By Matt Dixon, coach and founder of purplepatch Fitness
In triathlon and riding circles, there is an ever-ongoing debate about the value of riding on an indoor bike trainer versus riding outside. I have seen elaborate equations to try to equate a set time on a trainer, and its relative duration on a road.
How often I hear "60 minutes on a bike trainer is like 90 minutes on the road." As much as I appreciate the sentiment, I cannot think in those terms. An hour on the trainer is an hour on the trainer. It is a tool, a wonderful tool if used properly, but it is not riding on the road.
Let's investigate its role in performance preparation, including some positive aspects of indoor trainer riding, and aspects of riding you simply cannot effectively work on by being inside.
What You Cannot Achieve on a Trainer
Rather than simply mounting a case for all the benefits of indoor riding, let's first acknowledge some aspects you won't get to effectively work on while bolted to the floor:
Handling Skills: All basic, yet important, interactions with the bicycle are not replicated when on a trainer.You cannot develop a sense of balance, braking, cornering, descending etc. These are interactions that are so often lacking among triathletes, so we must realize that plenty of outside riding, with focus on these fundamental skills, will be beneficial for you.
Terrain Management:Using gears and pedal stroke to effectively manage rolling terrain, descents and climbs cannot truly be developed on a trainer. With some of the software improvements, it is getting closer, but the true intuition and developing of feeling is only achieved outside.
Standing Out of the Saddle: An important skill to develop to effectively manage terrain, short postural load, but also nail the counter-steering effect that is utilized in cornering, riding in the wind and other interactions, yet impossible to develop when riding on a trainer that holds the bike in place laterally.
These three main categories require outside riding to truly develop, and should not be ignored. With this said, getting inside and onto the trainer does offer some valuable opportunity.
The Benefits of the Bicycle Trainer
So you cannot work on standing or cornering, your terrain management won't improve, and you won't effectively stand out of the saddle. It doesn't mean the trainer is a limited tool. In fact, far from it. Your trainer is a wonderful tool in your training arsenal. Here are some of the opportunities with riding the trainer:
Effective Training in a Controlled Environment:Specific interval training becomes highly effective without the natural variability of the terrain of outside. There is no coasting on a trainer, hence why many like to make the claim that 60 minutes of trainer time is worth more than 60 minutes outside. You have a controlled environment, to nail specific intervals, without any coasting effect. I promise you will never run out of a hill when doing low rpm hill reps' on a trainer.
Pedal Stroke and Posture:Without the requirement to manage your bike around traffic, terrain and other riders, the trainer provides the optimal environment to work on your pedal stroke and retaining proper posture. Including a mirror in your set up, for self-guided feedback, can begin the habit that, from minute one until the end of the session, you do things well.
This means form over force, and every interval can be achieved while retaining proper posture. This is so critical, as performance in triathlon cycling is as much about retaining form under fatigue, and establishing a great habit of riding well, despite fatigue, will carry across to race day.
Specificity of Intervals:We tend to prescribe training as a combination of effort (power, RPE or heart rate) with a wide range of specific RPM play. A backbone of our training is what we label as end of range'. Many intervals are either very low cadence, or strength-endurance as we call it, as well as some very high RPM work at the top end.
It can be a challenge to ride to suitable terrain outside, but the trainer offers immediate and controllable intervals in which you can mimic sustained efforts to train physiology, without the limiter of your terrain.
Time Efficient Training:We work with plenty of time-crunched athletes, with limited opportunity to get outside and ride in the week. An indoor bike trainer eliminates the challenge of quality riding in a time efficient manner, and allows you to avoid those nasty weather days.
The Golden Rules
When adopting the use of a cycling trainer, we have a few golden rules for all riders to follow.
Always ride with great posture.There is no excuse for riding with locked elbows, tense shoulders, and hips rotated back on your seat. Ride like the rider you want to be. If you ingrain positive postural habits, they will be there on the race course.
Make your pedal stroke fluid.We always coach the cue tension on the chain. When riding inside, you have the chance to understand, appreciate and apply fluid and smooth pedaling. If you are a quad-focused rider, you can feel and "see" the chain bouncing. An opportunity for refinement and becoming a more fluid rider.
Execute the intent.You have a controlled environment, execute your training as intended. For me, this is the intended output, but also at the cadence (RPM) that is the goal of an interval.
Take it outside. Whenever you are riding inside, always keep a lens on "how does this apply to my outside riding." Your races and events are outside, so join the dots on how your effort applies to becoming a better outside rider.
In short, embrace the trainer. It is a wonderful tool in your performance arsenal, but remember that your ultimate mission is to become a better bike rider outside. Utilizing the benefits of the trainer, then applying those habits, lessons and intervals to the outside world is your optimal performance lens to frame its role in your overall development and race readiness.
Matt Dixon is one of the leading endurance coaches in the world. He brings a unique background of professional coaching experience, elite athletics and education to lead the purplepatch team. He is a highly sought-after resource in the endurance community, writing and contributing to multiple publications such as Triathlete Magazine, Lava Magazine, Outside Magazine and Triathlete Europe.
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.