New to indoor training? Me too. I was very reluctant to join the club—as I've always pushed through the dark months—but I finally gave in after one of the wettest late fall / early winters the Pacific Northwest has seen in quite a few years.
With all of the virtual rides I have seen posted on Strava with increasing frequency over the past few years, I wanted to use a smart-trainer that could take full advantage of the dynamic virtual worlds. I settled on a direct-drive trainer that would communicate with my computer or tablet via Bluetooth for resistance adjustments based on simulated grade or structured workouts.
Over a period of four weeks, I tested out a few of the most popular applications and dove deep into the virtual training world. I learned a ton and am eager to share some of the knowledge I gained with other indoor training newbies.
After my first indoor ride it became apparent that I'd have to adjust my expectations from my outdoor riding experience. While new technologically advanced trainers, apps, and sensors are pretty darn fantastic, the experience of riding indoors is definitely unique. Here are a few of the areas that differ the most from outdoor cycling.
You will typically clock faster speeds on a trainer than outdoors. The main reasons for this are:
- No stopping. You never have to stop pedaling for a traffic light or at an intersection.
- Lack of drag. There is no wind resistance or other forces that cause drag when training indoors.
- Surface. Virtual road "conditions" are always going to be optimal.
For those of you who have mileage—rather than time-based—goals you strive for, this could inflate your stats. Try upping the difficulty in your app to compensate if this is important to you.
Your power numbers will typically be lower than they are outdoors. The main reasons for this are:
- Overheating. Being too hot increases your heart rate and perceived effort. In outdoor riding there is always air movement to cool you, but indoors we have to rely on fans, which are never quite the same.
- Psychology. It can be hard to feel motivated if you are sitting in front of a screen in your workout space, rather than ascending an epic climb up a mountain with some pals.
If you ride with a power meter outdoors, it is a good idea to try to clock both an indoor and outdoor FTP (Functional Threshold Power) so you don't over or under-train if you swap back and forth through the winter season.
Comfort / Endurance:
Riding inside can be harder to do for long periods of time. The main reasons for this are:
- Lack of dynamic movement. When you ride outdoors your bike rocks beneath you—adjusting to your stance and effort—and you can easily make micro-adjustments to your position or body movement to relieve discomfort.
- Bike fit. Tagging onto the above point, because your bicycle is completely stationary below you, any minor fit issues that you might unconsciously compensate for outdoors become exacerbated when training indoors.
- Lack of recovery during coasting. Coasting is fairly rare when using an indoor trainer, especially when following structured workout plans with set power/cadence goals, and as such down time can be minimal.
While riding inside is definitely not the same as riding outside, overall I was very impressed how the apps and my trainer handled different virtual courses. The experience was worlds more engaging than previous short-lived forays into indoor riding I'd done on rollers, stationary bikes, and older turbo trainers.
To me, the most impactful element was the presence of other riders' avatars. Even if I wasn't trying to pace with them, just having other people around made the experience much more enjoyable and motivating.
I even experienced a surprising thrill and adrenaline rush when putting out a big burst of power to tag onto the back of a massive virtual peloton that had overtaken me!
Completing structured workouts—where you, a coach, or training plan assigns specific time, power, or heart rate goals for a session—is where smart indoor trainers really shine.
Because there are no stop signs, traffic, or other outdoor variables, you are more likely to be able to complete a training block without any distractions or interruptions.
This, in turn, helps you train your body to be tuned in to what it feels like to maintain consistent efforts, which can then be applied to riding outdoors with groups or in race situations.
Smart trainers also feature something called "ERG Mode," which is a setting that automatically adjusts your trainer resistance up or down to hit a specific power input number dictated by your selected workout or training session.
This frees you up to focus on good cadence, body position and breathing; all you have to do is keep pedaling and your trainer does the rest.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of indoor training to me was how easy it can be once you have your equipment setup dialed in.
You don't have to worry about getting geared up for the cold/wet, packing extra layers and food, planning a route, making sure your shoes are dried out from the last ride, cleaning your drivetrain or checking your brake pads for wear. Just throw on a pair of bibshorts and shoes, boot up your device, turn on your fan, and you are ready to go!
