Riding inside can build all the fitness you need to perform at your best in outdoor events. There’s no doubt cyclists or triathletes can accomplish all of the high-intensity interval work their outdoor-only counterparts would normally do throughout the year. But particularly with the current focus on polarized training and reverse periodization, high-intensity interval work is typically only 10–20 percent of an athlete’s total annual workload. The other 80+ percent is low- to moderate-intensity endurance riding, and that’s the harder part to replicate entirely indoors. With the emergence of Zwift and other interactive apps, “free riding” at an endurance pace is more appealing than it used to be, and the rise of e-racing is making it possible to feed your competitive drive without riding outside.
Most cyclists and triathletes, however, are training indoors with the intent to participate or compete in events outdoors. The most common scenario is using a mixture of indoor and outdoor training sessions to maximize your available training time. More and more, the percentage of overall training being completed indoors is growing, and training primarily indoors can have both positive and negative impacts on outdoor performance.
The advantage of indoor fitness is the level of control we have over the amount and distribution of intensity. If you want precision in training, you can’t beat riding structured workouts indoors on a smart trainer in erg mode. At the end of a week or a month of training, your power files and training data will be close to perfect because your motivation and willpower played no part in determining your performance. As I have mentioned before, this is also a significant disadvantage to training indoors with erg mode, because you risk losing or not developing the internal drive and expertise for self-pacing.
Perfect training files don’t necessarily equate to optimal preparation for real-world cycling performances. In the Dark Ages, when cyclists and triathletes only rode indoors when they absolutely needed to, the transition back to outdoor group rides and races was pretty seamless. The outdoor skills might have gotten a bit rusty but came back quickly. Now that athletes are spending more and more time riding inside (and building tremendous fitness indoors), there has been a significant dissociation between fitness and skill.
If you have spent hours and hours on a smart trainer or plugged in to Zwift, The Sufferfest, TrainerRoad, Rouvy, FulGaz, or any of the other indoor cycling apps, you may very well have the fitness and power to ride in an outdoor peloton at 30 mph. To be successful and safe in that environment, however, you need the handling skills to ride shoulder to shoulder at that speed, to brake appropriately before corners, and to take good lines through turns. Without those skills, it’s like putting a bunch of brand-new drivers into Ferraris and having them go out on the track with people who have been driving Ferraris for 10 years. Everyone on the track has similar horsepower, but only some know how to drive the car.
For decades, cycling skill and speed developed side by side (for the most part) because beginners didn’t have the power to keep up with experienced riders who had gradually learned how to go fast over the same timeframe they gained fitness. Riders learned the skills necessary to handle higher speeds as they gained the power required to achieve those speeds. For some athletes who primarily ride inside, that process has been upended and is causing some unintended—and dangerous—consequences.
Preparation for Time Trialing and Triathlons
Aerodynamics is one of the most important aspects of racing for triathletes and time trialers. On an indoor trainer you can sit upright to increase power. But in triathlon and time trialing outside, you know that is a grave mistake. Any gains made from a more powerful upright position on the bike will cost much more energy than being fully aero. When training inside for such events, it’s critical that you ride a bike that is intended for your type of event and that you assume a fully aerodynamic position when doing high-intensity, race-like workouts. Your power numbers may be somewhat less impressive, but you’ll be better prepared when it’s race day. For easy, aerobic rides, any bike will do.
It’s also important for competitive triathletes to train in a way that is similar to what they will experience in a race. While it may be fun to do an e-race, that’s really not what triathlon is about. Triathlon is a relatively steady intensity from beginning to end with climbing and descending hills as the only time power significantly increases and decreases. That’s exactly the opposite from what you would experience in an e-race. While it may be fun to occasionally do an e-race, a steady diet of these will be counterproductive to your triathlon race goals. While this may seem counterintuitive, the physiological gains made from doing highly variably paced road races does not cross over to better steady-intensity racing.
Learn and Practice in Group Rides
Teaching handling skills is beyond the scope of this book, but if you are relatively new to outdoor road racing, it is important to spend time learning how to draft, ride in close quarters comfortably, hold a straight line while looking back or taking a drink, and line up for a corner and adjust your speed. Easy-paced and endurance-focused group rides are great for working on the basics because the speeds are lower, there is less competitiveness between riders for position in the pack, and you will have enough power that you don’t need to worry about losing contact with the group if you let a gap open up temporarily.
Strong novices often rely too heavily on power to avoid uncomfortable situations. When you are going to a group ride or training race with the intention of improving your skills and confidence, you have to resist the temptation to just use your power output to throttle your way out of trouble. You may have the power to ride to the side of the group and keep up without drafting, but what you need are the skills to read the wind direction, find the best drafting position, and ride within inches of the wheel ahead of you. Similarly, you might be strong enough to close big gaps, but you need the skills to prevent those gaps from opening in the first place.
