It would be nice if we actually had some spring weather to go with our RTR spring training. In Colorado, April’s cycling weather was pretty crummy, and so far May is doing a fine impression of February. Some of us will be lucky to get three weekends of outdoor training rides before we all head to Telluride.
If you can’t get outside to ride, you still can put on meaningful miles. I’ve been an indoor-cycling instructor at my local YMCA for 10+ years. Sure, I prefer to train in the fresh Colorado air, but in the dark, early-morning winter hours of my cycling classes, there are athletes at every level getting ready for big summer rides.
If you have a set of rollers or a trainer for your road bike, you already know about getting saddle time in your home. If you belong to a fitness club, you can usually get access to an indoor bike. And by “indoor bike,” I mean something like this:
. . . and not this:
There’s no substitute for riding outdoors. A six-hour day on a bike outdoors is fun. A six-hour spin inside the same room is torture. Braking, steering, pacelining, descents, angry dogs — only time on the road will teach you what you need to learn. Still, a stationary bike can yield benefits that are directly transferable to the road.
Like what? Endurance. If a stationary bike does anything well, it is this: It allows you to put your heart rate at precisely the level you want it, and keep it there, removing changing road conditions from the equation. By adjusting your cadence, the resistance on the wheel, or both, you change your heart rate.
Try this: Warm up on the stationary bike, adding small doses of resistance every couple of minutes until the sweat begins to move, and your breathing is deep, yet relaxed. After about 10 minutes, you should feel warm but no sting or burn anywhere. Not working hard, just easily working. Now increase the resistance just to the point where it begins to slow down your cadence. Push through the resistance to regain your lost cadence, and hold the tempo there. Your breathing will deepen to accommodate the increased load, but you should still feel like you are able to get plenty of air. This is the level of effort where you burn fat calories most efficiently. This is the level of effort where you build capacity to ride for the long haul.
This is also a huge bore, so take advantage of another benefit of cycling indoors: Crank your iPod as loud as you like. Stay on the bike for the entire double-album. Watch a replay of the Tour de France, or read a book.
Intervals. Stationary bikes are good interval trainers for the same reason they are good endurance trainers: You can manage resistance, cadence and time with precision. Intervals are a basic component of fitness training; on the upswing they develop your capacity to deliver power at the upper end of your aerobic range, while on the downswing they measure how quickly you are able to recover.
All intervals involve increasing the resistance, speed, or both. The combinations — sudden and intense, long and gradual, and everything in-between — are endless. The basic idea is to challenge yourself on the upper end, either by reaching a new peak of effort for only a moment, or by sustaining an intense-but-not-ultimate effort for longer durations. In-between those efforts, relax, breathe deeply and focus on your heart rate, noting how long it takes you to return to a baseline effort level. As you become more aerobically fit, the recovery time should become shorter.
Saddle time. Paris-Roubaix aside, miles on a stationary bike generally are more punishing to your backside than miles on the (paved) road. Outdoors, the bike sways underneath you, and you tend to make frequent micro-adjustments as the road bends and rolls underneath the wheels. Indoors, the saddle is as rigid and unmoving as an anvil. The hours you put in the saddle indoors will pay dividends during the hours you spend riding outdoors.
Pedaling technique. Pedaling a bike is a simple but highly refined motion, and a stationary bike offers a good opportunity to work on the finer points. Books have been written on pedaling technique by certified masters of the craft (which I am not). To hone your pedaling to racing perfection, listen to them, not me. But if, like me, you’re a mere cycling mortal and you just want to squeeze out a few more miles with a little less fatigue, try this:
Establish a medium tempo (between 80 and 90 RPM). The resistance should be just high enough that you feel it all the way around the crank. Focus your mind on your left leg only. Don’t do anything with your right leg. Let the right leg ride the pedal like a dead weight.
On each revolution as the left pedal approaches the bottom of the stroke, pull the left pedal back from the front of the bike to the rear, and scoop the pedal up from the ground, applying power up and over the top of the circle. From the top of the stroke to the bottom, apply no force. Forget the downstroke and apply force during the upstroke only.
Do this for 30 seconds. It will (and should) hurt. Then reverse the focus, applying a lifting pedaling force with the right leg, and doing nothing with the left. For the next several minutes, alternate legs every 30 seconds.
After a while, increase the resistance slightly and put both legs to work simultaneously, each one lifting the pedal just as it did in isolation. For now, don’t worry about restoring the downstroke, just keep lifting the pedals out of the ground, left-right-left-right.
You’ll notice a few things. The first is that the pain is gone. Second is a smoother sensation in the pedals, a more steady power. The third is a quicker cadence. When the feet work together to apply force to the cranks all the way around the circle, the result is more efficiency, which translates to more speed at the same level of effort. You can take this pedaling technique with you out on the road.
Relaxation. Staying loose while working hard is key to efficient cycling, and indoors is a great place to practice relaxation. You can focus inward, even close your eyes, paying attention to all the signals your body sends your brain, without danger.
At every level of effort, concentrate on breathing, making it as deep and slow as you can. Drop the shoulders. Keep the elbows soft, and the hands light on the bars. Slide back in the saddle and push the heel down through the bottom of the stroke. With each increase in intensity, relax a little more. Good habits learned here will follow you out outside.
Don’t have an indoor bike? Some fitness clubs have indoor-cycling bikes available for drop-in use. Others make them available only during instructor-led classes. If your only option is to ride with a class, that doesn’t mean you have to abandon your training agenda and do whatever everyone else in the class is doing. Just tell the instructor how you plan to ride. Any worthwhile instructor will be glad to have you in the group.
Bottom photo: Anne and Tim / Flickr / Creative Commons