For me, this translated to being able to squeeze workouts in when I otherwise wouldn't have time, and resulted in the most productive weeks of riding that I'd logged in months.
Training inside is a great way for folks to come back from an injury as well, because it eliminates the risk of an accident or crash. It allows you to recover at whatever pace you need in order to be healthy and safe.
Indoor training can also be a fantastic entry point for people completely new to cycling— there is no pressure to dress or look a certain way, have a particular type of bicycle, or stick with a group that is beyond your skill, fitness, or comfort levels.
Ah yes, the gear! As always, there are a plethora of options for the gear junkie or tech whiz, but using a smart trainer doesn't have to become overly complicated and vexing. The essential pieces of equipment are:
- A bicycle.
- A smart trainer with any necessary adapters to make it compatible with your bicycle frame.
- A bluetooth compatible phone, tablet, or computer to run your app on.
My setup at home is about as simple as it gets—with all of the above pieces of equipment along with a bluetooth heart rate strap, an old height-adjustable drafting table that I bought for $10 at a yard sale, and a cheap box fan from my local hardware store. The fan, my bluetooth device, and a few essentials like extra water, food, and towels sit on the drafting table so they are readily accessible during a workout.
I tried running apps on all of the major types of devices for the sake of testing different methods out, and settled on using a laptop because the screen is easier to see and can be placed farther away than my phone or tablet, which is important to me because I spend most of my day a bit too close to a computer screen.
Some folks like hooking up their main device to a larger screen for a more immersive experience, or having a second device to use for music or other entertainment (try watching a cyclocross race for an hour long workout and a bit of extra motivation!).
As mentioned above, you can go as deep as you want into the gear wormhole to get your at-home setup tailored exactly to your preferences. There are height adjustable trainer desks that have integrated power strips and bottle holders, trainer mats to soak up vibrations and protect your floor from sweat and scratches, different types of riser blocks for your front wheel, smart risers that adjust up and down as your virtual elevation changes, smart steering blocks that control your virtual avatar, smart fans, sweat shields, tablet holders and more.
The most important thing, however, is that you find a setup that is comfortable for your needs and makes you excited to ride your bike!
The selection of apps available for people to use with smart trainers is extensive, and continually growing. Some apps such as TrainerRoad or SYSTM (formerly The Sufferfest) focus on long term fitness goals that are achieved through tightly structured and often high-intensity training plans. Other apps like the ever-popular Zwift focus more on placing users in a predefined virtual world through which they can move their avatar and interact with other cyclists.
For the sake of this feature, the apps I tried out were of the latter type, as I didn't feel as though I could give a fair representation of the more long-term-goal-based apps in such a short review window.
I also believe that the more open-ended apps can potentially be more accessible to indoor-training newbies. All of these apps have free trial windows so you can try them out too and decide what is best for you.
Each app I tested displays a wide range of cycling metrics on screen that you can use to structure your ride or workout. Metrics include power (shown in both watts and watts/kg), cadence, speed, distance, and heart rate (when using a compatible monitor). It is important to input your correct weight in each app, as this is used to calculate how your avatar moves through the virtual course, as well as your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) when applicable.
Here are my thoughts on Rouvy, RGT Cycling, and Zwift, listed in the order that I tried them. Each app has a brief overview and then a list of pros and cons, as well as some neutral info I thought would be worth pointing out. Please keep in mind that these are all based on my preferences, so a con for me might be a pro for you!
Rouvy is the partner app of Saris, a US based trainer company. It uses Augmented Reality to interface the user with it's virtual routes; all of the routes in its library are actual videos of the ride, and the user is represented by a 3D avatar superimposed on the video. The route selection allows you to ride all around the world and is quite extensive.
- Pro: Rouvy features over 300 pre-recorded routes from across the world with a vast range of lengths and elevation profiles. There's something for everyone!
- Pro: Extensive list of structured workouts are available.
- Neutral: Less of a game, and more focused on real-world courses buffered with AR.
