I’m staring out my window as I write this. The sky has been a shade of heavy gray for days now. The winds are punishing the last remaining leaves on the trees and I may be witnessing the first snowflakes of the season. I ask myself over and over again, “Is this real? Can’t this just be some sick, demented nightmare?” No, this is Wisconsin and the days I yearn for – the ones where I could ride in shorts, a short-sleeved jersey and have sweat drip down my nose, are long gone…for at least three months, possibly four.
While writing this article, I’m interrupted by an event invite on Facebook for a Zwift race. One of my teammates must have forgotten that I don’t race anymore, I hate riding inside on any form of trainer and I’m technologically challenged; so even if I did want to turn my living room floor into a pool of sweat, I wouldn’t ever be able to figure out all the software anyway.
There was a time back in the 80s that I tried rollers. I was racing back then and since very few folks had cross bikes on hand and racers were never seen with fenders, we’d have to spend an hour here and there on rollers during the spring, or when it was rainy for days on end. Back then, folks cross-trained in the winter by either cross-country skiing, running or speed skating. There was none of this year-round cycling stuff unless you lived in glorious California or Arizona. I think we all put on about ten pounds each year and then had to hit it hard in the spring to get our legs “back.” My dad always had a saying that he didn’t feel “in shape” until after the first 1,000 miles were put on come spring. Those days are now over. In fact, I know very few racers who don’t train year round either through indoor classes at clubs, on their trainers at home or by racing cross and fat bikes. Even though I don’t race, I still get questioned about my training regime of cutting way back on two-wheel time and instead focusing on running and being upright.
This year, however, I’m looking at things differently. I’m planning on attending a training camp in Mallorca, Spain (one of my favorite places to ride), in mid-March, and although I’ve ridden there in March before, this year is going to be considerably more intense in both mileage and elevation gain…for seven days straight. My training routine of winter commuting by bike and running several days a week with some weights thrown in isn’t going to cut it on an 80-mile day with over 9,000 feet of elevation gain. I’m going to have to eat all my words, suck it up and hop on a trainer two-three days a week just so I don’t lose everything I gained over the summer. My goal in Mallorca isn’t just to finish each day, but to finish and still be able to socialize after each ride without passing out. Essentially, I’ve got my work cut out for me.
As much complaining and bashing I’ve done about indoor training (yes, my friends have heard too much of this), you may be surprised to hear I’m actually a certified Spinning instructor and have been for almost 19 years. I got certified since as a personal trainer and cycling coach. I wanted to be able to work on rider’s form in a safe environment and on a regular basis. I felt by teaching classes, I could hit the masses without them having to sign up for one-on-one time; and honestly, it did work. We worked on pedal stroke, cadence, heart rate, posture on the bike as well as many other things. Heck, folks even got a killer workout in just an hour, instead of having to gear up and go ride outside for a couple hours.
The problem came when the classes were taught like an aerobics class on two wheels. Instructors began to sing along to every song, and the classes were set up to fight boredom and keep folks going, not to train smart. I think I left just at the right time. I never revisited the classes much after I left. In the past few years, cycling studios specific to “smart training” have popped up everywhere. In these studios, you aren’t just there to sweat and sing, but the instructors also guide you through Functional Threshold Power (FTP) tests, how to use wattage meters and how to use your heart rate zones. They even preach how important it is to take recovery rides. Yes, just like with every other profession, cycling instructors can be highly trained, educated, dynamic or lazy, careless and downright dangerous in their teaching habits. Thankfully, I haven’t run into much of the latter here in Madison. On my quest to find a good training match for my needs, I’ve actually been very impressed by what I’ve found. If you’re searching for some good indoor cycling choices, I’ve laid out a few below and what to look for.
Indoor cycling classes at health clubs
These normally consist of one instructor for 20-50 participants on bikes set up a bit more for the recreational cyclist. Many have wattage meters but few will be truly accurate. If you don’t care too much about watt training, this might be the perfect fit.
The instructors are almost always certified through a governing body and hopefully have some outdoor riding experience as well. Look for instructors who focus a bit more on the lesson plan and less on the music lineup (although good music can help you get through almost anything). Hopefully your instructor will tell you what the ride will be like and what the goals of that workout are prior to starting the class. Run far, far away if the instructor has you jump right into hills or sprints – this being a sign they aren’t safe. Most importantly, remember this is YOUR workout. You CAN skip anything and it’s completely okay if you need to shorten the workout or stay seated the entire time. Listen to your body so you don’t get hurt.
Cycling specific studios
These studios are normally a bit more geared towards the seasoned cyclist or racer, but you don’t have to be either. They usually suggest you take a FTP test in the fall to help you figure out your zones so you get the most out of your workouts. Rides almost always have a set plan and the instructor will ask you to follow it the best you can (without hurting yourself, of course). If done regularly, these classes can help keep you near your peak shape in the winter so you don’t have to play catch up so much come spring.
Let’s face it, unless you have tons of thumping music, or an enthralling movie, riding on rollers or an indoor trainer at home can be brain-numbingly boring. My max is usually 45 minutes before I want to end it all. Since so many others feel the same way, programs like Zwift and smart trainers have now flooded the market. These products are essentially video games and you either ride by yourself using the software or race against others (you can even make private racers for you and your friends). I will most likely use this software a bit this winter (with help from a teammate) to simulate some of the 15km climbs I’ll be doing come March. No, it won’t give me my outdoor fix, but I will be able to keep some of my climbing strength…something I often lose over the winter.
Tips for any indoor training
If you’re new to this, remember to wear stiff-soled shoes or cycling shoes (most places use SPD pedals). Also remember a water bottle (you will sweat…a lot) and a towel. Synthetic clothing or cycling clothing works best.
If you are a seasoned cyclist or racer, remember you should have an “off season.” If you train full force all year, expect to get burnt out mentally and physically as well as obtaining overuse injuries. It’s okay to ride a few times each week, but our bodies were not meant to be in flexion all year long. Swim, run, ski, use the elliptical, take yoga or Pilates and lift some weights to prevent osteoporosis (something common in cyclists).
Your body needs some TLC during the winter. I mentioned yoga as a great way to cross-train, but it’s best to also dedicate some time to foam roller work and massage.
My hope is that my journey to find the perfect way to keep myself ride-ready this winter, also helps you out. More important than anything I mentioned above, have fun this winter! See you on the road come spring!