Indoor Bicycle Training … the "Pros" Outweigh the "Cons!"
by Kevin Mackinnon
I first became aware of the real benefits of indoor bicycle training when I was preparing for the "Strongman" Triathlon in Japan in 1988. I had been invited to compete at the race, but was a little hesitant about how good my preparation might be for an event that took place in April. Living in Eastern Canada, as I do, riding a bicycle outdoors is typically pretty much impossible from November or December through March, which made the 160km ride in the Strongman a more-than-daunting proposition.
I really wanted to compete in Japan, though, so I set out to prepare for the event as best I could by doing my bicycle training indoors. I watched more than my share of movies and basketball games while I pedaled away on my rollers that winter. By the time I got onto the plane to Japan, I had logged lots of hours on the bike, but only about four of them had been outdoors.
While the race ended up being a bit of a disaster (I ended up collapsing during the marathon) there was one huge bright spot to the day -- I had the bike-ride of my life! Prior to that race I had always been known as a strong runner, but on that day, as I climbed off the bike in second place, I realized that all the indoor training had paid amazing dividends.
Since that race-day revelation, I have seen time-and-time again through my own racing and coaching experiences that indoor bicycle training can be one of the best ways to improve both cycling technique and performance. Many of the athletes that I coach live in Toronto, Canada's largest city, which is a terrible place to ride a bike. Rather than have people take time out of their already-busy schedules to drive out of town simply to get a reasonable ride free of traffic and stop-lights, I encourage many of the people I coach to ride indoors two-or-three times a week, and then try to get outside to ride in the country on the weekends.
There are a few different ways you can maintain your cycling fitness indoors. We've seen a huge boom in the "spinning-class" industry over the last few years, and many people like the group atmosphere that type of training affords. As much as I love spinning classes, I do try to encourage the athletes I coach to make sure they do at least one workout a week on their own bikes - even the best spinning bikes out there (like the Ironman 112m available from Keys Fitness) don't truly replicate the position you're likely to be in on your own bike.
That's where "rollers" or "bike trainers" come into play, since you can use your own bike to train on them. Rollers are like a treadmill for your bike. The wheels sit on three "rollers," which turn as your wheels do. Riding on rollers is not easy - it can take months to truly master the balance required to stay on them while you're pedaling. Once you have mastered the process, though, rollers can be a great way to enhance your balance and bike handling skills.
Bike trainers don't require anywhere near the same kind of balance to ride because your rear wheel clamps into the trainer. There are lots of different bike trainers on the market, but the one considered by most cyclists to be the "head of the class" is Racermate's Computrainer.
The Computrainer can be hooked up to a computer to provide a pretty incredible riding experience. The 3D inter-active graphics include lots of curves, hills, and even offer "rolling green hills" or "painted desert" scenery. You really do feel like your out on the road while you're riding through the hundreds of different courses available. (You can even plot out your own courses - we'll talk about that in another story in this series.)
The graphics make sitting on the bike for hours a lot easier, but they are just one of the many incredible features that make the Computrainer such an incredible training tool. You can measure everything from your power output to your cadence to your spinning efficiency while using it.
Possibly the most avid Computrainer user and indoor cycling proponent on the planet is seven-time Ironman champion Lisa Bentley. When I coached Bentley in the mid-90s, I encouraged her to do at least one indoor workout a week. She has continued that training practice, and now, regardless of where she is, she does one indoor ride a week on her Computrainer. In fact her current coach, Lance Watson, suggested that she bring her Computrainer with her to Hawaii last September so she could do her final big ride before the Ironman Triathlon World Championship (five hours, with the middle three-hours at 200 watts!) on it.
"Riding my Computrainer allows me to gauge my progress on certain key workouts such as my set of 2 x > 20 km time trials," Bentley says. "Week to week, I can measure and compare my wattage and heart rate in a setting which is constant and not effected by wind or terrain. I can visibly measure my recovery from racing and training and my progress toward the next race. I call it my 'quality control workout'."
Bentley is hardly the only pro athlete who is using the Computrainer as an important training tool. Last year eight of the top fifteen men and women at the Ironman Triathlon World Championships were Computrainer users, including Bentley (fourth), Kate Major (third) and Natascha Badmann (first).
A number of Computrainer users claimed other Ironman titles, too, including Chris McCormack, Dave Harju, Nicole DeBoom, Fernanda Keller, Chris Legh and Olivier Bernhard.
Whether it is the increased time efficiency, the consistent conditions, or the ability to gauge things like your cadence, power output and spinning efficiency, training indoors on your bicycle might just improve your cycling more than any other part of your training regimen.
In future parts of this series, we'll talk more specifically about Computrainer training, and also talk about some workouts that can make indoor training more interesting, and productive, on any type of bike trainer.
Kevin Mackinnon is a former professional triathlete who now spends his time coaching, writing for www.ironmanlive.com, and trying to keep up with his wife (a member of Canada's age-group triathlon team) and three busy children. He was named the Ontario Association of Triathletes' Coach of the year in 2003. For more information on Kevin's training programs and camps, check out his website at www.mackatak.com