indoor cycling mistakes

Top 6 Indoor Cycling Mistakes to Avoid or Fix


By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach,
co-author of “Ride Inside
and “The Time-Crunched Cyclist

There’s never been a better time to ride a bicycle indoors. That doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy – or even prefer – riding outside, but there’s no denying that the options available for indoor cycling have never been better. Whether you use indoor cycling to augment your outdoor training, prepare you for indoor or outdoor competitions, or you are an indoor-only cyclist, avoiding these 6 mistakes will improve your experience, enhance the effectiveness of your training, and elevate your indoor performance.

#1 Indoor Cycling Mistake: Overheating

Heat is the enemy of endurance performance, indoors or outside. As muscles generate power, about 75-80% of the energy burned is lost as heat and only 20-25% ends up doing mechanical work. To dissipate that heat, you need temperature gradients. Heat moves from areas of high temperature to areas of lower temperature, like from hot skin to cool air.

The body has five mechanisms for dissipating heat: evaporation, conduction, radiation, convection, and respiration. Convective cooling and evaporative cooling occur as sweat evaporates off your skin. Conduction occurs as warm sweat is carried away from your body by moisture-wicking fabric. When ambient temperatures are below body temperature, you radiate heat effectively, too.

You have control over your indoor environment, but you also face some challenges. It is difficult to replicate the whole-body airflow you experience outdoors when riding inside. Insufficient airflow – particularly in a warm room – reduces the size of the temperature gradients between skin and air, skin and clothing, and even inhaled and exhaled breaths. As a result, many athletes struggle to dissipate heat effectively while riding indoors.

That puddle of sweat on the floor isn’t a badge of honor, it’s a missed opportunity. That sweat could have dissipated more heat by evaporating off your skin. Overheating leads to high sweat rates, increasing the risk for dehydration. Increased thermal strain reduces motivation to continue exercising. These are contributing factors to reduced power output and/or reduced time to exhaustion many riders experience compared to their outdoor workouts.

The solution is obvious but not necessarily simple. You need more fans and greater airflow, including over your back. And you probably need to consume more fluids during indoor rides. If there’s a cooler area of your home, like the garage or basement, that may be a better place for your pain cave, too.

More articles on indoor cycling:

Common Indoor Cycling Mistake: You set up the bike incorrectly

You want to set your bike up as level as possible, even if you have a smart trainer or smart bike equipped to raise and lower the front end of your bike in response to changes in terrain. The starting point should be level. You can determine this by measuring the distances from your axles to the floor, a method that works with direct drive trainers as well as wheel-on trainers. Another method may be to measure how level your saddle is when your bike is on level ground with both wheels attached. Then match that saddle pitch when the bike is on the trainer.

Side-to-side level is also very important, but more frequently overlooked. Most indoor trainers have adjustable feet so you can raise or lower each side as needed, to account for uneven floors. If your bike is leaning to the side a bit, you’ll try to correct for it as you ride, which may lead to joint pain and/or saddle sores.

The last setup problem has to do with the position of the screens you’re using for interactive apps and entertainment. Ideally, your screens should be placed in the same sight line you’d have when riding outdoors. Many cyclists place their screens too high, meaning they must sit up higher on the bike and/or crane their necks to view them. This may not hinder indoor performance much, but the resulting cycling positions don’t translate well to outdoor performance.

Indoor Cycling Mistake: Riding an unrealistic outdoor position

Screen position is just one contributing factor that can lead to discrepancies between indoor and outdoor cycling positions. If you are planning to ride long distances and/or competitive events outdoors, you want your indoor cycling position to mirror your outdoor position as closely as possible.

In fact, experimenting with and acclimating to new cycling positions are two of the best ways to use indoor cycling. You can make adjustments easily and see how position changes affect power output in a much more controlled environment compared to outdoors.

Bike fit is normally a balance of power output, comfort, and aerodynamics. However, if you are only riding indoors, you can ignore aerodynamics because the indoor cycling apps set those parameters for your avatar. You could sit far more upright indoors, in a position that would catch all sorts of wind outdoors, if that’s more powerful and comfortable position for you. At some point, it’s plausible the apps could capture your indoor position to adjust your drag coefficient in real time, but they’re not there yet.

