Indoor cycling 101: Must-do workouts based on science

Riders, from the pro peloton to weekend warriors, are increasingly embracing indoor trainer sessions because they offer a controlled environment where cyclists can push their limits, refine techniques, and build strength regardless of weather or traffic conditions.

Whether you’re prepping for a summer of racing or simply aiming to be able to match your buddies on the local climb, incorporating specific indoor sessions into your training will yield remarkable results. But is all riding good riding? In this article, we dive into some scientifically-backed must-do indoor trainer sessions that will help you get stronger and faster on the bike.

1. Aerobic endurance ride

The bread and butter of bike riding, aerobic endurance forms the foundation of cycling fitness. Studies show that regular aerobic training improves endurance performance by enhancing oxygen delivery to working muscles. Longer, moderate-intensity rides enhance your cardiovascular system’s efficiency and train your body to utilize oxygen effectively. 

Research suggests that spending 60-90 minutes at around 60-70% of your maximum heart rate is optimal for this type of training. While this is most often performed outside – the typical weekend long ride – don’t shy away from doing longer easier rides indoors too. The lack of traffic, road furniture, cars and declines mean you have to ride continuously, so most coaches estimate that a 90 minute indoor ride is the equivalent to a 2h ride outside.

DC Rainmaker on the TrueBike

2. Sweet Spot Training

Sweet spot training involves riding at a moderate intensity that falls just below your lactate threshold or Functional Threshold Power (FTP). This intensity allows you to accumulate a significant amount of time at a high workload without inducing excessive fatigue. Studies have demonstrated that sweet spot training elicits substantial improvements in lactate threshold power and overall endurance. 

If this sounds like something for you, try incorporating two sweet spot sessions per week, aiming for intervals lasting 10-20 minutes at 85-95% of your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) with brief recovery periods between intervals. As long intervals at specific, high power outputs, these are much easier performed inside without interruptions.

3. High Torque, Low Cadence Intervals

Cycling isn’t a purely aerobic activity, also requiring muscular strength and force production, especially for accelerating, climbing and sprinting, but additional force will benefit all your riding. While some of this can be developed in the gym, you should also work on cycling-specific force production and high torque, low cadence intervals do this perfectly. Research suggests that incorporating resistance training, such as high torque efforts, leads to significant gains in cycling performance. 

During these sessions, maintain a cadence below 60 RPM while pushing a heavy gear for intervals of 3-10 minutes, with ample recovery periods in between. These high torque sessions can also be married with sweet spot intervals, to achieve two sets of benefits with one session. If you’re new to high torque sessions, drop your RPM gradually over weeks to avoid injury.

Unless you’re lucky enough to have a perfect, constant, long climb outside your house, the smart trainer or smart bike are really the only ways to do these sessions. 

4. VO2 Max Intervals

VO2 max intervals are designed to improve your maximum oxygen uptake, a key determinant of aerobic capacity and high-intensity performance. These sessions involve short bursts of high-intensity efforts at or slightly above your VO2 max, usually between 110-130% of your FTP, followed by periods of active recovery. 

Studies have consistently shown that VO2 max training leads to substantial gains in aerobic power and overall cycling performance. Aim for 3-5 intervals lasting 3-5 minutes each, with recovery intervals equal to or slightly longer than the work intervals. Shorter intervals should be closer to the 130% FTP mark, while longer intervals can be dialed back to 110%.

These sessions are really made for indoor cycling. The constant on-off of short intervals is a great way to make an hour-long trainer session fly by, while the safety of the static bike allows you to focus purely on smashing out specific, controlled watts for a set time without having to focus on steering or other road users.

5. Cadence Drills

While these other sessions focus on building a bigger and faster engine, indoor cycling is also the perfect opportunity to work on drills that will drive up efficiency. Cadence drills focus on optimizing pedal cadence, which plays a crucial role in efficiency and performance on the bike. Varying your cadence helps recruit different muscle fibers and improves neuromuscular coordination. In fact, research performed on pro cyclists demonstrated that cyclists who incorporate cadence drills into their training experience enhanced economy and performance outcomes

Try to incorporate cadence pyramid intervals, where you progressively increase and then decrease your cadence over set durations. This is a great way to spice up an easy aerobic ride – alternating your cadence by 10rpm every minute as low as 60rpm and as high as 120rpm. The key here is to hold easy power throughout; don’t turn these cadence drills into ad hoc intervals. 

Again, your indoor set-up is ideal for these types of drill sessions. If you’re looking for a challenge, try clipping out with one foot and doing these cadence drills with one foot at a time.

You can adapt the session durations and frequency according to the time of year, or even merge a couple of the session types into one longer workout, but, by taking science-backed approach and having a specific purpose in mind for each session you do, you’ll make your training more efficient and beneficial.

Of course, there are tens of thousands of specific cycling sessions but they’re almost all, to some extent, variations on these five fundamental building blocks. Make sure you incorporate a variety of indoor trainer sessions into your training routine that work on different physiological adaptations and you’ll soon be setting new Strava records on your regular routes.