Indoor training is pretty much a necessity in Central New York. Winter cross-training, such as cross-country skiing, running, weightlifting, etc., provides some great benefits, but cycling-specific training helps you retain the gains from your summer conditioning. Even if you primarily convert to cross-training during the long winter, doing one or two training sessions a week will make the transition to outdoor cycling much quicker. Also, a complete indoor trainer program gives you the chance to work on specific skills and physiological systems.
I will review basic needs, equipment enhancements, and some commonly used online cycling apps. In the “old days,” listening to loud music, watching cycling videos, and focusing on your heart rate reading was about all there was to make indoor training palatable. Current technology offers many ways to make indoor riding much more interesting and even fun.
INDOOR TRAINING BASIC NEEDS
You can ride your outdoor bike on an indoor trainer with no electronics, or with an older style hardwired bike computer and rear wheel speed sensor, and a decent fan. The least expensive trainer you can get will work, but as is sometimes the case in life, you get more for more money, up to a point. If your current trainer is not smooth or does not provide enough resistance, a good quality “non-smart” (dumb) trainer will feel smoother and usually provide a higher max resistance. Smoothness is important, and higher max resistance makes riding at higher effort in a low gear possible (think standing for a hill climb).
Two of our local sponsors, Dick Sonne’s Cycles, Fitness & Skis, and Trek Store of New Hartford, sell many types of indoor trainers at a variety of competitive prices and let you try them in the store (strongly suggested so you are not disappointed). They also have the expertise to tell you what is needed for internet and display connections. Tech-savvy types can probably figure it out, but it can be a pain.
I have used both a smart trainer with online apps and a dumb trainer with the same apps. I find both satisfactory. If you are on a tight budget (or have a sense that paying the mortgage, or your kids or grandkids braces, or college fund may have some importance), a good dumb trainer along with some of the equipment enhancements discussed below offer many options. You can find used dumb trainers on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. If you have the cash for a smart trainer and plan to do a lot of indoor riding, they provide a more realistic and engaging feel to the online apps you choose to use and will improve your experience.
Magnetic Resistance Trainer (~$150–$225): These can be good choices, especially if you get a smooth one. Look for a trainer with a heavier flywheel for a smoother feel. Models with lighter flywheels can have a jerky feel if they are not “controllable” by apps.
Fluid Resistance Trainer (~$250–$300): Choose one with a smooth feel and wide range of resistance (Can you pedal in a hard gear while standing?). This is a good trainer choice unless you want a controllable option.
“Smart Equipped” (~$250–$350): These are not controlled by the online apps, and you would likely only want one if you are in the market for a new dumb trainer and don’t have a rear-wheel speed sensor. A “non-smart” mag or fluid trainer, discussed above, sold with a rear-wheel speed sensor will transmit your speed to an online app and to any bike computer. You can “smart equip” your existing dumb trainer by buying a speed sensor.
“Smart” Trainers (~$500–$1200, and up): Smart trainers provide many benefits: a built-in power meter, smooth and powerful resistance, and connectivity to online apps that control resistance based on terrain and drafting. Your ride will have a much more realistic feel from an app increasing and decreasing resistance based on the percent incline or decline on the courses. Resistance and drafting make for a more “real feel” trainer session, especially if you do group rides or races.
The lower-priced smart trainers are the “wheel on” type; you put your rear wheel on the trainer the same as a dumb trainer. Mid-price smart trainers are the “direct drive” type; you remove your rear wheel and mount your bike on the trainer (this requires the proper cassette). These direct-drive trainers offer more resistance, but the wheel-on models provide more than most people can handle. The added price for the direct-drive models provides over 2000 watts of resistance. This may mean they are more durable and will handle larger power loads better over time. But I do know some pretty strong riders who have used the wheel-on model for several years without issues.
One smart trainer negative you may have heard of is the dreaded “seize up spiral.” This is when the trainer increases the resistance so much you can’t easily turn the pedals, then it further increases the resistance because you are turning the pedals slower. This happens when your cadence goes too low to generate the power the app is asking for on a steep climb. The apps and the trainers seem to be getting better at handling this issue, and you can avoid it by keeping your cadence up as you approach a hill, or in some cases by reducing the trainer difficulty setting.
Dedicated Indoor Bikes: Peloton, NordicTrack, and other dedicated indoor-only bikes have their place, especially for those who only want to ride indoors. In theory, connectivity and various technical issues should be minimized by a dedicated indoor bike. Currently, Peloton and NordicTrack bikes do not broadcast the Bluetooth/ANT+ signal needed to hook up with any other apps. If you choose to use a non-native app with this type of bike, check the app’s website for a list of dedicated bikes that are compatible.
The following items are optional add-ons that can enhance both your indoor and outdoor training experiences. Make sure to check with your local bike shop or the product website to see if you need any additional pieces to connect these with the app you choose to use.
Heart Rate Monitor: A heart rate monitor (HRM) is not required but highly recommended. For approximately $60, a HRM will wirelessly connect to your phone or bike computer and provide valuable feedback to track workout intensity and progress. Once you are fully warmed up, workouts of longer than three- or four-minute intervals can be based on heart rate alone. Even strong advocates of power-based training recognize the importance of heart rate data. Workout parameters and periodic testing of fitness progress can be done using a HRM in conjunction with power or rear-wheel speed readings.
