Whether you sit on a bike trainer out of necessity (it is still snowing in some parts of the country) or choice (efficiency, efficiency, efficiency), you should approach your trainer time with a specific, big-picture plan to reap the biggest benefits. Top coach Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness, who trains some of the best cyclists in the sport, including Chris Lieto, offers smart advice—and a plan of attack—for making the most of your indoor bike training.
When utilized correctly, the stationary trainer can be a highly valuable year-round training tool. You just need to understand how to structure your workouts to get the most out of it. However, this does not mean that trainer workouts are a substitute for outdoor riding—handling skills and navigating terrain can only be improved with real road riding, and lots of it.
The common trainer approach for many triathletes is to spend countless hours sitting at a relatively low intensity—essentially trying to mimic outdoor “base” miles with long, steady intervals. These mind-numbing adventures are enough to drive most athletes crazy, and don’t yield significant returns. Others opt for only completing short, high-intensity sessions, which act as good fitness boosters, but are not part of a road map to progressive training where each session builds on the next.
If you are going to be spending a significant amount of time on a trainer, consider investing in a power-based trainer, or using a power meter on a regular trainer. The absolute measure of work, in the form of wattage, or power, is a useful metric to make your workouts as specific as possible. Keep in mind that although power is an incredibly valuable tool, it’s not the end-all measure of effort—you should also pay attention to the two other elements of training intensity: heart rate (HR) and your rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
Power is your absolute measure of work, heart rate is a variable to measure how your body is responding to that work, and the subjective measurement of effort gives you feedback relative to other sessions.
RPE is often the most important determination of what power you should ride at. For example, if you’re doing an endurance-based session calling for a Zone 3 effort, but your Zone 3 power feels like Zone 4 or Zone 5, and you have an elevated Zone 4 heart rate, it would be a mistake to keep the power in that range. Drop the power, find what feels like Zone 3 for that day. If you don’t have access to power as a metric, refer to the index of heart rate and perceived effort here.
Cadence, or revolutions per minute (RPM), becomes important in trainer sessions, as variance in RPM can shift the type of load you feel, simulate different terrain and dial in specific types of training. Many triathletes find an optimal natural cadence between 78 and 85 RPM, but there is a wide variety of RPMs that feel natural to any individual athlete. I have some athletes who sit comfortably at 97 RPM (typically those who are stronger from a cardiovascular standpoint), and to force them into a lower cadence would slow them down. We structure trainer workouts around an athlete’s “base” cadence—the RPM they naturally settle into if they are doing an endurance-based interval on a flat road. While we may look to evolve this over time, it is usually best to use this as a platform to build from.
Your trainer program should include plenty of specific sessions that focus on muscle tension, or lower RPM intervals. Working at a lower cadence will shift the stress to your musculoskeletal system and force over-recruitment of cycling muscles. While maintaining a relaxed upper body, good form and constant tension on the chain, your breathing will become easier as the load is shifted to the legs. Extended intervals at low, constant RPM can simulate hill climbs and are a superb addition to the program. Alternatively, you should also train at the other end of the cadence spectrum, with plenty of high RPM work to improve efficiency, create a neuromuscular overload and accelerate muscular fatigue during longer sessions. Higher RPM, typically at a lower power, is often more stressful and uncomfortable for triathletes, with the claustrophobic feeling of a higher heart rate and heavier breathing.
Build trainer sessions with both intensity and cadence variability to keep your training effective and engaging.
Structuring Your Training
You should plan on two key foundational sessions per week that cannot be missed, then the remaining riding sessions can be built around these “critical” sessions. If you perform more than two sessions per week, these will be central to your focus. Earlier in the season, your objectives will likely be cycling-specific muscular endurance and muscle tension (big gear) work. Your two foundational sessions will last 70 to 150 minutes each, and each session will be interval based—but this does not necessarily mean high intensity! Here’s a typical session for each type of workout:
» Muscular endurance and fitness: This session focuses on Zone 2 to Zone 3 intensity, with extended intervals and very limited time to truly recover, despite variations in intensity and cadence. The goal of this session is to improve cardiovascular fitness and hold form while creating massive muscular fatigue. This means that any “rest” between intervals should involve a drop in power but should not include pauses in pedaling. For these types of sessions, you can mix RPM, staying within 5–7 RPM of either side of your base, and mix power, staying within Zones 2 and 3. Maintaining pedaling through changing intensity and RPM for 40–90 minutes of a main set will become challenging, and doing it with fluid pedal strokes, a relaxed upper body and perfect form will be a substantial challenge.
