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Indoor trainer season is in full swing, and with it comes a whole new set of trainer-related stress. You’ll need a towel, fan, laptop, tablet, or computer to start Zwifting. You may need to update your playlists, your trainer, or your indoor pain cave. And above all, you’ll need to get used to riding the indoor trainer again.
Riding an indoor trainer feels different. Even if you have a rocker plate, direct drive smart trainer, and climbing simulator, the indoor trainer still doesn’t feel the same as riding outside. For many cyclists, riding the indoor trainer unlocks a new set of pain, suffering, and cramping. Most cyclists seem to lose power output on the indoor trainer. Their FTP may suddenly drop 30 watts, VO2 efforts seem impossible, and don’t even ask about sprinting.
But there is hope. After three years of full-time road racing, I made the switch to the indoor trainer in March 2020. I thought I lost 50 watts across the board, but I soon realized that I wasn’t lacking fitness; I was lacking technique.
These are my top three tips for improving your indoor power output.
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Practice riding out of the saddle
One of the biggest differences between indoor cycling and outdoor cycling is aerodynamics. You could wear a parachute on the indoor trainer, and your in-game speed is still unaffected. Whereas outside, aerodynamics is one of the biggest determinants of your speed.
In other words, you need to be both powerful and aero in order to go fast outside. On the indoor trainer, power is all that matters.
Riding out of the saddle can help generate more power output, especially when practiced consistently. Due to the fixed position of a bike on an indoor trainer, there may be less energy lost when riding out of the saddle. When riding outside, you have to use much more energy to balance, steer, and control your bike when riding out of the saddle.
With a bit of practice, your arms and core can become accustomed to riding out of the saddle on the indoor trainer. Many top Zwift racers spend most of their time out of the saddle, churning more than 400 watts at 60 RPM. It’s an indoor cycling-specific technique that is certainly worth trying.
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Perfect your position
When you’re riding the indoor trainer, your body position is not identical to when you’re riding outside. Even if you have the same bike setup with the same measurements, your body position is not the same.
Your indoor riding position is naturally more upright because of the lack of wind. Without air pushing against your face, there is no need to round your back, bend your elbows, and get your head down to improve your aerodynamics.
There’s also little to no bodily movement on the indoor trainer, whereas outside you naturally adjust your pelvis, lower back, and core to help balance, lean into the wind, or carve through a corner.
In the fixed trainer position, tiny imbalances can turn into major problems if left uncorrected. Pay attention to how your body feels on the indoor trainer: everything from your ankles to your hips, shoulders, and hands. You should never have any pain, discomfort, or numbness on the indoor trainer.
For the perfect fit, find a professional bike fitter and have them set you up in an indoor trainer position. This should be the most comfortable position that emphasizes power output over aerodynamics.
Sprint with your eyes closed (kind of)
This tip is more of a metaphor than a description of what you should do. But the point here is that you can give it absolutely everything on the indoor trainer without the risk of crashing. Sprinting is obviously an all-out effort, which means that you will be flexing your arms, core, neck, back, legs, and ankles as hard as you can in a sprint.
Outside, you need to worry about sprinting in a straight line, dodging potholes, and avoiding other riders. But on the indoor trainer, you can literally sprint with your eyes closed. Personally, I prefer sprinting with my head down on the indoor trainer, yanking on the handlebars with everything I’ve got.
Use your arms to pull the handlebars slightly up and back toward your body to increase your sprint power. This helps push more force into the pedals, which is all that matters on the indoor trainer. Remember that you don’t need to worry about getting aero, either. Experiment with different sprinting techniques to see how you can generate a few more watts.
There are more ways that you can improve your indoor power output outside of technique alone. Three of my top picks are:
All of these techniques have been shown to improve indoor cycling performance significantly.
In summary, try these tips and tricks during your next few indoor trainer sessions. Take one piece of advice at a time rather than trying to combine them all at once.
And remember that these tips are for improving your indoor power output exclusively. Do not try these techniques outside. (They’d probably make you slower, anyway.)