Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Whether you are a level 42 Zwifter or are just getting on the trainer for the first time this winter, it can be frustrating to see lower power numbers inside than you can achieve outside. Many riders see a sharp drop-off in their sprint power, anaerobic wattage, and even FTP efforts when they’re on an indoor trainer. So what gives?
Is it the stationary position in the saddle that is responsible for the power loss? Is it overheating? Or is it all psychological? Our struggles with indoor power can be tied to all of these factors and more, and in this article, we’re going to take a look at three things you can do to maximize your power output inside.
Keep Cool to Go Fast
Heat stress is one of the biggest limiting factors of cycling performance, be it on the indoor trainer or outside in the desert heat. Riding in the heat can cause increases in heart rate, core body temperature, skin temperature, sweat rate, and blood lactate, meaning that heat stress is negatively correlated with power output. Not good for achieving peak performance.
Indoor riding creates a higher potential for heat stress because of increased ambient air temperature, and the lack of wind resistance (i.e., nature’s fan). Depending on your pain cave set-up, it’s likely that the room temperature will be around 64-68°F—not too bad if this were an outdoor ride, but when you’re pedaling hard on a stationary bike, it can feel like a sauna without an extra cooling device.
In small and enclosed spaces, the ambient air temperature will rise during an indoor training session, becoming more and more humid as you begin to sweat and your core temperature rises. We also lose the cooling effect of wind resistance while training indoors. Wind (i.e., simply moving through the air at 20mph) creates airflow over the skin, helping to draw heat away from the body through sweat evaporation, keeping us cool out on the open road.
So how can we create this effect in our indoor training space? Like carbon race wheels, there are a number of upgrades you can make to your indoor training space that will immediately improve your performance. The #1 pick goes to high-quality fans.
Industrial-sized fans work best—if you can fit them in your pain cave—as they create a huge amount of airflow and bolster the body’s natural evaporative cooling process. This will help keep your core temperature under control as your pedal away during a high-intensity interval session. A rule of thumb: turn your fan on high and stand in front of it for 30 seconds. If you get cold, you have a high-quality fan perfect for the pain cave.
Stay Hydrated for Optimal Power Output
Hydration is another major factor affecting cycling performance and your overall health. Performance factors such as heart rate, plasma volume, and VO2max are significantly affected by exercise hydration levels, especially during indoor training sessions.
The conversation about water and electrolyte consumption during exercise is a long and complicated one—which could be a future training article all by itself, so stay tuned—but here, we can narrow it down to a few basic rules: drink to thirst, don’t drink only water, and try using carbohydrate or hydration mixes in your water bottles.
If you don’t fully trust your sense of thirst, aim to drink one bottle of water or hydration mix per hour. This will give you approximately 500 mL of liquid every hour, which is enough to keep your body hydrated without overwhelming your stomach and the rest of the digestive system.
When it comes to carbohydrates, salt tablets, and electrolyte mixes, there is no “one size fits all.” Everyone has different flavor preferences, sweat rates, and hydration requirements. So the best thing you can do is experiment with different products during indoor training sessions—monitor your feelings and performance during and after the workout, and see which hydration products work best for you. A number of companies even offer sweat tests that measure your body’s sweat rate and composition, which in turn, helps you develop a personalized hydration strategy using a mix of water, salt, and electrolyte products.
Rock Out to Power Up
Listening to good music will help you feel better, work harder, and ride faster! There isn’t any easier and more enjoyable upgrade than cranking your favorite songs during a workout or Zwift race. The effect is palpable, and it doesn’t just make you feel good either—you will perform better and hurt less while listening to good music on the bike.
The indoor trainer is also the perfect time to experiment with listening to different types of music. Free of distractions and the potential dangers of the open road, you can crank up the volume as high as you want, and watch your power rise as quickly as the beat. Studies have shown that upbeat and enjoyable music increases cycling performance during both submaximal efforts and all-out time trials.
Be wary of your music choice, however, as slow or unenjoyable music can decrease cycling performance by over 10%. Studies suggest that it is the quality of the music that has the most profound effect on cycling performance and that factors like “beats per minute (bpm)” alone have little to no effect on cycling performance.
Simply put: the more enjoyable the music is to you, the stronger your performance.
The effects of music are not only applicable to cycling—a 2020 meta-analysis gathered data from 139 studies on music and sport performance which analyzed “psychological responses, physiological responses, psychophysical responses, and performance outcomes.” After combing through mountains of data, the researchers determined that the “results supported the use of music listening across a range of physical activities to promote more positive affective valence [meaning ‘feel-good’ emotions], enhance physical performance (i.e., ergogenic effect), reduce perceived exertion, and improve physiological efficiency.”
So, turn on that fan, perfect your hydration strategy, and crank up that perfect workout playlist. You’ll be setting PRs on the trainer in no time.