The Three-Step Process to Become a Happier, Faster Cyclist Training Indoors
This article was written by 15-year professional cyclist and top 10 finisher in the Tour de France, Tom Danielson.
Do you have time for junk miles? I sure don’t. I bet you don’t either.
Just like you, I have a limited window to ride between my work and family time. When I get on my bike, it has to fit in a 1.5-hour window start to finish. Also like you, I thrive in a target driven environment. I perform my best during rides that have a purpose and contribute to an outcome that I am working to achieve.
With the above needs and constraints, indoor cycling becomes the most logical way for both all of us to get our training done, consistently.
But it’s not as good training as outdoors right? And isn’t it less fun? Doesn’t indoor training feel like junk miles?
You are right, indoor training just feels different. To be honest, I used to struggle with indoor workouts and disliked most of the process. So badly, in fact, that I would choose not to train at rather than training indoors.
But over the years I have realized that the struggle I was having with indoor training was due to how I was viewing it. I was focused solely on what outdoor training sensations I was missing when having to ride indoors. Along with outdoor performances I felt I was “unable” to accomplish indoors.
In order to change my indoor training experience, I created a powerful three-step solution.
Step 1: Re-engineer Your Vision
First, begin by reengineering your overall vision of indoor training by asking yourself three simple questions:
A better indoor training experience begins with purpose: “Why do I need to make training happen?” The answer is usually something like: “Because I love the feeling of cycling, working hard, and pushing myself.”
A better indoor training experience continues with perspective: “How can I make my training rides happen?” The answer is usually something like: “ Because of my busy schedule, indoor training is the only way I can fit a ride in.”
Finally, follow this perspective with an outcome you want: “What would I like to get out of my training?” The answer is usually something like: “I would like to see measurable improvement from my training.”
Now does the concept of indoor training seem different to you? It should feel like less of a “should,” and more of a “must” to experiencing cycling like you want.
Step 2. Optimize Your Environment
With clarity around the “must,” let’s now optimize your indoor training set up. I recommend having the following in your set up:
- A smart indoor trainer, like a Wahoo Kickr. These trainers use the latest technology to create a feel that is almost the same as riding outside. Before smart trainers existed, I would have to drastically alter the workout focus and structure to fit the restrictions of the trainer when I trained indoors. Now, I can do the same workout watts, duration, and execution indoors as I can outside.
- A ZWIFT subscription. Guys, this is so worth it. When I was a teenager living in Connecticut, I would train indoors for hours with only my Walkman and my poster of Tinker Juarez to keep me company. You guys don’t know how lucky you are to have Zwift. The entertainment factor alone sets it above the rest, but it’s the ability to practice training on different terrain that I find to be the most impactful. One of the biggest differences riding outside is how the terrain is always changing, providing different resistances on your legs. With ZWIFT you can have a similar experience, making the indoor work translate well to outdoor riding.
- A powerful fan. Having a fan that is strongly cooling you off will raise the quality of your workouts tremendously. Because you are static when you train indoors, your core body temperature rises excessively past the optimal performance threshold, forcing your effort to decline. A fan is the most efficient way to keep cool indoors.
Step 3: Make Your Indoor Struggle Your Opportunity
So far we’ve changed your vision of indoor training from a should to a “must.” We’ went ahead and optimized our environment, now it’s time to take action. But this is not the same action that everyone else is making. We are going to use the struggles that go along with to your advantage. Look at all the things that make indoor training more challenging, like riding on a bike that is static, not on the open roads with fresh air, without other people physically riding with you, where there is no rush of speed, where there are no turns, and where there is no one to encourage you to go harder. All these negatives can be flipped to be positives. Things that hold others back can now be placed where you use to excel past them.
Let me show you how you can do it...
Struggle #1: My bike does not move.
Opportunity: Practice riding relaxed.
Riding in a relaxed physical state is key to high performance and riding indoors is an excellent place to practice it because of the safe/controlled environment you are in. A relaxed body allows for better breathing and helps riders engage every muscle group in the pedaling stroke. We often tense up while we ride because the pain is an uncomfortable shock to the system. I remember hitting my first big mountain stage in the Tour de France and I was in the front group. I was up there with the best guys in the world, starting a climb I had only dreamed of doing. I was overcome by the moment and froze up. My arms tensed, my breathing became shallow, and my legs seized up. I was immediately dropped and spent the first 3 kilometers by myself flailing behind the leaders. Finally, I was able to focus again and find my rhythm. When my body returned to a relaxed state—to my surprise—I climbed back to the leaders. While you are on the trainer, practice relaxing during your hard efforts by relaxing your hands through a lighter grip on the handlebars. From your hands, then relax each muscle group until you have taken that feeling all the way down to your legs. You will happily be greeted with more power, more endurance, and fewer aches and pains after the ride!
Struggle #2: This riding is so predictable.
Opportunity: Use the controlled environment to practice pace changes.
