6 Things This Mountain Biker Learned About Indoor Training

6 Things This Mountain Biker Learned About Indoor Training

Words by Sam James

This winter, for the first time in my 15+ year cycling career, I made the decision to buy an indoor trainer. Maybe it's an age thing, or just being exposed to different disciplines lately, but since I hit my 30s I've really expanded my cycling horizons. That's easy enough to say - that I've shifted my focus from mountain bikes to other types of bikes, I'm still very much laser focussed within the cycling bubble, but it's really changed the way I ride, and improved my enjoyment of the sport.

It's fair to say that there's been something of a learning curve for me on the trainer, and it's taken some time for me to work out what I want and what I like. While it's similar to riding out in the real world, it's also quite different, and there are some extra considerations to bear in mind, as well as some lessons that are worth learning. Granted most people will learn these lessons on their own, I'd like to share my key takeaways from riding the trainer in case it helps you decide one way or the other, or helps flatten that learning curve a little.

If you haven't bought a trainer yet, check out this guide to see which one is best for you. Without futher ado, here are my key learnings from indoor training.

Eric riding his Wahoo trainerYou don't need a setup quite as fancy as this to get started

Specific Goals/Training

Yes I know it's in the name, 'smart trainer', but I had never paid much thought to the training aspect of the trainer. Training in itself is something that's relatively new to me, and with some lofty goals for 2024, being able to accurately and easily work out with power and cadence is a game changer for me. Having never owned a power meter, being able to ride with my power in front of me gives some real tangible data that I can use to work out in a more scientific way than just going for a ride.

Factor in that most indoor cycling apps include structured workout plans, this combined with a fully featured trainer with ERG mode means working out with power is not only intuitive, it's easy too. Structured workout plans mean I don't have to guess at what's going to work for me and help me build fitness, and ERG mode means I'm getting exactly the workout I need to and hitting all of the power targets, all I need to do is just keep pushing the pedals. I'm only a few weeks in, but I'm feeling a difference in my fitness for sure.

Zwift workout

‘Junk Miles’ - There Are No Heroes

The concept of 'junk miles' was somewhat lost on me until pretty recently. What's wrong with just getting out for a ride whenever you physically are able? Riding a bike is always fun, right? It's easy to get in the headspace where you 'need' to get out for a ride whenever the conditions are decent, or even if they're not, just because any missed opportunity is unacceptable, especially here on the North Shore. 

It's a difficult concept to reconcile, and sometimes it's better to just say no, and accept that maybe you're not going to have much fun out there, maybe you're going to get a better work out on the trainer if you have a specific goal in mind, even if it's just generally improved fitness. Maybe you just don't even ride at all. Crazy, I know. Either way, knowing when to call it and know that the trainer is an option has greatly improved my enjoyment when I do get out for a mountain bike ride say two or three times a week, rather than seven. Remember, there are no heroes, nobody is keeping track except you, if you don't want to ride outside, you don't have to. By the same token, rest days are important - let your body recover, you'll see much better results if you take a few rest days per week rather than riding every day without letting your body recover. Again, there are no heroes, you don't have to ride every day.

It Doesn’t Replace Riding Outside

Leading on nicely from my last point, no matter what fancy app you're using, riding the trainer doesn't replace riding outside. Even with virtual cycling apps like Zwift and MyWhoosh that are designed to emulate the cycling experience as closely as possible, there's still a large gap between indoor riding and riding out in the real world. Most of us ride bikes to be outside, in some form of nature, and there's no real replacement for that. The trainer fills a hole for sure, especially when there's snow on the ground and riding outside just isn't a possibility, but one thing's for sure, you'll be glad to get on your bike and ride outside again after spending time on the trainer. The bonus is that you'll probably feel fitter and enjoy the ride even more.

Riding in the sun on Mount Seymour

Everyone Trains Differently

Everyone likes to train differently and enjoys different things about riding, especially indoor riding. Let's not kid ourselves, it can be boring at times, so making sure it's engaging and motivating is important, otherwise we're just not going to do it. There are multiple different indoor training apps out there, each with their own benefits and use scenarios. 

Personally I enjoy the gamification of Zwift; the points you get every time you ride, especially when you push hard, the rewards gained for each level achieved that keep me pushing on, particularly in the scheduled workouts. I enjoy the in-game graphics, and while I don't pay that much attention to the actual gameplay I do enjoy the graphics. There are those however that prefer the gameplay and simulated riding experience over everything else, where the free ride mode on Zwift or Rouvy is the most fun for them, with simulated climbs and descents and tons of different routes. With the right trainer, a big screen, a grade simulator and headwind fan, it's as close as you can get to riding outside, indoors.

Of course there are also those that want the pure workout and nothing else. Those people might want to use something like TrainerRoad to get their workout and simply listen to music, watch TV or something else to keep themselves focussed. 

My point being, it's worth trying a few free trials of different apps to figure out what you like before committing to one - what one person likes and finds engaging can be a complete turn off for somebody else.

Steve rides on Zwift

Get Your Setup Dialed

Get your setup dialed and you'll want to use it every day. Make it a hassle and you'll be less likely to use it. Us humans like convenience, and if something isn't convenient, we're much less likely to do whatever it is we're supposed to be doing. Get your setup dialed, if you have a bike that you use less frequently than others, put that bike on the trainer. If you're sharing the trainer with a partner, make it a bike you could both use with a minor adjustment or can use the same cassette. Get your setup somewhere in your house that it can live permanently and doesn't need to be moved or set up/broken down frequently, and you'll get much more use out of it.

In a similar vein, there are things you should always carry on a bike ride - water, a spare tube and pump, tools etc., and there are things you should always have on hand for your trainer. Make sure you have a fan - a good one, maybe even two, plenty of water, a towel, and I like to wear a cycling cap to keep the sweat out of my eyes. Put a mat or similar under the trainer to minimise movement and noise, and make sure you have a small table nearby for any snacks, drinks etc. you might need and your laptop or whatever you're running your trainer app on. Make sure it's all there and ready to go every time and your life will be immeasurably easier.

Kim's garage trainer setup

Get Your Nutrition Right

I'm far from a dietician so I'm going to shy away from making any specific recommendations, but most of us know what works for our bodies, and if you don't then, maybe consider looking deeper into it. My point being, make sure you eat properly around your training routine so that you're fully fueled up for your workout and building muscle rather than burning it. Don't get on the trainer right after a big meal if you don't want to vomit during your workout. Likewise don't get on there hungry, you won't enjoy it. Make sure you have plenty of water, and if necessary use hydration mix to replenish the salts you'll be sweating out. Eat something afterwards and make sure you get enough protein. Nothing unravels a training plan like not eating properly.