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Smart training on a smart trainer to best prepare for outdoor riding

As you make the transition to outdoor training, make sure you are preparing yourself properly during your indoor sessions

The next month or so is one of the most highly anticipated times of year for many Canadian cyclists. As the weather gets nicer and the days get longer, outdoor riding becomes not only more possible, but more enjoyable. The switch from the stationary trainer to riding on the road can be a shock for many people who find, that despite all their hard winter training, riding outside is not as easy as they were hoping it was going to be.

Typically, this is not because of a lack of fitness. If there is one thing that stationary bike trainers are good at, it is at developing fitness. The lack of coasting, stop-lights and traffic make training indoors a very efficient way to tax the body and help develop your physical capabilities. Returning to riding outdoors challenges many devoted indoor riders because riding a bicycle on a stationary trainer is not like riding a bike outside. This has always been true, but the proliferation of new “smart” trainers has made this worse.

Related: Smarter trainer workouts

The types of trainers that I am talking about are the ones that can directly control your wattage output. When you ride one of these trainers, you have the option of allowing a pre-programmed workout to modulate the workload as you go, without having to give it any thought. This is sometimes called “erg” mode (short for ergometer). You can keep pedalling at the same cadence, in the same gear, no matter what, and the trainer will always output the exact correct resistance. This means that once you have selected the training program on your device, you can just “turn your brain off and pedal.”


This is not possible outside. You are not always able to pedal at your ideal cadence. Depending on your gearing, certain speeds may not even be possible at certain cycling cadences. You need to change gears often and know why, when, and how to do so. Steering and braking also come into play and can affect how hard and when you can work.  This can leave many fit indoor riders unable to capitalize on all their physical capabilities and keep them from being able to ride to their limits outdoors.

Given that for most people in Canada riding on an indoor trainer is the best, and, perhaps only, way to get any significant training during the winter, what are the options? The first is to turn off “erg” mode on your trainer for at least one ride per week. When you do this, follow the workout by using your gears and varying your cadence. This will require you to be much more mentally engaged with the workout, and you may learn something about how to manage your gears as well.

Another option is to try to ride outside during the winter. It may not be possible to ride on the road, but renting a fat-bike or mountain bike a couple of times during the winter is a great way to prevent completely losing touch with your bike handling skills. Not to mention that it’s a lot of fun to break up the monotony of training indoors.

As we move quickly towards the outdoor riding season, try a few of these tricks to help turn on your biking brain and get you ready to fully use your hard-earned fitness when you’re rolling on the real roads.

Darian Silk is a triathlon coach and Clinical Exercise Physiologist based in Toronto.  Read more about Darian here or email him at darian@teamatomica.com.  You can also check out his TrainingPeaks profile here.