How to Get Ready for A Winter of Bike Trainer Work

How to Get Ready for A Winter of Bike Trainer Work

By Matt Dixon, coach and founder of Purple Patch Fitness

As the winter months loom, many triathletes and cyclists are getting set for much of their training to be performed indoors, on a bike trainer. The shorter and colder days make riding outside tougher to execute, adding another factor for many already time-starved athletes to stay indoors over the coming months.

As discussed in prior articles (The Golden Rules of Indoor Riding), while indoor riding is not going to help your cornering, standing, terrain management and other factors, it still remains a wonderful training tool. Before you hop on the bike trainer, here’s what you can do to ensure you’re really dialed into what you’re aiming to accomplish.

Cyclist using virtual training

Getting the Power Right

When moving inside to your trainer, it is important to realize that your output and training wattage may not align exactly with the numbers that you achieve outside. While I am not a coach who obsessively prescribes exact wattage to my athletes, I do think it is important to be aware that most athletes may have variance in output from out to inside. Especially since, as a general rule of thumb, athletes tend to produce 10-20 watts less, at the same heart rate, when riding inside.

There are several factors that contribute to this scenario, including:

  1. The bike trainer you’re using.
    Depending on the bike trainer you’re using, you may experience a lack of momentum or grades to push against. If your bike trainer does not have a flywheel, it will not create natural terrain variance, which can cause a slight drop in power.

  2. The bike you’re using indoors.
    Any potential power loss from your bike trainer can be magnified, or countered, by changing bikes ridden from outside to inside.

  3. The power meter you’re using indoors.
    Are you using the same power meter on your outside rides as inside? Or are you comparing a bike power meter to one built into your indoor bike trainer?

    I’ll let you in on a secret: not all power meters read exactly alike. It doesn’t mean they are bad products, but the technology isn’t quite there yet. Ultimately, none of the reasoning is that important - but what is important is that you gain a real understanding of your output and training intensity in the medium that you are training.

The best approach to getting your indoor power right is to replicate any benchmark or field-tests that you do outside on your indoor trainer, then use this information to guide your training intensity or zones. Even if you are more like me, and more commonly prescribe training via perceived effort and intensity descriptions instead of zones, you will still want to monitor and be aware of what your output and associated heart rate and perceived effort is across efforts.

By taking this seriously, you will develop the same specificity in training as your outside riding, but now in a controlled environment.

Cyclist using indoor trainer

Setting Positive Habits

Rather than staring at the bike trainer with venom, comparing it to a medieval torture instrument instead of a training tool, shift your mindset to opportunity for improvement and habit creation.

When riding outside you have to navigate traffic, pedestrians, other riders, terrain, wind and other elements. Beyond your intervals, there is a lot to think about to stay safe and optimize training. All this thinking often leaves little space to truly focus on critical basic elements of performance, such as pedal stroke and how you are sitting on the bike.

As we remove the distractions, the trainer becomes the perfect place to develop great habits, as well as improving pedal stroke.

Work On Your Posture and Position

Central to your riding performance will be great posture and positioning. This time of the year is a wonderful time to shift and evolve bike fit and play with sustainable positions that allow best output.

Beyond some of the 3D wind tunnel tools that are out there now, simply setting up your bike and tinkering with your position will allow quick feedback into your sustainable power, associated heart rate and perceived effort with that effort, as well as whether the evolved position has any effect on how long you can sit comfortably.

With a combination of subjective and objective data, you can get very close to an evolved bike position, that allows a combination of good output at lower physiological cost, and is sustainable for long periods.

Having someone take a simple video of you, back, side and front, while riding at a moderately strong effort will also give some insight into the position, as well as additional insight into areas for improvement such as aerodynamics or other factors. 

Of course, the optimal scenario is for you to get professional guidance, but a lot can be done on your own, with a power meter and heart rate monitor.

No Matter the Position - it is Important to Ingrain Great Habits:

  • Ride your bike how you dream riding outside.
  • Take those hands off the time trial pads (they don’t belong there!)
  • Keep shoulders and elbows supple (locked elbows prevent self-correcting and proper handling)
  • Don’t pedal your bike like you are wrestling a pig: keep your knees aligned, with constant tension on the chain and fluid transfer of power.

Cyclist using virtual training

Hitting Great Winter Training Sessions

When racing season comes, you will be seeking the piles of miles in the nice summer months. Knowing these big hours are coming later in the calendar, you can turn your focus elsewhere when you’re on your bike trainer. And while you may need to accumulate a little endurance and resilience work, if you’re consistently weather-bound indoors, this doesn’t need to be the central feature of your winter training.

Instead use the winter months to leverage some key sessions that are well suited to the indoor trainer. This includes a greater emphasis on some higher intensity training, as well as what we label our ‘special sauce’, the end of range training.

The controlled environment of the bike trainer allows highly specific training doses of both intensity and manipulation of cadence (RPM), or end of range training, with heavy work completed at a high range of cadence, to develop strength-endurance and other stimuli.

A simple example of this type of strength-endurance main set would be something like:

End of Range Training: Example 1

4 x 9 minutes of strong effort as:
2 min strong at 65 rpm
2 min strong at 55 rpm
1 min strong at 45 rpm
2 min strong at 55 rpm
2 min strong at 65 rpm

Between each 9-minute interval you would “recover” for 5 minutes with low chain tension, so “easy”, but at a high efficiency boosting 100+ rpm.

This is a relative starter for strength-endurance, and the workload would progress dramatically over the weeks, but it is a good place to start.

The opposing weeks of this key session may look something like this:

End of Range Training: Example 2

4 x 9 minutes of 45-55 rpm as:
2 min moderate strong
2 min strong
1 min very strong
2 min strong
2 min moderately strong

Between each you’d revisit those 5 minutes at high rpm (100+ rpm) with low chain tension.

Notice how we flipped the stimulus to maintain the low rpm, but then made a stronger effort with the pyramid. Within weeks all 9 minutes will be very strong at that low rpm range.

Unless you have very favorable terrain in your local area, these types of sessions are tough to replicate outside with so much control.

Of course, these examples are just teasers of the type of higher load and intensity that we prescribe. It opens the door of value and opportunity for the trainer, and ensures that you are able to retain focus for the entire session, burn the key habits of posture and riding, and gain a time-effective return on investment for your time inside.

The biggest mistake you can make when going inside is to simply aim to replicate what you do outside. That is why I never fall into the trap of considering training hours for outside to inside as a barometer of training success.

Instead, shift your mindset for inside training and seek opportunities to make the most of this valuable training tool.

Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is a world-class triathlon coach, former professional triathlete and elite swimmer, and an exercise physiologist. His Purple Patch coaching community is based in San Francisco, but his athletes span the globe. 

Matt is the author of the Well-Built Triathlete, a regular contributor to sports magazines and publications, an Ironman U® master coach, and a corporate speaker. 

His Master's degree in clinical and exercise physiology, as well as his experience as an elite swimmer and professional triathlete, form the backbone of his coaching philosophy, but it is his incredible ability to lead, educate and develop all levels of athletes to their potential with his excellent communication style that makes him such a sought after resource. You can follow him on the purplepatch blog, Facebook or Twitter @purplepatch.