Your Guide to Trainer Season

Your Guide to Trainer Season

Riding the trainer has both benefits and drawbacks. Here’s how to utilize this tool for maximum training effect.

It’s that time of year again for athletes in the northern hemisphere, when the weather becomes less-than-reliable and shorter days force cyclists indoors, to ride on the trainer. While I never pass up a good excuse to re-watch The Office from the beginning, riding a stationary trainer can also be a great workout—if you do it right. Here are some things to consider when training indoors:

The Argument for the Trainer

The most significant benefit of riding the trainer is that it is incredibly efficient. For the time-crunched athlete already struggling to fit in six to eight hours a week, the trainer can be a godsend. There is no need to ride to your favorite hill to do intervals, and you can leave it set up in your pain cave, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Also, most time spent on the trainer is “quality” time. There is no coasting so you are always doing work, meaning you can get a similar quality workout inside in about 25% less time.

One of the other arguments for the trainer is that it’s safe. It seems like every other day we are reading about another cyclist who has been hit by a motorist. Especially in areas where there is not a wide shoulder to ride on and perhaps the drivers aren’t used to sharing the road with bikes, many cyclists simply feel more comfortable doing the majority of their training indoors.

The Argument Against the Trainer

As many benefits as there are to a controlled environment, there are some pitfalls. First, by riding a stationary trainer, you are locked into a position, which can lead to inefficiencies and imbalances that manifest if and when you do decide to go back outside. The trainer also lacks specificity, one of the critical principles of endurance training. No matter how much we try to replicate climbing a hill, or the natural motion of a rocking bike, it will never be 100 percent accurate. If you do any racing, you know that adapting to the environment is part of the battle.

The Solution

I am a big fan of the trainer, but also see the importance of specificity when preparing to compete. Because of that, I don’t think it has to be an all or none proposition. I work with many busy professionals, as do most coaches, and so it is a matter of striking a balance. The combination that I have found that works well is using a combination of indoor and outdoor riding, depending on the goals of that day’s workout.
For the quality (read: interval) sessions, and on days when there is not a lot of time, we like to leverage the trainer year-round, using different tools for different types of workouts which I’ll elaborate on below. For general endurance and skills, we try to get outside as time and weather allow.

Options and Best Practices

Trainers and training software are ubiquitous these days, it seems like every week there is a new player in the market. Some, like Zwift, offer a gamified community experience, while others focus on delivering structured training. I think each of these has its place.

Intense Intervals

If your workout calls for intervals, my preference is that you do it on either a “dumb” trainer or set your smart trainer to resistance or slope mode. Erg mode is the default option with smart trainers, and will force you to ride at the prescribed power for your workout. There are a couple of problems with this.

1) There can be discrepancies between the power meter on your bike and the power on your trainer, which means ERG mode can force you into the wrong zone for your training targets.

2) Power is Force x Speed. The way ERG mode works is that if you are not able to turn the cranks fast enough to produce the target power, the resistance gets higher, which makes you turn the cranks even slower—and so it goes on and on until you can no longer turn the cranks over. This is not a realistic riding scenario, and can wreak havoc on your intervals.

By riding a “dumb” trainer, or putting your smart trainer into slope or resistance mode, you are responsible for generating the power using a combination of gearing and cadence. This gives you the most chance of hitting your workout targets and teaching your body to deal with realistic stressors.

Tempo and General Endurance

On days when your workout calls for tempo work or general endurance, and you cannot get outside, this is when I like to leverage the immersive world of virtual cycling. By allowing your smart trainer to control the resistance to match the grade of the virtual terrain, you can focus on using your gearing to modulate your effort and the pressure on the pedals. The other benefit is that it makes 2-3 hour endurance rides more bearable when there are changes in pace, effort, and scenery, not to mention seeing all your other virtual pals!

Take-Aways

  • Use a combination of indoor and outdoor riding
  • Use your trainer for intervals or when you are short on time
  • Ride outside for specificity and general endurance
  • If doing intervals inside
  • Use the power meter on your bike if you have one
  • Set your smart trainer to resistance or slope mode, or use a dumb trainer or rollers
  • If doing tempo or general endurance inside, ride in a virtual world to make it more bearable or introduce some cadence and pace changes to avoid slogging away at the same power and cadence for hours on end.

Bottom Line

The trainer and indoor training software are here to stay and growing in popularity by the minute, as evidenced by the recent boom in eSports. But, if you are a serious athlete with big goals in mind, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Each of these training tools has their strengths, and with a little foresight and planning, you can use them to your advantage to help you come into your next race season faster and stronger than ever.


Dave Schell focuses on coaching mountain biking, gravel cycling, and running. A husband, father of two, and busy professional, Dave knows what it takes to maximize performance on limited time. As the former director of Education at TrainingPeaks, Dave has a thorough knowledge of the platform, and a proven track record of success with first-timers, world cup qualifiers, elite and age group podiums, and weekend warriors.