» Muscle tension: Your other foundational session might include a muscle tension, or big gear, workout. Your intensity might remain at Zones 2 and 3, but the lower RPM will create a different stimulus. The goal of this session is muscular recruitment and endurance, so following a warm-up, your intervals would be 7–16 minutes in length at Zone 3 at variable cadences 15–35 RPM lower than base. These are done seated, with your lowest cadence at a speed at which you can maintain a fluid pedal stroke and not incur too much knee strain. Form is critical, with a relaxed upper body and constant tension on the chain throughout. If your chain is bouncing, or you are forced to reaccelerate with each pedal stroke, you are either pedaling at too slow of a cadence or too high power. Complete recovery is needed between these intervals, so very easy pedaling—or even stopping—is fine between intervals.
If you have these sessions central to your weekly training, you can build your additional riding around them. This may include outdoor road, mountain or cyclo-cross riding, or additional trainer sessions at a lower Zone 2 endurance focus. The only addition to these sessions would be periodic inclusion of some very high intensity and threshold work. Once every seven to 14 days most athletes should include some higher power work. I like to include short 1–2-minute intervals of Zone 4 work, often up to 20 repetitions with short rest, to maintain the top end. Even this is not your highest intensity! Once or twice a week I’ll also include some very high intensity work, often only lasting 7–10 seconds and accompanied by lots of rest. This neuromuscular work is not physiologically stressful, but it does offer good overload and muscular recruitment.
If you are forced to make your longest ride of the week on the trainer, you should still include variance. Don’t make the mistake of simply sitting on the trainer and spinning for four hours. While volume is critical for overall triathlon performance, you don’t have to sit all day on your trainer to get it. Just remember: Lower volume means higher intensity.
Mistakes To Avoid
Chasing hours, not specific endurance. The number of accumulated hours should not be your barometer of training success. Instead, focus on meeting target fitness goals.
Riding without a purpose. Don’t get on the trainer without a workout game plan, which is like riding aimlessly on the road. Neither is a good use of your time.
Following a programmed course or software of a planned race. This just ends up being a poor substitute for riding outdoors. While I can imagine using race courses in specific preparation phases, they don’t have any place in your general training.
Spending a massive amount of time on riding drills. You should always focus on proper form and efficiency, but spending 20 minutes on single-leg pedaling will be very good for one thing: making you very good at single-leg pedaling.
Attacking every session with short duration and high intensity.
Benefits of Riding Inside
You control how hard—and the intensity at which—you work. No stoplights, no wind to pose outside influences.
There is no coasting in the pedal stroke, and therefore a constant training stimulus.
You have the opportunity to perform sets that are difficult to replicate outside, such as slow cadence muscle tension work.
Measuring Your Progress
At Purplepatch, we use a variety of steady-state intervals and field tests to determine training zones and measure fitness.
WITH POWER: A simple field test can determine functional threshold power (FTP)—your best one-hour average power. We have athletes do a 5-minute best effort time trial, rest 7–10 minutes, then do a 20-minute steady-state best effort. Average power and heart rate can provide an estimate of functional threshold and training zones (see below). Most triathletes will spend the majority of their training time in Zones 2 and 3, with some specific doses of Zone 4 or maximal steady-state work.
WITHOUT POWER: If you aren’t able to measure power then you can still complete a 20-minute field test, while measuring your average heart rate through the assessment.
To apply your test results to training zones, follow these estimations based on formulas from Hunter Allen and Dr. Andrew Coggan’s book, Training and Racing With a Power Meter. For FTP, take 95 percent of your 20 minute best effort. So if your best 20 min effort = 210 watts, then your FTP is 200 watts (210 x .95).