~By Coach Maria Simone
I could blame the colder temperatures for the time I spend on the trainer, but that would be dishonest. I ride (and like to ride) the trainer year-round, and I find for shorter workouts, it can’t be beat for time efficiency – as well as the ability to nail a workout without worrying about stop signs, squirrels, flying saucers or cars.
John and I are just a little bit crazy with the time we are willing to put into the trainer. Our longest trainer ride was 12 hours in preparation for the Florida Double Anvil (2015 race report here and 2016 race report here). Suffice to say, I have plenty of time to think about trainer workouts–while riding on the trainer. In this post, I share three types of bike trainer workouts for triathletes.
But, don’t worry: There’s no 12 hour mental torture sessions here. These workouts range from 45 to 90 minutes. Each session can be adapted to be shorter or longer depending on where you are in your season and the specific needs of your race calendar.
In terms of intensity, use these parameters to correspond to the intensity prescribed in the workouts below:
- Easy = 60% or less of FTP (functional threshold power), 80% or less of LTHR (lactate threshold heart rate), 4 or less (out of 10) in RPE
- Steady = 65-75% FTP, 80-90% of LTHR, 5-6/10 RPE
- Mod-hard = 80-95% FTP, 90-95% LTHR, 7-8/10 RPE
- Hard = 95-105% FTP, 95-100% LTHR, 8-9/10 RPE
- Very hard = best sustained effort for the duration (these are short!)
- Want to read more about threshold efforts? Click here!
Bike Trainer Workout #1: Cycling Efficiency
Anytime is a good time to work on the efficiency of your pedal stroke. There are several different ways to work on cycling efficiency, including single leg drills, and high cadence drills. The workout below focuses on highlighting the pull and push phases of the pedal stroke. Always take note of what feels harder or easier – as that will give you an idea of where your strengths and limiters lie.
Ride 10 minutes easy, warming up into the ride.
5 x single leg drills
- 30 seconds left leg
- 30 seconds right leg.
- Take note of your weak points throughout the 360 degree revolution. Work to strengthen those areas – weight training can help!
- 5 minutes steady.
- 5 minutes easy, emphasizing the forward push of the pedal stroke — from just before the 12 o’clock position (top of the stroke) into the 6 o’clock position (bottom of the stroke), imagining that your toes might touch the very front of your shoe. You are focusing on a smooth transition through the top of the stroke into push phase.
- Ride 5 minutes steady
- Ride 5 minutes easy, keeping the top of your foot in as near-constant contact as possible with the top or your shoe, by pulling up into it. Try to minimize how much you push down on the pedal (if at all). While the previous set focused on the downstroke, this drill focuses on the upstroke (from 6 o’clock back around the dial up to 12 o’clock). You should not be applying excessive upward force, but rather creating easy and smooth movement on the upstroke.
- Ride 5 minutes steady
If you find doing 5 continuous minutes of each of these drills is too challenging at first, you can break it up by doing 1 minute steady, 1 minute downstroke drill, 1 minute upstroke drill, 1 minute easy. Repeat until you get to 20-30 minutes of riding for the main segment. Remember: the focus here is becoming a more efficient rider – so don’t slog through the drill if your form is off–and don’t push the power at the expense of form.
To progress the workout, increase the time spent doing the drills each week. It’s more important to have smooth movement than to hit the 5 minute target at first. And, you can mix these drills in with the traditional single leg drills and high cadence drills.
- 5-10 minutes easy
Bike Trainer Workout #2: Big Gear Biking
Easily my favorite type of cycling workout: BIG GEAR!
There are so many big gear workouts that I love – short hard sets, longer endurance sets, mixers – and more! For building strength you can’t go wrong with introducing a little bit of big gear/low cadence into your cycling life.
What do I mean by big gear? Your chain is in big gear in the front chain ring, and then on the back cassette, you select a moderately heavy gear (also known as low gear) that allows you to have a cadence of 50-70 rpms while at the appropriate intensity. The actual rpms is going to depend on YOU. If all feels good with your knees, then shoot for 50-60 rpms. But, if you have any sort of knee tweaks, 60-70 rpms is likely safer for you.