The sport of cycling is ridden at different intensities using many different energy systems. Outdoors it can be difficult to practice changing the pace because you are often reacting to the terrain. On the indoor trainer you are able to control the resistance during your workouts, thus really focus on making specific pace changes. In this controlled environment, you can train the exact pace changes needed for pacelines, peloton riding, time trials, and climbing without going outside of your zones because of others or the terrain. Training this controlled way will help you perform better when you go to events or ride with others. Your body will be better prepared for how cycling is ridden in groups because your training a multitude of zones. I used to hate training like this, but I paid the price greatly. When preparing for my Grand Tour, I would just go out and train on climbs like I preferred to ride them, steady. When I arrived at the race, although I was fit and had a high threshold, I suffered on the flat stages and on the mountain climbs as I could not go with the accelerations. I eventually smartened up and changed my training to be able to change the pace. For example, one race that stands out in my career where I found success with this training strategy was the Tour of Utah. I was able to drop a very strong Chris Horner by altering my rhythm constantly on the infamous Empire Pass to win the Tour of Utah. Changing the pace in training will also make training more fun and interesting. I always found the time would go by quicker when I was focusing on doing different things rather than just riding.
Struggle #3: It’s lonely, nobody is riding with me.
Opportunity: Quietly work on increasing your level.
When you are training indoors, it is easy to focus “humbly” on your work and not get roped into the traditional “super-pull off” that occurs outside. We are all guilty of hitting the front on our local training rides and raising the pace 200% to show everyone how strong we are. This, however, does not help us at all with building fitness nor does it help us on the training ride. In fact, the “super pull” makes us more vulnerable to others and often can lead us to get dropped. The “super pull,” is performed at an intensity well above our threshold, yet at a power less than an attack or a sprint. You would never be able to “super pull,” your way off the front of the peloton nor would you be able to Super Pull your way to victory in a sprint. I actually capitalized on someone else doing the super pull and won my first Grand Tour stage. In the 2006 Vuelta Espana, I was able to come around Alexander Vinokourov for the victory after he was spent from a few too many Super Pulls desperately trying to distance himself from the group behind us. Do your best and take out the Super Pull from your riding style and weekly training routine and you will reap the benefits straight away.
Struggle #4: No Speed = No Fun!
Opportunity: Practice eating and drinking on the bike.
The speed and chaos of riding outdoors, and even the entertainment of the scenery or group often restricts people from eating and drinking properly. When it comes time for the event or race, they are often left with cramps or a bonk because they failed to fuel properly. But remembering to fuel is just half the battle. In fact, actually being able to stomach the needed fuel is the real challenge. A rider during the race will try and drink at least 1 bottle of mix or water each hour as well as eat 1 energy bar an hour. So use the time in this controlled environment to practice getting down all the fuel needed and getting your stomach used to it. I know, it’s uncomfortable, but it is necessary! I remember the finishing circuits on the Champs d’Elysee the last day in my first Tour de France and being overcome by all the emotions a rider feels as they are about to finish one of the world's hardest sporting events. I heard the crowd, felt the excitement, and anticipated the relief of completing the Tour. But the thing I remember clear as day from that moment, as strange as it is, is celebrating the fact that I didn’t have to eat any more energy bars! You eat so much during those three weeks you become sick of it. It’s a necessary evil, but for me, the finish in Paris was also a celebration of the beginning of giving my gut a break for a little while! So, as uncomfortable as it is, eats solid food every hour on your bike and arrive at your finish line strong and ready for the next day as they do in the Tour.
Struggle #5: This is boring.
Opportunity: Practice Your Attack.
Attacking is one of the most fun parts of cycling, but most people rarely practice it. To become good at the attack, you need to practice it in a safe and controlled environment. Indoor riding provides that. No holes in the road, rocks ahead, traffic lights, corners, or cars turning in front of you while you are going full on! Use your indoor set up to safely practice the all in effort and body position required for an attack. You will notice that when guys attack in the pro races, they go 100 percent ALL IN with their effort. You will never see any half-assed efforts on the last kilometers on the Alpe d’Huez. Instead, you see the riders focus in on their effort and give it everything, even if it might not succeed. So use riding indoors as an excellent opportunity to practice this.
Struggle #6: No one is here to motivate me.
Opportunity: Become better at managing the struggle.
There’s no arguing that cycling is a sport reserved for the strong. Look closely at the faces of the racers on TV each day during the Tour de France and you will see one expression they all have in common…discomfort. Bike riding and bike racing are all about inflicting pain on ourselves. The same thing that originally drew you to the sport often times has you running away from it. The reality is, cycling is all about managing the pain, and as you and I know, training indoors really distills down all the discomforts of cycling and gives you a front-row seat to them. Use this as an opportunity to become better at working through the struggle, it will pay off in the end. Heck, have some fun with it too by putting a mirror nearby and practice making your best Fabio Aru suffer face while you ride your heart out!
Now I would like you to give you this process a shot and turn the tables on your indoor training this Winter. Start by re-engineering your vision of it. Then go down to your pain cave and optimize your environment. After you have completed those two steps, take some time reflecting on your past indoor training struggles and write them down. Next, take these affirmations and turn your struggles into new opportunities for growth this Winter. Finally, attack it and let’s get it done!!
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