Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of Velo magazine. In it, Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) and Dr. James Hopker explain how he makes the most of his time on an indoor trainer.
“I think the trainer is best if it has some sort of quality to the sessions,” said Hopker. It should be used for “specific goal-oriented sessions such as a specific interval, rather than just going for a ride on it.”
Mix it up
We still need our slow volume so “mix your trainer up with road work so you get the best out of both sessions,” Hopker said. “You do your miles on the road and you keep the intense stuff on the [trainer].” Johnson added that if you can’t ride outside, use other activities such as “jogging, or skiing, or hiking, or anything that’s active.”
Johnson will do workouts on the trainer even when the weather is nice. “It’s just that super high-end, very difficult interval workout that you can’t do anywhere else.” Hopker agrees that precise intervals outside are nearly impossible for those of us living in heavily trafficked areas. Johnson will do short, high-wattage efforts, such as repeated 45-second intervals, on the trainer, allowing him to hit the target wattage every time, especially if it controls his power. The trainer also allows him to adjust his effort to account for factors like jet lag.
Hopker has found that cadence can be a real issue for older cyclists or time trial specialists who “tend to lose time in tailwind sections because they can’t spin their gears up.” Trainers, and especially rollers, are great for cadence work. Johnson loves cadence pyramids. He’ll ride at 100 RPM for a minute, then 105 for a minute all the way to 130 or 140 and then back down. “You can do a workout like that even if your legs are tired,” Johnson said “You don’t really use up much of your muscles, but you get the fluidity of the high RPM stuff and you also get a workout where you are sweating your ass off.”
Because the constancy of trainers can make them perceptually harder, both Hopker and Johnson recommend varying workouts. Johnson found that the time goes by much quicker when he’s “always engaged in something. I will never ride the trainer more than 10 minutes without doing something on it, because that 10 minutes is interminable.”
Keep it short or break it up
Johnson’s upper limit is three hours on a trainer, but even then he suggests alternatives: “The days that you need volume and you can’t go cross-country skiing, then do two rides, one in the morning and one in the afternoon or evening.”
Get the feel
Johnson pointed out that a lot of riders talk about their thresholds, “but don’t know what that feels like. If you’re not exposed to that over and over again, it’s really easy to ride too hard or too easy,” he said. By playing with his power and cadence on the trainer, Johnson can get a feel for those efforts. That way, “when you are racing, I feel like you make better choices.”
It kills Johnson to see riders warming up on a trainer when it’s 70 degrees. He feels riders benefit more by riding — especially in cyclocross. “Gaining confidence in those corners, you’re going to be better off than an extra seven minutes at whatever your heart rate on your trainer is,” he said. “Instead, they go from a trainer to the start line and dump it in the first corner.” But he does make exceptions, such as when the weather is bad or he’s at a World Cup and there are spectators blocking the course.
Pick your trainer
The size of the flywheel and crank inertial load affects how smooth pedaling feels on a trainer, and the perceived exertion. One study found that participants preferred heavier flywheels.
Though a spin bike in a gym feels vastly different than your own, the workout itself is structured, and can be intense. Johnson recalled a spin class experience, saying, “My heart rate was pegged, and I was sweating more than any other workout, other than my hardest CompuTrainer workout.”
Don’t sweat the numbers
If you use a power meter, remember that some trainers may affect your efficiency. You might be able to sustain 300 watts on the road, but you won’t on your new unit. Use your heart rate as a guide to adjust your power.