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Nobody Promised It Would Be Fun
But the payoff is worth the pain.
By: Lindsay Goldman, professional cyclist for Hagens Berman | Supermint.
“I cannot WAIT to get on the trainer today!”
Have you ever said that? No? Really?
Few people ever have. That’s because the trainer isn’t fun. There is no wind in your hair. There is no scenery. Nobody half-wheels you into charging up a hill. You never feel the exhilaration of cresting a climb.
I’m not going to start this article by pretending I love being on the trainer for hours on end. One time I had a coach who recommended I order pizza without cheese. She was an amazing, aspirational, world-class athlete but I knew right then and there we were never going to be on the same page. In a battle between world champion stripes or cheese on my pizza forever, well, you can layer my mozzarella in stripes as a consolidation prize. I can’t give you advice on training inside if the very basis of my platform is un-relatable. So yes, let’s agree that riding indoors is not fun. I am not a monster; I too think it’s suffering.
But I’m guessing you have a job, yes? The premise of a job is that somebody pays you for work. You do this work because you’re getting paid; you probably wouldn’t do it otherwise. So think of riding the trainer as a job - you do it because a payoff exists. I get on the trainer for 6-8 hours a week because it pays. Not literally. My only compensation for gushing about bike trainers are more bike trainers. But all of this riding indoors pays off in my fitness.
I rode the trainer from October 2017 through March 2018 without a single break to venture outdoors (thanks, pregnancy and a cracked humerus bone) and on my first ride back outside, I was able to hang onto one of the hardest group rides in the country. It wasn’t pretty and I’d somewhat forgotten how to comfortably sit on somebody’s wheel, but that ride couldn’t shake me off the back of its miserable, suffering tail. Indoor riding pays off.
So now we can agree that sometimes you do things that aren’t particularly fun because the payoff is worth it. Every time you want to poke your eyes out from boredom and misery on an indoor ride, remember that it will pay dividends the next time you hit out on a ride or line up to race.
For me, it’s the off-season now. Not to be confused with the off-season in which I don’t ride at all and instead recover from a long race season by ignoring my bike and building up anxiety about not exercising. This is the off-season of training to get ready for racing in 2019. It’s hard work on and off the bike because I have to build all sorts of things - strength, aerobic endurance, neuromuscular economy, tolerance for suffering, etc. During the race season, I do many group rides to tune up bike skills and fitness. During the off-season, I might do one group ride a week and even then, my top-end fitness is so rusty I often get clobbered. Instead, I do a lot of rides and off-the-bike workouts that are the epitome of boring suffering.
The first step in any off-season is to build an aerobic base. That means a lot of steady rides at a conversational pace, aka zone 2. If you live somewhere scenic and exciting, and/or if you have a lot of spare time, you can spend hours meandering luxuriously around the countryside on your bike, casually building base fitness. But if you live in reality, you have a job to attend, a spouse that wants your attention, maybe some kids and a dog. You live in a city, or a suburb where your vistas include Target and HomeGoods.
In the face of normal life, the best solution is to get on your trainer and bang out some boring, steady zone 2 while Netflixing or plowing through your email queue. Not only is the steady efficiency of riding indoors ideal for building aerobic fitness, but you can gain more value in less time. For example, if I wanted to get the same benefit I got from today’s 2-hour zone 2 spin on the trainer, I’d need to go outside for probably 3 hours and also avoid ride interruptions like red lights. Assuming I’m trying to finish before my kid wakes up at 7am, that means being on the bike before 4am, and I do not hate myself that much. Better to take up a smaller window of time and knock out the ride indoors.
My coach adds cadence drills to my rides at this time of year that are better accomplished indoors. Being able to push watts isn’t enough to be a strong, efficient rider. Riders must train their neuromuscular systems to better recruit muscle fibers and coordinate the communication between brain and muscles; in other words, teaching legs to be smarter, not just stronger. By improving neuromuscular coordination, you achieve the most efficient muscle firing, which means delaying the onset of fatigue. My whole adult life goal is basically to delay the onset of fatigue, so I’m all about these drills, especially because they break up an otherwise relentlessly dull steady ride.
My coach will also add blocks of uncomfortably high or low cadence to workouts, or require that I change up my cadence by 5-10 RPM over the course of a certain period of time. This is nearly impossible to nail outside, where the earth’s surface is never perfectly flat and road distractions abound. The same efforts on the trainer flow easily and cadence precision is spot-on. Plus there’s the added benefit of not worrying about getting side-swiped by flying cars while staring at a cycling computer trying to nail 95 RPMs on the dot.
But even with the distraction of cadence drills, this season of riding is tough. The weather is getting nasty, daylight is a factor each day, and base miles get dull fast. We all long for the excitement of race season or the thrill of a group ride that has us drooling on our top tubes and gloating (or pouting) after the sprint points.
Instead focus now on the payoff - those races and rides will get easier and be more fun after putting in this work now. The payday will come and we will all be grateful for every miserable, sweaty hour spent indoors. Next season when you’re rolling smoothly up a mountain mid-race, look back and fondly recall this period of suffering and know that nothing on the race course will be as hard as three hours of pedaling while staring at a wall.
Lindsay Goldman Lindsay Goldman is General Manager and racer for the Hagens Berman | Supermint professional women’s road cycling team. She has raced her bike professionally for the past six years across North America while spending significant time riding the trainer to balance the demands of a busy work schedule and to combat rough winters.
She welcomed a daughter in February 2018 after training indoors on her Hammer throughout pregnancy, and then pedaled her way back to race shape to take on the rest of the 2018 Pro Road Tour calendar, ending the season with a win at the USA Cycling Gateway Cup races. After a winter logging hours on her Hammer, she's ready to take on a full race calendar in 2019.