- Neutral: there is a super minimal top-down map view available if you want a less immersive experience with the app and would rather focus on a podcast or other form of entertainment.
- Neutral: Little to no obvious benefit to drafting.
- Con: Elevation and resistance changes felt less smooth than the other tested apps.
- Con: Avatar movement felt a bit clunky, especially when interacting with other users.
- Con: HUD is less readable on smaller screens such as phones or tablets.
RGT Cycling was developed by folks from the video game industry with the intention of creating an excellent virtual experience. RGT Cycling takes real routes and converts the terrain into a simplified 3D world through which the user can move their avatar. Past the paywall is an incredible feature called Magic Roads, where any user can submit a .GPX file from a route ridden or mapped with Strava, RideWithGPS, or similar. The folks over at RGT will then transform the route into a uniquely rendered 3D world that you can ride any time you like. This is a great way to practice for a race or ride in a safe environment.
- Pro: There is a completely free version of the app that has a small handful of real-world routes and structured FTP-based workouts to choose from.
- Pro: The graphics are very clean and smooth, though a bit simplistic.
- Pro: Simple and intuitive User Interface (UI); you can tell that RGT was designed by people from the video game world, though the app does an excellent job of not crossing the line and becoming overly gamey. RGT is still very much a workout-based cycling app.
- Pro: The best executed drafting of all tested apps. When you are near another rider there is a bar that measures exactly how many watts you are saving by your proximity.
- Pro: The smoothest resistance changes of all tested apps.
- Pro: Magic Roads feature past the paywall.
- Pro: RGT populates routes with "Pace-Bots" moving at varying speeds, so there is opportunity to draft or chase a bot [regardless of other participants etc.
- Neutral: You can be totally immersed in the virtual world, or tune out a bit while doing a structured workout; RGT Cycling doesn't demand interaction and can adapt to your style of riding.
- Neutral: Live segment timing can be a motivator for you to compete against other riders' times, even if you aren't actively riding with them.
Zwift is perhaps the most widely-used cycling app, and the verbal form of its name—"Zwifting"—has become synonymous with any form of riding indoors. Like RGT, Zwift places the user's avatar within various virtual worlds, some fictitious, and some real. The Zwift app is heavily focused on socialization and achievements; you can chat with other riders as you ride your way to experience points that unlock new routes, virtual gear, and "droplets," a virtual currency that you can spend on new frames, jerseys, and more.
- Pro: Plenty of routes to choose from with dynamic, sometimes whimsical and fun virtual features. Watopia (the main fictional Zwift world) is always rideable, and other areas such as Makuri Islands, London, Richmond, France, New York, and more rotate throughout the month.
- Pro: Zwift is pretty open-ended; you jump off of a chosen route and freely navigate any of the rideable roads as you come to intersections, allowing you to explore freely.
- Pro: Zwift is one of the most popular training apps, with thousands of users active at any given time. If group riding and socializing are your thing, it definitely ticks those boxes.
- Pro: You can easily see if any of the folks you follow are currently riding, and joining them is as simple as a click of a button.
- Pro: It is easy to sign up for events such as races, fondos, and group workouts, but be prepared, these events can be super challenging!
- Pro: A huge library of structured workout plans that you can subscribe to, as well as individual workouts, all included with the monthly cost.
- Neutral: Like Strava, Zwift is filled with segments that you can repeat, competing against your past efforts and other riders.
- Neutral: Experience points, leveling-up, powerups, and purchasable/unlockable features can be good motivators for people to ride. Be aware though, these gamified elements can also be a bit addicting!!
- Con: Even on a larger screen parts of the HUD like the elevation profile can be challenging to read.
- Con: The user interface isn't as streamlined as RGT cycling, some of the "reaction" buttons are not intuitive or clear, and some features and settings feel confusingly buried within the menus.
While I have tried to be as thorough as possible, I also know that there are many different reasons people might choose to ride indoors, so, what better way to add some different opinions to this article than tap into the BTD staff hive-mind? Behold, hot-takes from my comrades in cycling!