I’m going to share a beginner friendly version of a big gear workout, and then offer 2 options for a big gear workout as you advance. If you are new to big gear, then don’t be a hero and go to the most advanced version. You will absolutely torque your knees. If you feel any tweaks or niggles, stop the session.
And, speaking of knees: those with very bad knees should sit this session out. Sorry, charlie :(.
Beginner (to big gear):
- 15 minutes easy
- 3 minutes big gear, steady effort
- 2 minutes EASY
- 10 minutes easy spin, 90+ cadence
Intermediate Big Gear:
20 minutes easy building into steady
- 1 minute big gear, 60-65 rpm. Effort can be anywhere from steady to hard – depending upon where you are in your season, and your race distances. For example, 70.3 and 140.6 athletes, can stick with steady to mod-hard, while sprint or olympic athletes may select hard. However, for the first time in any season doing big gear, we recommend steady to mod-hard at the outset. You can build in subsequent weeks as is appropriate for your training plan.
- 4 minutes easy spin, 90+ cadence
- 2 minutes big gear, 60-65 rpm (same notes on effort as above)
- 3 minutes easy spin, 90+ cadence
- 3 minutes big gear, 60-65 rpm (same notes on effort as above)
- 2 minutes easy spin, 90+ cadence
- 4 minutes big gear, 60-65 rpm (same notes on effort as above)
- 1 minute easy spin, 90+ cadence
- 5 minutes big gear, 60-65 rpm (same notes on effort as above)
- 10 minutes very easy spin, 90+ cadence
Advanced Big Gear
You can progress this to a 90 minute version of the above workout, which makes a similar progression but starts at 5 minutes and builds to 10 minutes (as the intermediate version one starts at 1 minute and builds to 5 minutes). This longer version is very challenging, and should only be attempted by experienced riders, who have gradually worked up to the total duration of big gear riding required for completion of this session. Depending on where you are in your training and your ability level, these big sets in the 90 minute version may be done steady to mod-hard.
Long Bike Trainer Rides
Okay, not 6 hours long, but 90 minutes+ long. I find it pretty challenging to consistently hit an effort without breaking up the monotony just a bit when I’m on the trainer. So, one of my favorite ways to do this are build sets. These can be anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes in length, and you gradually build to the top end of steady/zone 2 throughout the duration of the interval. Lately, I’ve been structuring my long rides this way, and it really helps to break it up.
Here’s what a ride with 15 minute intervals might look like.
15-30 minutes warm up – moving from easy to steady
4 x 15 minutes done as:
- 13 minutes build from the low end to the top end of zone 2/steady
- 2 minutes easy
- 10 minutes easy
The main sets can be shortened to 10 minutes, doing a 5-8 minute build with 5 to 2 minute recoveries, or lengthened to 30 minutes, with a 25 minute build and a 5 minute recovery. You can also make each set different cadence ranges as another way to mix things up when the training duration gets long but the outdoor riding isn’t possible. If you are close to a race, you can steadily build toward projected race effort – using heart rate or watts, depending on your available technology.
You might also alternate the length of the build sets, going from 10 minutes to 15 minutes to 20 minutes, and then moving back down the pyramid. I like doing sets in this manner as it helps to keep the focus interesting.
Using these shorter sets in an overall longer ride is a helpful way to maintain focus, which is probably the hardest part about trainer sessions.
Long Ride Zwift Play
Another option for your long ride is to select a particular route on Zwift (or similar indoor training app), and with each successive completion of the loop, work to lift your effort, starting at easy and finishing mod-hard to hard (depending on the duration of the workout).
Riding indoors doesn’t have to be monotonous. Think of the trainer as a specific tool with advantages for helping you to work on the efficiency of your pedal stroke, build bike- specific strength, and gain endurance without worrying about the distractions and hazards of the road. Like any other tool, it needs to be maximized for the strengths that it brings. I hope these workouts help you to maximize your training, or spur ideas for how you can get the most of your trainer sessions.
If you have questions about any of these workouts, or training in general, please feel free to contact us.
What do you think about trainer workouts? Do you have a go-to trainer workout that you love? Share it here! Trainer selfies also welcome!
*Know your limits before starting any fitness program. Do not attempt these workouts if you have not built adequately to the duration and/or intensity offered. Consult your doctor before you begin any fitness regimen. If you haven’t had a physical in a while, get one!