How to train indoors without going nuts

Sage Advice From a Roundtable of Mountain Bike Pros

Gear How To Winter Guide
When the sun isn’t shining, Jill spends her time on the trainer watching TV shows like Dirty Jobs and catching up on football.

When the sun isn’t shining, Jill Kintner spends her time on the trainer, watching TV shows such as Dirty Jobs or catching up on football (click to enlarge).

For me, going to the gym is essentially admitting defeat. Riding on the other hand is my outlet. It’s fun and social and it keeps me sane, all without feeling like I’m a rat on a hamster wheel. However, sometimes my schedule or the weather doesn’t permit me to get out, so training indoors becomes an essential tool.

While it will never mimic the feel of zipping through the woods, being able to spin indoors throughout the winter (or maybe just a couple months) can actually help you enjoy riding that much more when you get back on the bike outside.

Don’t believe me? Then take it from the experts. We spoke with a number of top pros, including Olympic bronze medalist Jill Kintner, 2014 Enduro World Series champion Jared Graves, and former Supercross racer turned cycling coach Brian McCulloch to see how indoor trainers fit into their cycling life.

Setup Is Key

All the top pros and coaches we surveyed recommended using a fan to help stay cool. A micro-towel is also a good idea. Our favorite tip however came from Kintner, who suggested not riding anywhere near either a glass door or table (lest you fall off your rollers and break something). Kintner also advises keeping your knees in line and cleats properly set-up. Otherwise you could injure yourself unintentionally.

It takes hard work to win the #1 Plate.

It takes hard work to win the No. 1 plate (click to enlarge).

Set Goals

“Riding the indoor trainer is a matter of perspective. It doesn’t have to be mental and physical torture. Think about it in a positive manner, making the time to ride the trainer just twice a week can make your weekend adventures that much better. For example, how much better prepared would you be for this weekend’s epic 50-mile trail ride with your buddies if you completed a few 60-minute workouts during the week?” – Brian McCulloch, Big Wheel Coaching

We’ve had a lot of success distracting ourselves by using virtual training tools, like Zwift.

We’ve had a lot of success distracting ourselves by using virtual training tools such as Zwift (click to enlarge).

Distract Yourself

“I love cycling for its simplicity and the adventure of it, but multi-tasking has become a way of life. Sometimes the trainer allows me to do two things at once. I can watch race footage or course recon on YouTube while training, instead of making time for them separately. Another option is to grab the iPad to answer emails, binge watch a Netflix series, or grab the hands-free device to call my relatives that I don’t talk to enough (on a recovery-spin of course).” – Brian McCulloch, Big Wheel Coaching

Less Is More

“My typically session is anywhere from a 45-minute recovery spin to a 1.5-hour session with intervals. But sometimes when the weather is really bad I’ll be on there for up to 3 hours. But I can only handle one of those days every few weeks. Sometimes the training just has to be done!” – Jared Graves

“They all feel way too long. I don’t do much more than 90 minutes at a time. Try a couple hours and it will really test you. The last 10 minutes of those rides are pretty brutal mentally. Outside you can coast, but on rollers you don’t get any breaks. Once you get past 30-40 minutes, your body burns fuel more efficiently. Doing just 20 minutes won’t really let your body get into it.” – Jill Kintner

“I like to think of the trainer as a some pie is better than no pie training option. Where a normal training ride may be 90 minutes to 2 hours during, a trainer option could be 60-75 minutes. Less is more on the trainer, especially if the thought of riding on one makes you nutty!” – Brian McCulloch, Big Wheel Coaching

Work on Specific Skills

“The lack of coasting and stops make trainer time a high-quality and focused workout option. Using a trainer for specific workouts, such as recovery spins, single-leg drills, high-cadence workouts, or sustained uninterrupted efforts can maximize training benefit for athletes with limited time.” – Brian McCulloch, Big Wheel Coaching

Ride With Friends

“The sport of cycling is social for all riders, some of us more so than others. So getting a few buddies together to create your own ‘wattage cottage’ indoor training session is a great way to keep motivation high during trainer workouts. – Brian McCulloch, Big Wheel Coaching

This is Jared’s 2004 Yeti AS-R. While it was never a race bike, he states“ it has done at least 10x the hours of any other bike over ever had. It became my dedicated trainer bike in 2006 and hasn't moved since. Paint is bolts are fused with rust from a decade of being heavily sweated on. For 10 years this thing has been front and center of my garage. We've been through a lot together!”

Graves’ 2004 Yeti AS-R was never a race bike, but he says it’s done at least 10 times the hours of any other bike he’s owned. “It became my dedicated trainer bike in 2006 and hasn’t moved since,” explains Graves. “It’s been front and center of my garage for 10 years. We’ve been through a lot together.” (click to enlarge)

Not Just For Rainy Days

“I don’t hate sitting on a trainer. Sometimes you just don’t feel like getting out for a spin, and you can sit by yourself and have total ‘me’ time, away from cars and other noise. It’s also great for some really specific intervals and recovery spinning. You can take all the variables away and just focus on pedaling.” – Jared Graves

“An indoor trainer is the only real good way to get time in at a steady heart rate without distractions. Mountain biking is real spikey with steep climbs and meandering terrain, and road riding is sketchy with cars and stop lights. I spend a lot of time on rollers, mostly because I don’t really like road riding in the rain, and I can just do my work at home without getting too muddy or cold.” – Jill Kintner

The Last Word

“I would say just keep mixing it up. It’s way more entertaining with a power meter on the bike too, as you can see exactly what you are doing and hopefully your form and fitness are increasing. Trainer sessions are much better when you can see you are stronger than the last ride. If you’re suffering, then they can be not so fun. I always have a fan on when it’s hot, music is a must, and a good view helps, too. If you have a training buddy, doing sessions together and chatting between intervals keeps things fun, too. The worst thing you can do is steady state pedaling at a certain heart rate in the same gear at the same cadence the whole time. That will make you go crazy guaranteed. Sit down, stand up, high cadence, low cadence, sprints. Just keep moving around and doing different things and the time will go much faster.” – Jared Graves

Really hate riding the trainer? You can always try rollers. Fat bikes are also fun if the weather permits. Photo by James Adamson -

Really hate riding the trainer? You can always try rollers. Fat bikes are also fun if the weather permits (click to enlarge). Photo by James Adamson –

Other Alternatives

“To be honest, I try really hard not to ride the trainer. Fat bikes and lights are a good substitute. If I have to, it’s mostly to warm up for cold, wet cyclocross races. But I insist on riding rollers instead of a standard trainer. It feels so much better to move and balance while stationary.” – Adam Craig

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  • Jeff says:

    Here’s a novel idea – you don’t have to ride a road bike to be a better mountain biker. We aren’t road bikers, so why train like one? The article states that road biking is constant spinning and MTB is not. Duh! Then why do it. You would be better off doing movement and weight training and save your knees from overuse injuries. Use the winter to “heal up”, get your body moving correctly, get stronger, do a little stationary bike work, then hit the trails. This isn’t my idea – see I am only saying it works for me and apparently lots of other people. I think if you dig deeper, you will find more pros do this as type of thing as well. Also, I’m not a pro athlete, most of us aren’t, so why are you acting like one?

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