Every cyclist who deals with a cold winter climate faces the inevitable task of training indoors to maintain and improve fitness. For some, making a change to the daily training routine is welcome, especially after a long hard season. For others who are making gains late in the season or preparing for an important event in the spring, the off-season is sometimes viewed as a road block towards greater gains. But it doesn't have to be. With the right indoors cycling strategy and a combination of focused strength and cross training, you can create an effective indoor training program that's actually additive to your training plan for the year.
Winter Training Objectives
The main goals while working through the winter months should be to improve on weaknesses, maintain as much cycling-specific fitness as you can, and prepare all systems for more workload once you are able to ride outdoors more consistently and for longer durations.
Let’s first talk about the limitations of having to train indoors. Then we can cover what the implications are for creating a productive indoor training strategy that includes strength and cross training as well.
Limitations of Indoor Cycling
Spinning indoors has limitations, so it is important to realize them before you can plan for an effective winter indoor training program. Two major limitations of training indoors are:
- Being able to produce greater amounts of force, and
- Training for longer durations.
While outdoors, you're faced with a variety of hill grades and varied terrain, along with gravity. These variables outdoors create the need for you to produce greater force at unexpected times, and work into higher-end power outputs for longer durations compared to riding in a limited position spinning on a trainer.
For this reason, rather than attempting to mimic the same types of top-end force production as you would get outdoors while spinning indoors, focus your trainer efforts instead on gaining aerobic adaptations within your endurance ranges. Add strength training to compensate for the lesser need to produce greater amounts of force, and cross training to make up for the shorter duration of your workouts.
Let's start with how to maintain your endurance base on an indoors spinning regimen.
Spinning Indoors to Gain Aerobic Adaptations
A benefit of working on a trainer is the ability to spin steadily within target heart rate and/or power ranges. Spinning steady allows you to target specific aerobic energy systems in a very precise way. Through the winter, whether training indoors or out, most of your days should be focused on spinning endurance ranges, and at least one day a week should be focused on sub threshold and threshold work in the Zone 4 and 5a ranges (see this piece on heart rate zones by Joe Friel).
If you spend a lot of time spinning indoors, a few days a week should be spent working longer tempo efforts. Working longer, steady tempo efforts will allow you to work aerobically but with some intensity to maximize your indoor sessions.
Here's an example of a longer tempo effort workout:
- Warm up in Zone 1-2 for the first 10-12 minutes, spinning with a low perceived exertion (PE) and deep breath.
- Then, while remaining mainly seated, slowly spin into the Zone 3 range for 10-20 minute efforts, working with a deep breath (not labored) and while keeping a PE level in the 5-7 range (on a 1-10 scale).
- Space your efforts with easier spinning in Zones 1-2 for 5-7 minutes at a time to recover before easing back into another long, steady effort.
- Take longer spin breaks in Zones 1-2 when needed and work as many steady efforts as you can for a 60-90 minute indoor session. If you experience an extremely high PE, labored breath, or have a hard time elevating your heart rate into the zone 3 range, then back off into Zone 2 and work easier but steady to finish the workout.
You should also keep days in the weekly mix that are focused on spinning easier in the 1-2 Zone ranges, to allow for recovery from days focused on tempo and harder sub threshold or threshold work, and to gain adaptations from lower-end aerobic work.
If your focus is to prepare for shorter 1-2 hour events, spending more time spinning in Zones 3-4 like the workout above would be wise while working a lot indoors. If your focus is to race longer 4-8 hour events, spend more time spinning in Zones 2-3, but still keep a day each week spinning into the Zone 4-5a ranges. Working the right mix of aerobic ranges to gain the most out of your indoor spin sessions is the key.
Incorporate Strength Training
Strength training plays a key role while training indoors, allowing you to train muscles that assist your prime movers, as well as train muscles that are opposite your prime movers for cycling. For example, your prime movers for cycling are your quadriceps. The opposite group of muscles to your quadriceps is your hamstrings. Strengthening the muscles opposite your prime movers creates balance within the muscles and helps prevent injury, and it also creates a stronger support system for your prime movers. Squats, lunges, push-ups and renegade rows are a few exercises that will target your prime movers. Leg curls, dead lifts, and leg lifts while lying face down will target muscles opposite your prime movers.
Now add core strength into the mix, and you will have an overall stronger group of muscles that will be able to handle more intensity and duration when it is time to train outdoors. Your core is worked with all of the exercises mentioned, but exercises such as holding a plank position for extended periods, side arm balances, and leg lifts while seated will target your core muscles as well.
The more aerobically trained muscles you have, the better. So focus on higher-rep ranges and many sets to work for aerobic strength gains. Exercises that have a continuous movement and work full ranges of motion, such as power yoga and kettle bell exercises, fit that bill and are also great ways to gain core strength and endurance.
Of course, strength training is best done on the bike to gain the most cycling-specific adaptations possible. Big gear efforts and one-legged drills while on the bike can also be considered forms of strength work. This allows you to work for gains in leg strength and be as sports-specific as possible.
Here's an example of a big gear drill you can do on your bike:
- Warm up in Zone 1-2 for the first 10-12 minutes, spinning with a low PE and deep breath.
- Then shift into a slightly bigger gear and work a 3-6 minute, or slightly longer, big gear effort, either standing or seated while keeping your heart rate in Zones 3-4 and cadence in the 60-75 RPM range.
- Recover for 5-10 minute periods spinning in Zones 1-2.
- Work as many efforts as you can within a 60-90 minute indoor trainer session.
Cross Training to Add Volume
Cross training with running, cross-country skiing, and hiking will allow you to mix up your training, prevent burnout or boredom, increase your training volume when appropriate and help prepare for more cycling-specific training volume to come.
One of the large benefits of cross-training is working your lungs. Spinning for shorter durations indoors does not allow you to subject your lungs to the same durations as you would while outdoors. So, adding longer-duration cross training along with your indoor rides can help target more systems over the winter.
The amount of time to spend on cross training will vary with each individual, climate and goals. But as a general guideline, keeping at least 3-4 days a week focused on the bike, with the remaining days focused on cross training, will allow you to maintain cycling fitness. If you are training for 6-8 hour or longer ultra-distance events, and need to train with a larger volume through the winter, then spend one or two days a week cross training with longer runs, hikes, or cross-country ski sessions to increase your weekly training volume.
In summary, create a plan for the winter training months with the three key components we've discussed above. Focus on working endurance ranges while spinning indoors to make aerobic gains. Keep in mind that strength work is just as important, whether it's done with weights, body weight or on the bike working one leg drills and big gear efforts. When you add cross training to the mix, you have a full plan of attack that will not only maintain your base through the winter, but will actually leave you with valuable gains that will benefit you later in the year, whether you're in the middle of a race or just a training ride once the weather breaks.
Did you know that TrainingPeaks has strength training plans for sale in our plans store, including those targeted to cyclists? We also have off season cycling plans that are written with indoor training in mind. Check out all our training plans here.
Mike Schultz brings more than 10 years of racing and training experience from national endurance and ultra-endurance events, mountain bike stage races, and 24 hour solo cycling events. Mike is the head coach and founder of Highland Training. He is certified with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Personal Trainer. He continues to compete in endurance and ultra endurance events on a regional and national level to further study the science behind sports specific training. He also competes to practice what he teaches. Mike resides in the Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania, where he coaches and trains full time and year round.