the same as a road coaching session, but what you have
inside is complete control. People can also work with data feedback that they might not have on their own bikes. I wander around the room looking at form, position, pedalling technique. At home people might be hammering it out, and this is possibly not what they
should be doing. If they are in a class I can see if they are working in the correct zones and offer advice.”
You can also train in a very personal way while having a shared experience. “It doesn’t matter what your numbers are, people will be working to their own training zones and numbers,
improving their own level of fitness. I can coach a class with a broad range of abilities from Elite cyclists to total beginners and they are all getting a significant fitness benefit,” Collier
says. Along with the music and the encouragement of a coach, sharing the suffering can make the whole experience of indoor training much more positive.
The inside edge
Cycling journalist Rebecca Charlton is a big fan of indoor classes for
maintaining and improving fitness when outdoor endurance rides are impractical. “We all know the importance of base miles and endurance, but when you really can’t get out on your bike for several hours at a time, the Wattbike does a lot for the time-poor cyclist. Intervals,
high intensity and efficient training based on specific power zones has transformed my ability to suffer and is all packaged in a convenient hourlong session after work.”
A class can be as sociable as a group ride, offering encouragement and competition. “Wattbike has become a regular slot in my diary and I’ve got friends I meet there. I never
want to miss a session as I know they will be working hard and improving their fitness while I’m being lazy.”
But can you build road endurance from spending several hours a week on a static bike? “Riding a 4-day stage event and having done the bulk of the training indoors I was pleasantly surprised at my ability to dig deep – and none of it felt as tough as sweating
it out in Zone 6 between four walls.”
“ALONG WITH THE MUSIC AND THE ENCOURAGEMENT OF A COACH, SHARING THE
SUFFERING CAN MAKE THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE OF INDOOR TRAINING MUCH MORE POSITIVE”