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How a Bike Trainer Works—and 5 Indoor Cycling Mistakes to Avoid

Get the most out of your indoor riding sessions by avoiding these common errors.

how does a bike trainer work
Trevor Raab

Cold, darkness, and weather—or all three—can force many of us inside and onto stationary trainers to maintain some semblance of fitness over the winter months. Few of us truly look forward to these rides, but they can be more comfortable, not to mention more effective, with a few strategic moves.

Here are five ways people short-circuit their own trainer workouts and how to beat them, according to Isaiah Newkirk, an associate coach with Boulder’s FasCat Coaching. In addition to his traditional coaching, Newkirk worked at a cycling studio in Saint Louis and now runs FasCat’s popular indoor training series.

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You’re not setting up the bike trainer right

How does a bike trainer work? Well, it depends on its type. There are direct-drive trainers, where the rear wheel is removed and the chain mounts onto the trainer’s cassette. There are rollers, which involve little setup—simply place the bike on top—but require good balance and more skill. Then there are friction trainers, where the bike mounts via the dropouts and the rear wheel sits against a small roller. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and make sure your bike is stable and set up correctly.

Beyond getting those basics down, there are some additional setup measures that will improve your indoor cycling experience. Some direct-drive and friction trainers come with front-wheel blocks (or, like Wahoo’s Kickr smart trainer, don’t need them). But if not, make sure your setup is actually level by putting a stable support block—say, a large book or two—under the front wheel to get it to the same height as the rear. Even a few degrees’ change in saddle angle can be the difference between a comfortable ride and a painful one.

And, don’t forget the fan. Set your trainer up in a cooler area of your house like a basement or garage; dress lightly (shorts and a sleeveless baselayer are all you need); and unless you’re in an unheated garage, make sure you have plenty of air moving over you, says Newkirk. “If you’re at 70 degrees and there’s no breeze to stay cool, you can’t wick sweat, and you’ll overheat and won’t be able to get in the workout you want to do,” says Newkirk. Keep a towel within easy reach to wipe down excess sweat.

You forgot to eat and drink

Trainer workouts aren’t usually that long, but you still need to think about fueling, says Newkirk. “We have a popular series that starts at 5:45 p.m. and people will come straight from work having not eaten since lunch,” he says, adding that he’s seen people bonk in class. “They forget it’s still a ride, not a gym.”

If you haven’t eaten a meal within three or four hours of your ride, get yourself a snack about an hour before your workout. And bring plenty of water, since even with a fan you’ll sweat as much or more than you do outside, especially in winter.

You just jump on and start hammering

It’s a common mistake to just jump on and start riding hard, says Newkirk, who says that people tend to go full-bore to distract themselves, and miss the kind of visual cues that riding outside offers to help them ease into and out of a ride. “Outside, you can enjoy what’s around you as you get the body moving, and at the end of the ride you know, ‘Hey, I’m close to my house, so I’ll just ride easy the rest of the way home,’” he says. Even five minutes of moderate spinning to begin a trainer ride helps prime your body for a harder effort, and five minutes of cool down helps to slow functions like sweating, so you don’t soak your street clothes after changing.

Watch: The Right (and Easy) Way to Ride Rollers

You’re forgetting to shift

Stationary trainers have gotten much better at mimicking road feel, says Newkirk. “But it’s still static resistance, which means you pretty much never coast.” That can lead to dead, tired legs. Newkirk says he often sees riders trying to muscle a harder gear on a trainer than they would outside. A cadence sensor can help you keep track, but you can also use a simple tool already on your bike: the shifter. At a given resistance you have a variety of cadences available to you via the gears; use them. “Don’t rely only on gearing to produce power,” says Newkirk. “That results in a lot of extra wear and tear on your legs and you’ll get tired more quickly.” Actually, that’s good advice for outside rides, too.

You’re riding mindlessly

Stripped of the usual things that keep our attention, riding trainers can be drudgery. Fight trainer boredom with the following:

Entertainment: If you’re just looking for some saddle time, set your trainer up to watch a movie. “Anything that’s distracting helps,” says Newkirk.

Set a goal: Are you trying to maintain or lose weight? Are you working on your pedaling technique? (Choose rollers for that, by the way.) Figure out what you’re riding for, says Newkirk, and that will help you pick workouts that keep you engaged.

Structured workouts: Variety is key; if you just go hard all the time, that gets old quick no matter what you’re watching. “You can do all kinds of drills or exercises to pass the time,” Newkirk says. Even a simple lactate threshold workout of 10 minutes on, five minutes off (3 reps) gives you 45 minutes of focused, structured training. Newkirk is a huge fan of newer smart trainers that have access to training apps or online services like Zwift. “The newer programs that actually control your smart trainer are great, because you don’t have to think about anything. It adjusts resistance for you and you just ride.”

Social fitness: Still bored? Try a class or other group setting, real or virtual. Newkirk says he has clients who love the interactive virtual environment of Zwift, where you can ride and race against other users. Others go for real-world engagement. “It doesn’t have to be a formal class,” says Newkirk. “Even if you get a few buddies together for a trainer session, the camaraderie helps time go by.”

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