Bluetooth/ANT+ Rear Wheel Speed Sensor: If you don’t already have a rear-wheel speed sensor, the $40–$70 investment opens up your options for a much better experience. These allow you to use many great online cycling apps with most any standard trainer. Choose Bluetooth/ANT+ for wireless signals and app compatibility. The trend is toward separate speed and cadence sensors, although there are combo units available. A speed sensor alone costs approximately $40. A combo unit is around $70. Online apps work with dumb trainers by using the speed sensor data to calculate your power and/or speed. They do this based on a database of trainer power curves that tells the apps the power generated at various speeds on your trainer. That power figure is applied to the app course, adjusting for your weight and the terrain, to come up with how fast you are cycling in an app. Just like real-world cycling, you need less wattage when you draft (suck a wheel).
Cadence Sensor: This measures how fast you turn the cranks, providing another good metric. The sensor provides valuable data and makes cadence intervals much easier to monitor.
Fan: Any fan will help you stay cooler and avoid overheating, then you can put your energy toward your workout rather than trying to cool yourself. If you have lower-powered fans, you can place one in front of you and one behind. If you need a new fan, there are many options, such as floor drying fans you find at hardware stores. Look for the CFM (cubic feet per minute) rating.
Power Meter: Place this sensor on your bike to transmit power readings both on the trainer and when you hit the real road. If I had a decent dumb trainer and had to choose between purchasing a smart trainer or a power meter, I’d probably choose a single-side power meter. You want to weigh the benefit of the power reading and controlled resistance the smart trainer offers, compared to the year-round power reading you get from a power meter. Power meters have become the gold standard for training since they instantly measure the force in watts you produce. There is no lag like there is with heart rate (but heart rate is still really important). Power is independent of winds and hills, which affect speed readings. Your power reading is an immediate reading of the watts/power you are producing…200 watts of power is always 200 watts of power, on a hill, on the flats, or into the wind.
Single-sided power meters take readings from one pedal or one crank arm and double it. They range in price from ~$350–$650. Dual-sided power meters, crank or pedal systems, take readings from both your right and left legs. Dual-sided power meters run ~$750 –$2000, and higher. I have compared one-sided and two-sided power meters side by side. For me, the readings were extremely close (less than 2%), so I use a drive-side-only crank power meter. Those work well for most people, can be switched to another bike, and cost less. But the two-sided systems do appeal to those who like the most precise info.
There are many online cycling apps available that offer all sorts of riding options: individual rides, group rides, workouts, races, and structured fitness plans. Some offer other things such as stretching, strength training, or yoga. The apps have some great features, for a reasonable price. They all offer a free trial period to help you find your personal preference. After the trial period, they require a subscription, ranging from $12–$18 per month. These apps move your biker avatar across the app landscape as fast as it thinks you are going based on power output and your weight. Remember not to overdo it; there is some criticism that the workout plans some of these apps provide are harder than is beneficial for some riders. Below is info on a few apps. I have not looked into the non-riding features offered. For more information, DC Rainmaker offers thorough reviews of apps and many other cycling categories.
RGT Cycling is relatively new. I have given it a quick look and find it has nice features. It currently has a free membership that includes virtual rides and races, some workouts, and a few “real roads” (routes with actual video footage where your avatar is in the video). The $9.99/month paid membership offers more real roads, more workouts, the ability to create races and group rides on real roads and virtual (“magic”) roads. You can also upload your favorite route as a GPX file (GPX Track files work best) and they are converted into a virtual ride with the same elevation changes, but with generic scenery. I rode a familiar route I uploaded; it did mimic the outdoor version’s little hills very well, but I missed the real scenery.
Rouvy has beautiful outdoor courses where your avatar is superimposed on a real road. They also have virtual routes, some online racing, and workouts, and this program supports drafting. If you like outdoor scenery, this is the best I am aware of. I have only done a few of their scenic courses, but they were beautiful.
Sufferfest is geared toward structured workouts made interesting by putting you in a pro race as a Sufferlandrian rider. It has music, commentary, and occasional heckling that make it interesting and fun and help distract you during a difficult workout. It has a 4DP (Four-Dimensional Power test) that puts you through four different tests to assess your relative strengths and weaknesses, and it uses that information to personalize your workout difficulty. These tests are tough, both physically and mentally. But Sufferfest adds some distraction that allowed me to “suffer” through the test series much better than if I did the same tests outside of Sufferfest (just couldn’t bear to do them). If I was looking for structured workouts, I’d probably pick this one.
TrainerRoad is geared toward structured workouts and has a loyal following. If you are into structured workouts and a long-term plan, this may be for you.
Zwift is currently the most popular. It has a huge number of Zwifters riding on its graphics-style courses (virtual routes) through different computer-generated worlds. It has the most robust and widely used racing platform where you compete against others in your weight-to-power category. It offers lots of group rides, has a “meet up” feature where you can ride with friends, and offers a variety of workouts. This program also supports drafting. There are races and rides around the clock.
Indoor training for the highly motivated can be done on a basic trainer with a rear-wheel speed sensor. Listening to loud music, watching cycling videos, doing intervals, and monitoring speed and/or heart rate can be done with less “stuff” and expense. But connecting your trainer to one or more of the pretty amazing online apps dramatically enhances the indoor trainer experience for most people. These apps have many features that can be highly motivating, and most of us do better with motivation. Smart trainers, while not required, do increase the overall enjoyment. If I had a decent dumb trainer and a $500 budget, I would be torn between the smart trainer and the single-sided power meter. Since I still prefer to ride outdoors as much as possible, I’d probably go for the power meter, which would be useful on the trainer and on the real road. If I needed a new trainer, I’d probably make the jump to a smart trainer. I think they are worth the price due to the high level of resistance, connectivity, and app control.
Written by Tim Riley