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10 hacks for indoor cycling: tips for the novice when starting out on Zwift or any other app

Indoor cycling hacks
(Image credit: Zwift)

So you've got your subscription to a training app, and you're ready to lay down some watts and get fit. Indoor cycling generally entails a bit of suffering but it doesn't need to be miserable; whether you're a first-timer or you have a few indoor miles under your belt, a few simple steps will make the whole process something you won't want to quit after the first go around. 

Scroll down for a list of the best tips and tricks the team at Cyclingnews uses when it comes time to ride inside.

1. Find the right space

Indoor cycling hacks

Not everyone has a garage or dedicated pain cave (Image credit: TrainerRoad)

Trainers come in all shapes and sizes, and not everyone has the luxury of a dedicated pain cave where their trainer can live full time. It's important to consider where you are setting up, not only for your own sanity but also for those who live around you.

Have a look at the floor, is it carpeted, tiled or concrete? Trainers are heavy, and you're going to be sweating bullets, so if it's a surface that you want to keep scratch and sweat-free, consider a mat. There are plenty of purpose-built trainer mats on sale, though you can use a beach towel if you don't want to buy anything. Our preferred mat is actually a strip of astroturf purchased from the local hardware store. 

Turbo trainers are noisy. Today's best turbo trainers are noticeably quieter than the wind trainers of old, but even the quiet ones can test the patience of significant others, roommates and downstairs neighbours. If you can, try to put your trainer in a separate room, basement or garage. If you do set up inside the house, consider a bit of soundproofing for your guest bedroom turned pain cave; something as simple as a draft excluder under the door quells quite a few decibels.

2. A big fan, or two

Wahoo Kickr Headwind

The Wahoo Kickr Headwind is a smart fan designed for indoor training (Image credit: Josh Croxton)

Staying cool while your riding is essential not only in terms of comfort but also performance — if your body gets too hot, the systems designed to prevent your organs cooking from the inside out will prevent you from working at your peak. Usually, the breeze from moving forward in space works to evaporate sweat and keep you cool, but when you're stuck in place, that's no longer an option.

So, you're going to want a fan, and a powerful one at that, or maybe even two. It doesn't cost a lot to get a big fan with serious power, we recommend looking on Amazon or at the hardware store. If you’re looking to create the ultimate training space, Wahoo makes a pretty nifty fan called the Kickr Headwind that can tailor its airflow based on your heart rate — but it isn't cheap.

You'll want to aim the fan at your face and body from below for max cooling effect, though we've heard unconfirmed rumours placing it behind you like a tailwind gives you a few extra watts on Zwift.

3. Wireless mouse or keyboard

Indoor cycling hacks

A wireless keyboard will allow you to control your computer without jumping off the bike (Image credit: Microsoft)

Whether you're chatting with others on your Zwift ride, adjusting the intensity of your workout or scrolling through Netflix to find a movie to watch while you pedal, a wireless keyboard and mouse will limit how often you have to get off your bike or stretch to reach your device. 

We're partial to a wireless keyboard that has a built-in trackpad like the Microsoft All-In-One keyboard. As the name suggests, it has a keyboard and trackpad, but it's also spill-proof so it won’t be stymied by sweat, and most importantly it's relatively inexpensive, so when you inevitably drop it you won't be out a hundred bucks. 

4. Consider your line of sight

Indoor hacks

In the real world, it's helpful to see where you're going. In the virtual world, it's good to see what power you're pushing (Image credit: Zwift)

When you're hunkered down in the depths of an interval, the last thing you want to do is crane your neck to see if you're still on target or how long you have remaining in your current effort. Especially if you're riding with aero bars, consider your line of sight and don't place your TV, computer, or tablet too high.

5. Don't be afraid to adjust the workout intensity

Indoor cycling hacks

Finishing a workout at 99 per cent intensity is better than not finishing it at all (Image credit: TrainerRoad)

Some days you just don't have it in you to push big watts, while on other days you are feeling fit as a fiddle, and efforts that should put you deep in a hole barely spike your heart rate. Most indoor cycling apps designed for training have an intensity scale that adjusts your upcoming targets, and it's there for a reason. 

Intervals are supposed to be hard, but if a workout just isn't working for you, there is no shame in dropping it a few per cent or bumping it up to get the most out of it. Beware, bumping a workout up too early could result in a catastrophic explosion as the reps build-up, while dropping down before you’ve warmed up will reduce the desired training effect.