Learn to Win Before Upgrading
In addition to handling skills, it is crucial for competitive road racers to learn how to race and how to win in the novice categories before upgrading to the more advanced categories. Moving up into more competitive fields too quickly is one of the biggest mistakes cyclists make. The tactical lessons about how to stay in a good position within the peloton, how to form a breakaway, where to attack the group, how to follow the right wheels, and how to launch a winning sprint are learned through repetition.
When the speed and intensity of the race are well within your capabilities, you can focus on tactics and decision-making. In the course of a one-hour race, you could try forming a breakaway five times, sprint for three primes and the finale, and go from riding at the front to bringing up the rear and everywhere in between. When athletes move up too quickly, they have fewer opportunities to learn because they have to spend more mental and physical energy to just keep up. Develop winning skills first, and then you’ll be able to execute them in the final lap of an elite criterium.
Beat Them at Their Own Game
Horsepower and the ability to sustain an unrelenting pace are the primary advantages inside riders have when they take their fitness outdoors. Your potential weaknesses, however, are equally well-known to the riders you are up against. If power data were the only determinant for winning races, we could just compare power profiles and hand out checks. In reality, underpowered riders can and often do win races by making objectively stronger cyclists waste energy. If you are primarily an inside rider, watch out for the following tactics competitors will try using against you:
Many inside riders are great at maintaining a fast and steady pace, like a locomotive. You’re accustomed to tapping out a consistent rhythm, knowing exactly how long efforts will be and when it’s time to increase or decrease power output. To beat you, competitors will try to disrupt your rhythm and make you respond to repeated surges. Each time you accelerate to go after them, you’re burning another match or firing another bullet, and their goal is to leave you empty-handed before the finale.
Solution: In training be sure to incorporate indoor and outdoor workouts that feature rapid and frequent changes in intensity. Participate in e-races, group rides, and training races so you learn to initiate and respond to repeated hard efforts at random intervals and separated by variable periods of recovery. In competition, be patient and discerning about the accelerations you follow. Your strength is the ability to sustain a high pace, so use that to reel in attackers rather than always bolting after them.
Letting You Do the Work
When you spend most of your time riding indoors on your own—even if you are technically riding with a group via an interactive app—you are used to doing all the work yourself. Even with drafting in Zwift, there is no change in the resistance you feel through your smart trainer; the effect only changes the behavior of your avatar. Outdoors, experienced riders take advantage of inexperienced athletes’ desires to prove themselves by leaving you on the front of the group or paceline as long as you’re willing to stay there. Pulling on the front is also the least complicated thing to do, so strong riders with less experience often feel more comfortable and confident just staying there. For the group, it’s a great way to save energy and wear you down, so when the time comes, they can leave you behind with a few strong accelerations.
Solution: Do your share of the pace making or chasing and then pull off to the side and drift back to get into the draft. If you are in a paceline, be sure you save a little something so you can get on the wheel at the back of the line. There is no award for the rider who does the most work and then gets dropped.
Hanging You Out in the Wind
Savvy outdoor riders will try to take advantage of the wind and maneuver you into positions where they are in the draft and you are not. If you are less comfortable in a pack, it is likely you will ride close to the sides of the field rather than right in the heart of it. When you’re riding out on the edge of the group, it is relatively easy for someone next to you to pressure you off the wheel and out into the wind. If you are not good at reading the wind direction, you may also find yourself on the wrong side when the group turns into a crosswind.
Solution: Work on getting comfortable moving around in the field. The peloton is a dynamic environment, and you have to be able to move side to side and back to front within it. There is no perfect place to be because the perfect place is always changing. If you get bumped out into the wind or misread the wind direction, the best thing to do is recognize it quickly and find a way to get back into the draft right away.
Pressuring You Through Technical Features
This tactic is most clearly visible on climbs and technical descents. Riding inside and participating in e-races gives riders the power to climb like a rocket, but outdoors getting to the summit with the lead group is only half the battle. If you can’t ride down the mountain confidently and safely, you will be minutes behind by the time you get to the bottom. Even worse, you’ll be caught by riders who were several minutes slower than you on the climb, and they may not have the power to help you get back to the lead group. Once competitors know they can leave you behind—or catch you—when the road or trail gets technical, they know how to beat you. And they don’t have to drop you all at once. If you have to accelerate harder out of every corner because you’re taking slower lines or hitting the brakes more, they’ll keep up that pressure to wear you down faster.
Solution: Practice handling skills. People take ski lessons to get better at skiing and golf lessons to improve their swing, but endurance athletes tend to rely on experience and observation to pick up skills rather than actual lessons. Work with a skills coach who has domain expertise in the cycling discipline you’re trying to master. A weekend skills camp can save you years of trial and error, start you out with solid fundamentals you can build on, and give you tools to take your skills and confidence to the next level. If you had skills when you were younger and you’re returning to the peloton with a more mature perspective on risk, a refresher course is a great way to rediscover confidence in your handling skills.
Adapted from Ride Inside by Joe Friel with Jim Rutberg with permission of VeloPress.