Indoor cycling: how to get started and what you'll need

The beginner's guide to indoor bike training

Our day-to-day lives have seen some drastic changes in a short period of time. At the moment, things are uncertain, but we can all do our bit to help make the current situation as manageable as possible. This means looking after our fitness levels and well-being.

The government encourages one form of exercise a day, so hopping into the saddle for a ride is key to making sure we maintain a healthy lifestyle. But what about those of us who can’t leave the house for our usual session? If you’re thinking about taking up indoor cycling, or if you’ve already invested in an indoor bike trainer and haven’t got around to figuring out Zwift, we’ll talk you through everything including the difference between turbo trainers, how to hook up your Strava account for indoor riding and what you’ll need for your first ride in Watopia! So, strap yourself in and take a gentle stroll through our complete guide to indoor cycling below.

Which turbo trainer should you buy for indoor cycling?

If you’re just getting started with indoor bike training, then you’ll need to find an indoor bike trainer that suits you (and your budget). So, once you’ve found somewhere to park your bike indoors and put yourself through the ringer, you’ll want to know which indoor trainer you should buy.

What are the different types of turbo trainer?

If you’re just getting started with indoor bike training, then you’ll need to find an indoor bike trainer that suits you (and your budget). So, once you’ve found somewhere to park your bike indoors and put yourself through the ringer, you’ll want to know which indoor trainer you should buy.

Magnetic trainer

Magnetic trainers are probably the most popular type of indoor trainers for beginners. They’re relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of more sophisticated turbo trainers, so if indoor bike training isn’t for you, then you won’t be left with a white elephant collecting dust in your shed.

The resistance is created through – you guessed it – magnets. All you need to do is place your back wheel into the trainer and adjust your resistance according to how much work you want to do. Magnetic trainers are quite noisy and may not be able to fully replicate the feeling of cycling on the open road.

Fluid trainer

Fluid trainers provide a slightly more realistic feeling than magnetic trainers and aren’t as noisy. These are, however, slightly more expensive than their magnetic counterparts.

Rollers

You’ll have no doubt spotted these if you’ve tuned into one of the UCI road races or the Olympics over the years. Riders on professional teams often rollers to warm-up and now you can use them from the comfort of your own home.

While the pro’s make it look easy, rollers can be tricky to get the hang of. You’ll need to maintain your balance in order to stay on – so no slacking off!

Direct drive

Direct drive trainers are distinctly different to either magnetic or fluid trainers which are often known as ‘wheel-on’ trainers. To use a direct drive turbo trainer, you’ll need to remove your back wheel and attach it directly to the trainer. 

Compared to a ‘wheel-on’ trainer, direct drive trainers are much more capable of replicating the conditions of road cycling. They’re also much quieter in general but are the most expensive type of trainer on the market.

What is a smart trainer?

A smart trainer is essentially an indoor bike trainer that allows you to connect to cycling apps such as Zwift.

With a smart trainer, you can wirelessly pair your trainer with your tablet, app or phone. This means that you can take part in online races and apps such as Zwift or Rouvy will be able to adjust the resistance depending on whether you’re climbing or descending!

What turbo trainer do you need for Zwift?

Zwift is the online turbo trainer game that has changed the way people bike indoors. While many cyclists’ first few gentle rides around Watopia were primarily to maintain form over the winter months, many people are turning to Zwift to keep their fitness up during the coronavirus outbreak.

You can download the Zwift app on almost all major devices. Either on your PC or laptop, your iPad, Google TV, Apple TV and even your iPhone.

Zwift is a subscription-based service, so you’ll pay a membership fee every month. Once you’ve set up an account, you just need to make your personal bike-riding avatar and hook your smart trainer up. Job done! You’ll be competing against other players or sampling some of the virtual workouts designed by professional coaches in no time.

Of course, Zwift isn’t the only virtual, turbo trainer app out there. There’s also RGT Cycling, Rouvy and Sufferfest that offer similar indoor workouts.