5. To ERG or not to ERG

Indoor cycling hacks

ERG mode will adjust resistance to maintain a desired power no matter your cadence (Image credit: The Sufferfest)

If you have a smart trainer, ERG mode lets the trainer dictate the resistance rather than leaving you trying to find the right combination of gearing and cadence to hit a specific power. If it’s set to 200 watts it will provide 200 watts of resistance whether you're spinning 80rpm or 110rpm, no matter what the cog on the cassette. 

This is great if you're riding a workout with specific targets because the trainer will force you to do the work. If you're riding or racing in Zwift or using an app like Rouvy or FulGaz, you'll want to use Sim mode, so the trainer tailors resistance based on what's happening on the screen, such as climbs and descents.

While ERG mode has made indoor training more efficient, it has its caveats, and there is a learning curve. If you back off a little bit or start to get tired, the trainer will up the resistance to maintain the defined wattage, which can result in what's called the 'spiral of death’ — the trainer continues to up the resistance, and in turn your tired legs continue to slow. Your cadence falls until your legs come to a grinding halt. 

To avoid the spiral of death, before the start of an interval up your candace and hit the beginning of the effort hard to get on top of the gear to prevent getting bogged. On the other side, at the end of the interval ride through the end and wait for the trainer to lower the resistance; if you let up with one second to go, you will find yourself approaching the spiral of death. 

Elite Direto X smart trainer review

7. Somewhere to put your stuff

Indoor cycling hacks

A dedicated desk will keep everything organised and within reach (Image credit: Wahoo)

There is a bit more to riding inside than just whacking your bike into the trainer and pedalling away; you're going to need a device to run your training app or entertainment, water, snacks and maybe even your phone — if it's not on Instagram, did you really ride the trainer?

Most of us haven't figured out how to make things levitate, so you're going to need somewhere to put all of this stuff. 

Brands like Wahoo and Tacx make some pretty schmick desks and tablet holders, and we've seen some pretty fancy DIY jobs built by people who are better with power tools than anyone on the Cyclingnews team.  

If you've already dropped a heap of cash on your new smart trainer, and don't want to spend a bundle more, a couple of sheet music stands or an ironing board can be the ideal solution. They are cheap, stable, height and tilt adjustable and best of all they pack away easily.

8. Front wheel block

Indoor cycling hacks

A riser block will raise your front wheel and keep you in a level riding position that's more alike your on-road position (Image credit: Elite)

A front wheel riser block isn't always seen as an essential accessory for riding the trainer, in part because not all trainers need them. With the bike mounted in some trainers, the rear axle may sit higher than the front, which can shift a disproportionate amount of weight forward onto your hands and wrists, and move weight onto soft tissue causing discomfort in your downstairs. 

Riser blocks come in all different shapes, sizes and heights with most stabilizing your front wheel like the Saris Climbing Block while some like the Elite Sterzo allows you to take advantage of the steering functionality that is being added to some training apps. 

You don't necessarily need a purpose-built riser block, phonebooks, textbooks, bricks and anything else that can be stably stacked will work. 

9. Drape a towel over your handlebars

Indoor hacks

A towel over your handlebars will catch the sweat droplets and keep your expensive components salt-free (Image credit: Courtesy)

When you're deep in the pain cave, it’s not uncommon to be literally dripping with sweat, giving your bars, stem, top tube and headset a lukewarm salt bath.

We've all seen the horror stories online of someone pulling their tape off and finding a salty monstrosity underneath; draping a towel over your bars can help to mitigate the exposure, plus you have something to wipe your face with as you ride. We prefer the microfiber, camp-style gym towels to cotton or beach towels because they dry a bit faster, and can be had pretty cheap online. If you're planning on training a few times a week, it's worth grabbing a couple, so you can rotate them through the washing machine. 

10. A good set of headphones

Indoor hacks

Headphones prevent you from needing to turn the TV up to drown out the whirr of your trainer (Image credit: Courtesy)

Whether you're listening to 80’s glam metal to get you through a workout, a podcast or watching a TV show, the people you live with may not want to listen to it as well, so you're going to want a good set of headphones for the trainer if you don't already have a pair.

We've gone through quite a few sets of wired and wireless headphones in the hundreds of hours we've spent on the trainer, and the best solution we've found is completely wireless earbuds like the Apple AirPod Pro. We especially like these headphones because the noise cancelling can drown out even the loudest wheel-on trainers. 

If Apple isn't your jam we also like the Jaybird Vista headphones or if you're looking for something a bit cheaper, the Amazon Echo Buds don't disappoint.