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Indoor Cycling Mistake: Not getting off the bike/not stopping

Somewhere along the line, cyclists developed the notion they weren’t supposed to get off the bike or even stop pedaling during indoor cycling workouts. However, that’s pretty unusual for any ride other than a race. It’s one thing if you’re only on the trainer for 45 or 60 minutes. But if you’re riding 2- and 3-hour endurance rides on the indoor trainer, it’s okay put a proverbial foot down and pause like you would for a traffic light or a café stop. If you’re riding routes on a smart trainer, yes, you can even coast down the hills sometimes.

Getting off the bike during long indoor cycling rides can also be important for your joints and posture. Outdoors, your bike oscillates under you as you push on the pedals. This affects how you pedal. For instance, athletes with weaker core muscles tend to sway more in the saddle. However, your bike can’t typically move as much under you indoors, which can alter the way you pedal and your position relative to the bike. This can lead to soreness or even overuse injuries. Getting off the bike to stretch or complete some mobility exercises can help mitigate those problems.

Mistake: Doing too many races or high intensity group rides

With e-sport races and group rides accessible around the clock, as well as libraries full of pre-programmed workouts, indoor cycling apps make it very enticing to go hard all the time. Even ‘free-riding’ on an interactive app like Zwift or Wahoo RGT can be tough for people who have a competitive streak and don’t like being passed.

No matter what cycling training paradigm you want to follow (traditional periodization, Zone 2, 80/20, polarized, reverse polarized, etc.) they all incorporate significantly more time at low to moderate intensities than at high intensities. Even most ‘high-intensity interval training’ plans feature a lot of low to moderate intensity riding once you account for all the time before, between, and after the intervals.

Just because you can race every day (or even multiple times per day) doesn’t mean you should. You’re displacing training time at low and moderate intensities that’s necessary for promoting aerobic development and the foundation upon which you can build high-performance fitness.

Indoor Cycling Mistake: Too little structure

There’s always a balancing act between unstructured and structured training. Social rides, group rides, and “go have fun” rides are crucial for keeping athletes engaged. In large part, those rides are the reasons we endure the structured training in the first place. And to achieve your goals in competitions or to develop the fitness to have fun on those social rides, you need to commit to some structured training. It is during those workouts that you can accumulate specific amounts of time-at-intensity to target specific physiologic adaptations.

When cyclists choose their workouts from an app’s library based on a whim, or jump into a friend’s workout, or join a celebrity-led workout online, that’s structure without a plan. If you’re doing that, just understand the workout you’re doing will be more for entertainment and engagement than for training.

If indoor cycling is a significant portion of your time on the bike – or all your time on the bike – then the content of those rides needs to be incorporated into your overall cycling training plan.


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Comments 5

  1. I’m 72 retired but still logging in 3500-4500 miles a year. I’m East Coast Atlantic region so I transitioned from about apprx. 6 hrs moderate intensity outdoors with usually one or two high intensity group rides a wk to structured progressive training indoors doing daily 1 hr spin classes.
    I really prefer these during the cold weather months.
    I used to race for about 25 years so I’m familiar with my body’s ability and feedback. Even though my spin instructors are high intensity everyday. I’m keeping track of my watts and HR and monitoring my efforts to allow recovery for the next days 60 minute session. I’m taking every weekend off to recover for the next week and after 6 wks, I’m fazing in weight training to assist with lower body strength.
    I appreciate big time and always check to see if there’s something I’m missing or not doing correctly, Thank You!

  2. I used to be the person crazy for Zwift races but as you said I often pushed too hard and needed much more recovery. I calmed down and now I am riding Rouvy and skipping the races, rather looking for nice sightseeing while riding their library of real routes.

  3. Like to learn more. I”m slow during the winter months and pick it up a bit spring and summer. Just had an accident 5 months ago, got ran over by a golf cart. trying now to get back to where I was in sept. before my accident.

  4. On 3 hour rides I may get off for 15 minutes or so for a cup of coffee and sugar bomb but am worried that duration may reduce the benefit of the ride. Do you have range of time recommended to be off the bike for a longer trainer ride at endurance pace?

  5. Great tips.
    I really need to do something with the heat, given I sweat around 600ml in one hour endurance ride, my wife is not too happy with the puddles on the floor, lol.

    BTW on my 3rd week of New Century program, improvements were through the roof, riding bike is easier than ever. Though I struggle to keep in power and always over commit during steady state efforts by 20-30 watts.

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