"Have a good fan and plenty of water handy, it gets HOT without any breeze; during a hard workout try drinking an electrolyte mix to restore what you lose in sweat." - A Pro Racer
"Eating is important—you can still hunger-bonk in the virtual world, I learned that one the hard way pretty recently. For short and intense workouts, try taking a gel before you start your workout for a quick carb boost. For trainer rides over an hour, keep some snacks on hand to keep your energy levels up." - T-Bone
"Be fully engaged in the training app you are using instead of watching television." - DNS
"Always, always be aero-tucking." - A BTD Employee Who Doesn't Own A Trainer
"Be sure to account for the thru-axle adapters you may need to make your bike compatible with the trainer." - The Resident Yeet Machine
"Keep everything you anticipate needing (water, snacks, tools, towels, accessories etc.) within close reach to remove as many hurdles as possible that may cause you to stop, disrupting the convenience of the activity." - TT McSpeedy-Pants
"Don't forget to stand up or switch positions regularly to keep the blood flowing and use different muscle groups" - Sage Butterworth
"Bluetooth headphones get rid of one of the many wires or cables that can become a tangled mess! - Our "Tri Guy"
"Trainer mats go a long way for noise reduction, protecting your floor from scratches and sweat, and giving a little bit more flex to your trainer which can make long efforts more comfortable." - J. Custo
"Sweatbands are life-savers, especially for those who wear glasses!" - Velo Muerto
I hope that this article has presented some useful information and tips for those of you who are just dipping your toes into the indoor smart-trainer world! For me, the learning process was fun and engaging, and as a bonus, it got me out of a months-long riding rut.
Above all else, I believe the most important thing you can do is to make indoor training work for you. There is no right or wrong way to go about it, just things that are better or worse for your personal goals.
If an indoor trainer is your first foray into the world of scycling, welcome! We're glad you are here. And don't forget that while yes, riding a trainer is still working out, it can also be engaging, social, and fun!
Words and Photos by Bertrand Morin
Here are some in-depth explanations of some of the more techy terms!
Cadence: The frequency at which your pedals are rotating. Cadence is measured in revolutions per minute (RPM). One revolution equates to one full 360 degree rotation of your crank arm.
Erg Mode: A mode designed for use in structured workouts. In this mode the trainer keeps your power output at a specific number regardless of your cadence by adjusting resistance up or down accordingly. In most apps ERG mode overrides all inclines and declines, and the courses become more visual aids rather than actually dictating grade.
FTP (Functional Threshold Power): FTP is a number that is an estimate of the maximum power you can output over the course of an hour. Many training programs use this as a baseline to determine specific power goals during structured workouts. Note: while it is sometimes easy to get obsessed with numbers and metrics, a lot can be achieved with perceived effort, especially when it comes to the limits of your own body and your own personal training goals.
Perceived Effort: Perceived effort is how hard you feel like you are working out. If your goal is to just ride your bike, then do what feels good to you during any given session. If you want to push your limits, ride in a way that feels difficult to you. Just be sure to give yourself plenty of recovery time for your body to rebuild muscles and benefit from the work you put in.
Power: Power is measured in watts, and is a representation of how much energy you are putting into your bicycle over time. The number displayed in your app will typically be a 3(ish) second average, which can give you an insight into how much force you are putting into your bicycle at a given time.
Resistance: Resistance is what makes climbing in the virtual world feel harder than descending, and vice versa. Most controllable smart trainers use a combination of a flywheel—the thing that pedaling causes to spin, thus giving you road-feel and allowing for coasting—and electromagnetic braking that causes drag on said flywheel. Some trainers have exposed flywheels that you can see spinning, while others are completely enclosed within the trainer. The amount of resistance is controlled by your app of choice as it communicates with your trainer.
Watts per Kilogram (w/kg): w/kg is your current power output in watts divided by your weight in kilograms. This number can be used as a way to equate power output across weight ranges. The reason for this is that while heavier riders have more mass to propel through space, they might also have a higher muscle mass, and are thus able to output larger power numbers than lighter riders. The same principle applies in reverse: smaller riders might have lower muscle mass, output less maximum power, but have significantly less weight to propel.