By Coach John Hughes

Here's a cycling truism for the season: Riding on the road is fun. Riding on the trainer is not fun (unless you’re a masochist!).

If you're a typical roadie, though, you’re always looking for ways to improve: better equipment, smarter training, losing weight, etc. So, figuring out a way to add your trainer time to this list of ways to improve makes perfect sense. Your trainer is a useful tool you can use to tune up your cycling – without driving yourself batty in the process.

Let's take a look at how you can do it.

Any Sport Requires Work on 6 Things

To improve at any sport you need to work on (at least) 6 things:

  1. Endurance—even if you don’t do longer rides, good endurance is the foundation of all that follows.
  2. Power—power gets you up the hill with your riding buddies and also speeds your evening commute so you can beat the weather.
  3. Technique—power comes from stronger muscle fibers and from muscle fibers that are trained to fire at the right times.
  4. Core strength—your legs are levers, and your pelvis is the fulcrum, the point on which the levers turn. Core strength stabilizes your pelvis so all the power in your legs moves your bike, not your pelvis.
  5. Conserving energy—your heart is beating hard moving oxygen and nutrition to your muscles. You want the vast majority of your O2 and calories to go to your legs, not to other muscles.
  6. Focus—is the ability to concentrate on the task at hand, to put all of your physical and mental capacities into moving the bike down the road rather than being distracted.

Riding on the road you can work on all six of these. In the winter my clients work on all of these on the trainer except #1. I’ve ridden centuries on the trainer training for the Race Across America — you don’t want to do that!

How to Put Together an Effective Trainer Workout

An effective trainer workout includes a warm-up, a main set, and a cool-down. Even if you’re pressed for time, include the warm-up and cool-down. They don’t have to be long—five minutes of each is sufficient for many trainer rides. If your main set includes intensity, then try to warm up and cool down for at least 10 minutes each.

The main set should have a specific purpose (or purposes)—don’t just grind away. Here’s how you can work on the above 6 areas:

  1. Power—hard riding in the Sweet Spot plus recovery is the most effective way to increase power. You can do Sweet Spot intervals defined in minutes or random hard efforts and recovery—both work. The Sweet Spot is:
    1. By perceived exertion—you can talk in short phrases but not short sentences.
    2. By heart rate—93-97% of lactate threshold
    3. By power—88-94% of functional threshold power.
  2. Technique—sprinting is the best way to improve the coordination of your muscle fibers firing. Don’t worry about gauging how hard you’re riding; just go as hard as you can for 20 to 60 seconds with plenty of recovery between sprints.
  3. Core strength—practice riding your bike with firm core muscles so that your hands are resting lightly on the handlebars like you’re typing.
  4. Conserving energy—practice riding with a quiet upper body. Rocking your upper body doesn’t produce more power, it just wastes energy.
  5. Focus—rather than trying to think about anything other than how boring and painful your workout is, practice focusing just on your breathing or on the feeling of your leg muscles or pedaling with a round stroke.

A Few of My Favorite Technique Drills

Here are several of my favorite main sets for trainer workouts. These first three are great technique drills and can be done any time:

One Legged Pedaling: This is also a great way to warm up. Set a moderate resistance. Unclip and rest your left foot on a box, stool, etc. and start with your right leg:

  • 0:30 - 60 (seconds) right leg
  • 0:30 - 60 both (don't bother to clip in your left foot; just pedal easy to recover) 
  • 0:30 - 60 right leg
  • 0:30 - 60 both
  • 0:30 - 60 right leg
  • 0:30 - 60 both

After your right-leg set, switch to your left and repeat.

Each week try to increase each one-leg effort by 5 seconds.

Spin-ups: Use a moderate resistance and in zone 2 and 3 increase the cadence as follows. Only go as high as you can while pedaling smoothly:

  • 1 min @ 80 RPM
  • 1 min @ 90 RPM
  • 1 min @ 100 RPM
  • 1 min @ 110 RPM
  • 1 min @ 120 RPM
  • 1 min @ 130 RPM
  • 1 min @ 120 RPM
  • 1 min @ 110 RPM
  • Continue back down to 80 RPM.

Accelerations: Use a moderate resistance. Every 3 to 5 minutes accelerate your cadence as fast as you can for 30 seconds while pedaling smoothly.

A Few of My Favorite Intensity Sets

The next four are intensity main sets and always take at least a day of recovery between them:

Power pyramid: Set a moderate resistance. Pedal for 1 minute in your lowest (easiest) gear, then shift up one gear and pedal for another minute. Keep shifting up one gear every minute until you get to your hardest gear. Pedal in it for a minute and then work your way back down one gear every minute. Try to keep the same cadence throughout.

Improvise Sweet Spot: While watching TV, push your intensity up to the Sweet Spot during all the commercials and pedal at a conversational intensity during the show.

Short sprints: Repeat three to five times:

  • 20 seconds flat out
  • 40 seconds very easy
  • 4 minutes steady

Every few rides make the workout harder by increasing the number of times you repeat the pattern or by reducing the steady riding from 4:00 to 3:30, etc.

Improvise Sprints: One football fan pedals hard every time the ball is in play and recovers during the huddles. Andy Pruitt told me about this one!

My eArticle Productive Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 includes 15 different trainer workouts, which also work for younger riders.

Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.

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