Indoor cycling workouts: Five sessions to help everyone get faster on the bike

Athlete riding Wattbike in studio setting
(Image credit: Wattbike)

No matter whether you're a new cyclist looking to improve fitness, an age-grouper training for an event around a job, or a full-time pro, indoor cycling workouts are a great way to improve your fitness. 

Riding indoors removes road furniture, traffic, distractions, bad weather, and any risks of crashing, while also providing complete control and structure to your workout. All of this combines to provide the perfect environment for quality, consistent training. 

It might not sound the most appealing when the weather is nice outside, but the specificity afforded by indoor cycling workouts is unparalleled. Trying to perform a structured workout in the real world often requires finding a suitable hill or an open stretch of road. Depending on where you live, this unfortunately isn't always possible. A turbo trainer or smart bike paired with one of the many indoor cycling apps can provide the perfect virtual road for any workout of any structure. 

But if you're trying to get faster, simply riding indoors is only part of the puzzle. The other part is to choose training sessions that help you improve, so what workouts should you do? 

We've already covered our favourite Zwift workouts, but here are five of our go-to indoor training sessions that cover all areas of your power curve, helping you work on your weaknesses while also improving your strengths, no matter your choice of indoor cycling app.

Indoor cycling workouts

Tabatas (40/20s)

Tabata is defined as "a form of high-intensity physical training in which very short periods of extremely demanding activity are alternated with shorter periods of rest."

A favourite of pro riders, 40/20s are a key high-intensity workout for VO2 max development and race preparation. Each set of Tabata intervals lasts just a few minutes, but you’ll feel the burn after the first two reps.  

We recommend performing this session as an indoor cycling workout using either ERG mode or resistance mode on your trainer. Use a work interval of 40 seconds at 120-130% FTP, and a rest period of 20 seconds at 10-40% FTP to maximize the quality of the workout and finish strong on all four sets. Tabata intervals are great for race preparation because they simulate the extremely punchy efforts that you can find in cyclo-cross, criteriums, and hilly road races.

  • Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes
  • (Four sets) 5 x 40 seconds at 120-130% FTP, followed by 20 seconds recovery at <50% FTP
  • Five minutes of recovery in between each five-minute work interval
  • Cool-down/ride easy for at least 10 minutes after the last set

Progression: Increase the number of efforts per set to six, or increase the number of sets. 

Sprints

Cycling sprint training is key to success in almost every cycling discipline, from road racing to cyclo-cross, to XC mountain biking and track racing. Whether it's for the final sprint to the line, to attack out of the bunch, sprint out of a corner or follow someone else's attack, high power efforts are a common part of bike racing. 

No matter your reasons for using your sprint, you’re going to need a strong kick and 10-15 seconds of impressive power, and this session is one of the best ways to improve your sprint from the comfort of your own home.

Each of the eight sprints in this indoor cycling workout must be absolutely full gas, with nothing held back, putting all your energy into the pedals and cranking out the highest number of watts you can manage for the 15 seconds. Traditionally, this workout is focused on developing maximum power, peak 15-second power, and leg strength, so you need to set up each sprint in a fairly heavy gear. Use every muscle in your body to crank out the first few pedal strokes, and then give it everything you’ve got for the full 15 seconds. You can add variety to this workout by trying different positions for each sprint: alternate between standing and seated or starting in a high gear versus a low gear. 

  • Warm up for 10-15 minutes
  • (Two sets) 4 x 15-second sprint as hard as possible, followed by 2 minutes and 45 seconds recovery at 10-40% FTP 
  • 5 minutes recovery between the two sets
  • Don’t focus on your power numbers during each sprint. At a minimum, you should be able to hold 150% FTP during each sprint. As your fitness improves, so will your repeatability, and your last sprint will be just as powerful as the first
  • You can alternate between in and out of the saddle for each sprint, or sprinting up a hill on the hoods versus down a flat road in the drops. This will help prepare you for any sprint situation that you might encounter on the road.
  • Cool-down/ride easy for at least 10 minutes after the last set

Progression: Increase the duration of each sprint to 20 seconds

Over-unders

In its ever-increasing popularity, Sweetspot training (riding at 84-97% of FTP) focuses on a borderline intensity between ‘tempo’ and ‘threshold,’ resulting in a less damaging and more sustainable weekly indoor cycling workout perfect for breakaway riders and time trial specialists. Sweetspot promotes many physiological adaptations, such as increased lactate threshold and increased VO2 max, without wearing down the body as much as you would riding at these intensities themselves.