Using Zwift if you don't have a turbo trainer

If you don’t own a smart trainer, then not to worry. You can still use Zwift without having to fork out the outlay to buy an indoor smart trainer. In order to use Zwift though, you’re going to need to be able to communicate your power output (watts) over to the app.

Some classic indoor trainers won’t have the electronic set-up to do this automatically, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t use them for Zwift. All you’ll need is:

A speed and cadence sensor
A power meter (if you don’t have a speed and cadence sensor)
If you’re using a computer - an ANT+ USB stick (a dongle to wirelessly connect to Zwift). 

Android and Apple users should be able to connect to Zwift via Bluetooth. if you’re going to be connecting via your computer, you can use an ANT+ dongle. You might also want to use a USB extension cable in order to get your trainer as close as possible to the dongle.  

If you’re still unsure if your trainer is compatible, then Zwift have handily put together a list of compatible devices here.

Can you record your turbo trainer ride on Strava?

One of the things that you might miss most about being able to get outside for a day’s worth of riding (apart from all the café stops) is being able to log your hard-earned miles on Strava.

The good news is, with a smart trainer, you should be able to connect your Strava and Zwift accounts and record your turbo trainer rides.

The bad news is, if you don’t own a smart trainer, then it can get a little tricky. If this is the case for you, then you’ll need to log your ride on the Strava website as a ‘manual entry’. Once you’ve inputted your data, just make sure that you’ve selected ‘Indoor cycling’ under ‘Tags’.

Turbo trainer vs road cycling: is it harder?

While you’ll likely to be using your indoor trainer as a replacement for road biking for the most part, there are some key differences between indoor cycling and road or mountain biking.

For a start, indoor rides by very definition are not as interesting as cycling outdoors. Even the nicest shed can’t compete with the scenery of the great outdoors and there’s not many cellars that come with their own cafés. This is where apps like Zwift and Rouvy come in so handy to keep you occupied indoors.

If you’re used to competing in triathlons or time trials, then turbo trainers can prove to be really useful. Compared to being out on the road, there are no distractions or reasons to stop for a bite to eat or a coffee, so it’s just you against the clock!

Of course, riding indoors can’t fully replicate the feel of a road race or the grapple with gravity during an uphill climb, but being able to switch-off and put in a fully focussed shift from your own home is a pretty good substitute.

What are the benefits of indoor cycling?

It’s important that during these uncertain times to stay fit, healthy and active. The government have recommended that people exercise daily in order to maintain fitness, with cycling mentioned specifically. The great thing about indoor bike training is that you can get all of the health benefits of an outdoor ride, without needing to worry about social distancing. The health benefits of indoor cycling include:

1) Improves cardiovascular health

A 2017 study found that those who cycle daily significantly reduce their chances of getting cancer or heart disease. The research, undertaken by the University of Glasgow, looked at over 260,000 people over five year and found that those who cycle to work had higher rates of cardio fitness compared to those who don’t.

2) Burns fat

Regular cycling also keeps those unwanted pounds at bay! Another study from 2017 found that hopping on the bike regularly was just as beneficial for weight loss as joining a gym. The research of 130 participants found that those who biked for around 14km a day actually lost more weight than those who exercise for an hour a day. So, if you’ve been missing the gym recently, a daily indoor cycling session should be enough to keep you on track!

3) Build muscle

We all know that regular exercise helps build muscle, but how much can cycling contribute to our overall workout? Research from 2018 found that three short sprint sessions per week can increase your quad size by up to 5%!

So where can I join in?

There’s never been a better time to join in with indoor cycling. If you’re a beginner or if you’re thinking of investing in a turbo trainer, then there’s plenty of online communities to get involved with that can replace your local cycling club for now.

Sufferfest, an indoor training app featuring leading experts and cycling coaches, have extended their free trial period and have uploaded specialised work-outs for cyclists and triathletes who can’t train outdoors.

Sport England have also released their ‘#StayInWorkOut’ initiative in order to keep the nation moving. Part of this campaign includes a partnership between British Cycling and Zwift to bring a series of virtual races to your front door.

The races take place on different courses, so there’s always something to keep you occupied indoors!

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