Indoor cycling isn't just the less-good alternative to getting out on the road, it's a valuable form of exercise in its own right.
If you’re riding for fitness or training for racing or a summer sportive, then indoor training offers numerous benefits.
Indoor training can be more time efficient if you don't have the luxury of 25 hours a week to ride your bike. If you only have an hour, say, you can get more out of that time on an indoor trainer as you don't waste any time umming and ahing about what to wear. You can simply jump straight on the trainer and spend more time actually pedalling, minimising the wasted time either side of a bike ride, ideal if you're a time-crunched cyclist.
There are loads of workout sessions available through apps like Zwift, TrainerRoad and Wahoo SYSTM that can add a lot of variety in that hour as well, so you're not just staring at a blank wall, but engaged in the workout and riding with purpose and focus. Some people say an hour on the smart trainer is time better spent than two hours on the road with all the stops and freewheeling that's usually involved.
Indoor cycling is also a realistic option for people who have children, and you can't just leave them and cycling 20 miles down the road - you can set up the indoor trainer in the next room and still keep an eye on the kids.
There's a certain grim satisfaction to riding outside when it's cold, dark and wet; some of our most enjoyable rides have finished in the dark with a face covered with mud. Sometimes, though, it can be the safe and sensible choice to hit the indoor trainer rather than brave the elements, especially if there's a storm outside or the roads are covered in snow and ice when the risk factor increases massively.
If you don't fancy riding along dark country lanes then riding on an indoor cycle trainer can certainly feel the safer option.
Granted, if you just want to go for a ride to clear your head, you can’t beat the outdoors, but if you want to do some decent pedalling without letting the conditions impact your training, then taking to a smart trainer can be not only safer, but make better use of your precious time.
Power measurement is the gold standard in cycle training, and it’s not just for pros, anyone can benefit from using power, especially time-crunched cyclists. Pretty much all smart trainers have power meters built right into them, making them ideal training tools for ensuring you are getting a really good workout.
Once you know your FTP (functional threshold power) you can plan sessions at targeted power zones to really get the most out of your riding time, and really boost your fitness. And ERG mode is the best feature to embrace power training on a smart trainer.
Simply enter the power you want to ride at, 200 watts say, and the trainer will set the power leaving you the simple task of pedalling. No traffic lights or junctions to impede your progress, you can spend more of your time in the key power zone. This means you don’t have to focus on keeping the power at 200 watts, like you do with a dumb trainer, but can just concentrate on turning the pedals.
Controlled and targeted training is one of the big benefits of indoor training. There are no junk miles. An indoor trainer makes it easier to be very specific about your training compared to riding outside, allowing you to spend more time in key heart rate or power zones, with no time lost to stopping at junctions or freewheeling down the hills.
It’s also possible to replicate any sort of road, flat or steep, on an indoor trainer, including roads that you might not have the luxury of living near to. There are all sorts of turbo trainer training sessions you can follow to work on specific areas of your fitness, whether you're training for a season of crit races or ultra distance events.
Do you feel slower cycling in the winter? You’re not alone. The colder it gets, the more effort it takes. Cold air is denser and it takes more effort to push yourself through it. Cold muscles won’t help, either. Lower temperatures, rain and windchill can mean your leg muscles aren’t operating at ideal temperatures.
That’s why winter rides can be tough, especially if you try and ride familiar roads and climbs at speeds you know you’re capable of. You’re also likely to be wearing more or thicker layers and that restriction and increase in your frontal surface area can play a part in your decreased speed compared to riding in lightweight jerseys and shorts in the summer.
Being 'faster' on a turbo is figurative of course — you're not actually going anywhere. But it sure feels like your effort is more productive because you're inside in the warm and just wearing shorts and a base layer.
It used to be the thing to build or buy a dedicated winter bike, complete with a durable frame, solid wheels and sturdy tyres and mudguards, for thrashing out the necessary winter miles. But there is another option. Invest instead in a smart trainer and a subscription to a training app and you have an interesting alternative to that dedicated winter bike, and a tool that is likely to reap bigger rewards come the spring.
The latest smart trainers with integrated power meters can take your training to the next level, with detailed and targeted workouts that can be incorporated into a structured training plan. They can be controlled from a smartphone, tablet or computer and allow you to easily change the training zones, helping you to get the most out of your training time.
While the technology in smart trainers is impressive enough, it’s the software that has really unleashed their potential. The likes of Zwift, TrainerRoad and Wahoo SYSTM, to name just a few of the most popular options, have helped to transform indoor cycling. These apps make indoor cycling and training fun and entertaining in a way turbo training never used to be. Zwift even lets you take part in races and organised group rides.
These apps have made indoor training engaging, interesting and exciting, with workout sessions, structured training plans and virtual races providing different approaches indoor training, and lots of options for mixing it up. The smart trainer can be controlled by these apps, so when you hit a climb or interval session, the trainer will automatically increase the resistance. As a result, they are far more immersive than the old days of counting the time down on a Polar heart rate monitor on a traditional dumb trainer.
You don’t even need a computer, most trainers offer both ANT+ and Bluetooth and many apps run on smartphones and tablets. You can even control most smart trainers from a cycle computer, like a Garmin Edge or Wahoo Bolt, and change the resistance levels at the touch of a button.
Zwift even lets you race or ride with friends without even having to leave your house!
You can get the most out of a smart trainer with an app like Zwift. This hugely popular app has gone a long way to transforming indoor training for many cyclists by providing a realistic environment and other real-world cyclists to ride and race against. It provides an experience that is as close to riding outdoors as it’s possible to get without leaving the comfort of your living room. New courses and features are being added all the time, providing all the structured training you could wish for.
Another popular option is TrainerRoad, which offers a larger suite of workouts and live performance data.
The best direct drive smart trainers (where you remove the rear wheel and mount the bike to the trainer) offer a pretty realistic road feel. Okay, so it’s not quite the same as actually being out on the road, but compared to my experiences with old turbo trainers, smart trainers are silky smooth and about as close to the real thing as it’s possible to get. Add in the app control that simulates steep gradients and it can sometimes really feel like you're riding outdoors, from the warmth and safety of your house.
Another benefit is that you aren't going to wear out the rear tyre as well.
Yes, really! Indoor training can be a lot of fun, and more appealing than grinding out the outdoor miles by yourself, especially if the weather is bad.
You can chant 'Rule #5' to yourself all you want, but if there’s no-one to hear you, does it really work? On an indoor trainer, you can do all sorts of interesting things like cadence drills, one legged drills, hill reps, speed intervals and other workouts that can really enhance your cycling fitness, and critically help time fly by.
You can inject more engagement with something like SYSTM, which overlays ride prompts over actual race footage, you’ll be acting out your wannabe pro dreams in no time.
David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes.