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

Indoor cycling workouts
(Image credit: Wattbike)

Whether you’re a sprinter, a climber, or a time trial specialist, the high-structure and low-distraction afforded by indoor cycling workouts are the best way to improve your fitness using quick and efficient training sessions. The depths of winter are the perfect time to dial in your indoor training routine, and a turbo trainer or smart bike can be the ultimate training tool to help you nail your indoor workouts, follow training plans, and provide a virtual platform to connect with people. 

We've already covered our favourite Zwift Workouts, but here are five of our go-to indoor training sessions that include 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.

Tabata intervals

A favourite of WorldTour professionals, 40/20s are a key high-intensity workout for VO2 max development and race preparation. This set of Tabata intervals – a form of high-intensity interval training using very short work periods followed by even shorter rest periods – 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 50% 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.

40/20s

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

Sprint sessions

Having a solid sprint is one of the keys to success in almost every cycling discipline, from road racing to cyclo-cross, to XC mountain biking and track racing. Whether it’s out of the breakaway or the peloton, you’re going to need a sharp kick and 10-15 seconds of impressive power if you want to cross the finish line first. This sprint session is one of the best ways to improve your sprint performance on the bike, from the comfort of your own home.

Each of the eight sprints in this indoor cycling workout must be absolutely full gas, 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. 

Max Power 15-second Sprints

  • Warm up for 10-15 minutes
  • (2 sets) 4x 15-second sprint at 200-300% FTP, followed by 2 minutes and 45 seconds recovery at 45-55% FTP 
  • 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.
  • 5 minutes recovery in between the two sets
  • Cool-down/ride easy for at least 10 minutes after the last set

Time trial sessions (sweet spot/threshold over/unders)

In its ever-increasing popularity, Sweet Spot 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. Sweet Spot 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 sweet spot 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. Sweet Spot 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. 

3x8 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 maximize the quality of each interval
  • Cool-down/ride easy for at least 10 minutes after the last set

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 3x8-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; and in the wake of another cancelled race, you can smash out this session at home.

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 hard tempo. 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.

3x8-minute Over/Unders with Accelerations

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

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 5x3-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. 

5x3min VO2max 

  • Warm up for 10-15 minutes
  • 5x 3 minutes at 115% FTP, with 3 minutes recovery at <50% FTP in between sets
  • Cool-down/ride easy for at least 10 minutes after the last set
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Zach is a freelance writer, the head of ZNehr Coaching, and an elite-level rider in road, track, and Zwift 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, competing on RGT Cycling and racing in the Zwift Premier League with NeXT eSport.