A sample indoor cycling sweetspot workout looks like this: three sets of 10-20 minutes at 84-97% FTP, with rest periods being half to two-thirds of the work period. Sweetspot efforts feel like a sub-maximal time trial effort, one that certainly hurts, but once you settle in, you should be able to hold it fairly comfortably for half an hour. Using ERG mode on your smart bike or trainer, start at 3x8-minute efforts and work your way up to a maximum of 3x20-minutes at Sweet Spot. 

  • Warm up for 10-15 minutes
  • (1 set) 3 x 8 minutes at 84-97% FTP, followed by 4 minutes recovery at 45-55% FTP
  • A 2:1 work-to-rest ratio works best for this duration and intensity of interval, allowing you enough time to recover in order to maximise the quality of each interval
  • Cool-down/ride easy for at least 10 minutes after the last set

Progression: Increase the work to rest ratio by either extending the interval to 10 minutes, or reducing the rest period to 3 minutes. Alternatively, increase the number of intervals to 4. 

Race simulations

These indoor cycling workouts are tough, simulating the conditions of racing and pushing you to your limit both physically and mentally. A mix of aerobic and anaerobic efforts, the 3 x 8-minute over-unders, and climbing interval workout will burn both the lungs and legs. In preparation for racing season, this workout is a great final tune-up before the big event.

During each interval, the 'over' portion will be the biggest test physically, requiring a full-on acceleration every couple of minutes. The 'under' portion can be just as challenging mentally, as your mind might think it's a rest period, when in fact you are still riding at a high percentage of your FTP. 

Picture yourself on the final climb, or in the final 5km leading up to a sprint, the peloton lined up, and everyone struggling to hold the wheel. It takes a hard tempo just to remain in the draft, and a sharp acceleration to stay on the wheel around each corner or switchback. Finishing the last set of this indoor cycling workout is a truly wonderful feeling.

  • Warm up for 10-15 minutes
  • 3 x 8 minutes at 76-85% FTP with a 10-second acceleration at 115% FTP every 2 minutes
  • 4 minutes of recovery in between each eight-minute work interval
  • Cool-down/ride easy for at least 10 minutes after the last set

Progression: Increase the length of each interval to 10 minutes, adding in one more acceleration. Alternatively reduce the rest period between each interval to three minutes, or add a fourth interval. 

VO2 max Intervals

The final layer is VO2 max intervals. These are some of the toughest lung-busters around, but they will get you in peak form in just a few weeks of structured training. VO2 max feels like you’re riding on the edge from the first 30 seconds – it takes a lot of focus to hold this intensity for a couple of minutes, so make sure you’re mentally prepared for the suffering ahead. 

A big VO2 max effort – and the ability to recover from it – is often the difference between winning and losing in cycling. Here is a classic 5 x 3-minute VO2 max workout that will get you primed and ready for the peak of racing season, whether it’s on the road or in the virtual worlds of Zwift or RGT. 

  • Warm up for 10-15 minutes
  • 5 x 3 minutes at 115% FTP, with 3 minutes recovery at 10-40% FTP in between each interval
  • Cool-down/ride easy for at least 10 minutes after the last set

Progression: Increase the number of efforts to six, or increase the intensity of each effort to 120% of FTP. 

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Zach is a freelance writer, the head of ZNehr Coaching, and an elite-level rider in road, track, and e-racing. He writes about everything cycling-related, from buyer's guides to product reviews and feature articles to power analyses. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science at Marian University-Indianapolis, Zach discovered a passion for writing that soon turned into a full-fledged career. In between articles, Zach spends his time working with endurance athletes of all abilities and ages at ZNehr Coaching. After entering the sport at age 17, Zach went on to have a wonderful road racing career that included winning the 2017 Collegiate National Time Trial Championships and a 9th place finish at the 2019 US Pro National Time Trial Championships. Nowadays, Zach spends most of his ride time indoors with NeXT eSport.