While long base miles and packed training weeks definitely help for even the shortest of events, it is possible to do well and even excel in these quick races as long as your training is smart and efficient. The fact is, most entry level criteriums are less than 45 minutes long. While endurance does help, the bulk of the improvement in performance can be gained in the 6-8 h many of us have weekly to ride.
This is the beginning of a two-part series on training efficiency. Next month, I’ll get into a more specific training program outline, but this first article deals with the conservation of precious training time by taking your workouts indoors. Whether you want to race or just improve your cycling performance, if you have a limited amount of time to ride, this is for you.
The Case for Indoor Training
“I can’t stand training indoors. I glance at the clock for the first time at the three minute mark. My mind begins to wander at 10 minutes. At 15 minutes, I get antsy. At 20 minutes, an emotion that could only be described as anguish sets in. A teammate of mine once told me, “Riding 45 minutes on the trainer is equal to a full hour on the road.” Or was it 35 minutes? Back to the torture. After two or three breaks (to check email, use the restroom, answer the phone) the ride is over. A solid 37 minutes of painful monotony.”
As miserable as riding indoors can be, there may in fact be a good reason to suffer through it. An indoor ride is efficient and precise. In the winter it allows you to avoid the 20 minutes pre-ride it takes to pile on the layers and the half hour after your ride to clean the bike and all your gear. In the summer, an indoor ride allows you to avoid the time it takes to slather on the sun block and stop every hour to re-fill your bottles. You avoid wasted time at traffic lights and stop signs and there is no coasting on descents or through corners.
An hour indoors is an hour of pedaling. Outdoors, the same length of time, will include at least five or six minutes of coasting and stop lights. At 90 rpm, that’s an extra 540 pedal revolutions. Besides the obvious time savings, there is an important physiological effect of non-stop pedaling; therefore, a shorter ride on the trainer can actually be more valuable than a longer ride on the road. An hour of non-stop pedaling trains the body more effectively than a ride which includes even just a few stops and starts. To put it simply a ride without stops trains your body to ride without stopping.
In addition to cutting out precious minutes, riding indoors (whether on a trainer or on rollers) gives you the ability to precisely nail every single aspect of your workouts. While riding indoors you are not subjected to the variables of the open road which may lessen the effectiveness of an intended interval. Indoors, each interval can be done to absolute perfection. You can perfectly control the effort level, resistance, cadence and interval length without worrying about changes in road pitch, wind direction, traffic, poor road surface or just a lack of a suitable length of road.
The Stationary Trainer
It can be difficult to find the right roads to do your rides and intervals on and valuable time can be wasted riding or even driving to these places. For instance, finding a road without stop lights, undulations or changes in pitch on which to do a 15-minute steady state threshold interval can be next to impossible in many parts of the country. On a trainer, however, if you set out to do a 15-minute threshold interval at 300 watts with a cadence of 95 rpm, you can pretty much nail it every single time. Same with a 3-minute VO2max interval at 100 rpm or a 10-minute muscle tension interval at 55 rpm. Whatever type of road you need, the trainer provides.
Attempting high intensity intervals on an indoor trainer is a feat reserved for the truly dedicated. Without the rush of scenery passing you by and the sensation of speed, it is hard to focus on anything but the pain.
As you begin to perform your workouts indoors you may find that you can’t reach the same heart rate or wattage that you are able to achieve out on the road. This is partially due to the lack of adrenaline you get from speed out on the road, and also the conservation of energy that would otherwise be required to steer the bike and concentrate on keeping the bike upright and going in a straight line. In addition, most riders rock the bike, pull up on the handlebars or sway back and forth in the saddle during intervals. These cheated movements may make your intervals look good on paper, but are, in fact, counterproductive to the improvement of your cycling and efficiency on the bike. Throwing your upper body into the mix when performing an interval may artificially elevate your heart rate and even give you a few more watts but, in the long run, will cost you more than what you gain.
On a trainer, all your energy can be focused directly into the pedaling motion. This makes for a very concentrated, very focused workout that only trains the systems that are necessary to propel you forwards. At first, as your body adjusts to riding without extra movement, your heart rate and power may decrease slightly. However, as you adapt to riding smoothly and steadily on the trainer, your markers should come back up and now, you will know that the energy spent is being put directly into the pedal stroke. Thus even at the same heart rate and the same power as before, you will experience improved road performance.
Rollers are another great time-saving tool for a variety of reasons. On the rollers, any inefficiency in your pedal stroke or upper body is magnified drastically. Small movements that are barely noticed on the road can be enough to bounce you around on the rollers like a rubber ball. You will also quickly become aware of even a slight inability to hold a straight line, a skill that many cyclists never master. In just a few weeks on the rollers, these deficient skills will quickly be routed out and corrected, causing a significant improvement in performance that may never have been achieved in a lifetime of riding on the road.
Another, often overlooked, benefit of riding rollers is an increased sense of confidence on the bike. Enhanced confidence results in less stress and anxiety out on the road, nervous energy that saps precious energy away from performance. In order to ride the rollers confidently, a cyclist must have at least a basic mastery of the skills needed to ride safely and efficiently on the road. Although it may be subtle, the rider who feels confident on the bike, relaxes their hands and arms, loosens their jaw and slows down their breathing. This can not only lead to improved cycling performance, but also decreased reaction time and a better ability to navigate pitfalls and avoid crashes.
As with the trainer, the rollers can also help you pinpoint and focus your workouts to absolute perfection. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the all important recovery ride. How many of us can roll out for an easy spin without encountering a single roller or hill? During a recovery ride, just a few small grades can disrupt the intended training benefit, even if this just means riding up your driveway at the end. On the rollers, if the goal is an easy recovery ride at 100 rpm with very little resistance, those parameters can be met from beginning to end, every single time.
What It All Comes Down To
Riding indoors can be brain numbing and even torturous, but with time and patience, the ability to train effectively on the trainer or on rollers can be significantly beneficial to all riders, no matter their time restrictions. Not only is indoor training time efficient, but it can also dramatically improve your efficiency and performance in ways that riding on the road never will.
As you begin to transfer some of your workouts indoors, experiment with ways to make the time pass easier. Watch movies (action thrillers are generally better than romantic comedies), race videos or listen to music. My favorite combination is to watch a race video while also listening to music (I must have a little ADD). One cautionary piece of advice: if you choose to watch race videos while riding the rollers, be careful. You may lean, ever so slightly, in the corners which could lead to an embarrassing if not painful collision with your living room wall.
Next month, I’ll discuss some specific workouts that can be done indoors or out on the road in order to get the most out of your limited training time.
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com. To find out more about the Liquid Cycling club, go to LiquidCycling.com.