The gamification of indoor training


Indoor trainers may be loathed by many, but the latest technology makes them not just efficient, but fun as well. Lee Rodgers explains.

The INDOOR TRAINER! First developed by Grand Inquisitor Torquemada in 1484 as an instrument of torture to force the heathen elements of Spanish society to give up their own ungodly beliefs and fully embrace Catholicism. There is little doubt that this mischievous contraption has had many of us cursing under our breath (or for that matter, above it) with the odd expletive thrown in for good measure.

However, when utilised intelligently there is no other device as useful in improving a rider’s all-round fitness, with benefits to be accrued to pedal stroke, energy efficiency and honing of riding style, and of course to the all-important elements that constitute good form and fitness on the bike: strength, power, speed and the ability to recover from multiple efforts. And, of course, it is a god-send when the weather takes a turn for the worse. Finally, they are ideal for the time-constrained rider, because the workouts are so much more efficient.  

That’s the pros of the indoor trainer, but what about the cons? Well, your bum is most likely going to ache a bit more than usual due to the fact that you’ll be pedalling constantly and not have those little moments you get on the road where your backside is not in contact with the saddle. Non-cycling members of your family will peek around the door during one of your sweaty, sweary sessions and fully comprehend, finally, just how insane you really are. A dark shadow of a pool of sweat will form permanently on your lovely wood floor, making it look like there may have been a stabbing at your residence some time past.

And of course, there is the boredom. This is the main reason people have such a complicated relationship with the indoor trainer, citing the monotony of riding indoors and having to hustle and bustle without actually going anywhere, the mental torture of the 1000-yard stare, and the general inorganic and terribly mechanical nature of it all.

now we have clever tech developed specifically to lessen the boredom

If you want to know about capacity for taking on boredom, I once broke my hand just four weeks before the 2012 Tour of Qatar, and, unable to train outside, clocked up 75 hours over the course of three weeks in a desperate bid to get fit for the race, and had to do it on the exposed rooftop of my apartment building because my outdated ‘indoor’ trainer was just way too loud for the neighbours! Got me strong as an ox, sure, but, I have to admit I was practically brain dead by the end of the five-hour sessions.

But now, thankfully, we have clever tech and apps developed specifically to lessen the boredom, and designed to bring structure and an almost endless variety of workouts that, if used consistently and as a compliment to riding outdoors, will see every rider make real, sustainable gains. They are also fun, in a masochistic kind of way. Think of them as the gamification of indoor training.

This training ‘software’ is especially potent in combination with the latest in training hardware. Smart trainers are able to increase or decrease resistance by themselves, to make for a more interesting, less monotonous session—and can pair with programs to increase resistance to simulate hill-climbs, sprints and more. These improvements in technology means the indoor trainer is not just a tool to be recommended, but rather an essential piece of kit for any rider that is serious about improving their fitness, reaching new heights and attaining their goals.

Training apps

There are a bunch of training programs and training applications out there these days for indoor training, and I’d be here all day if I was to look into them all, so let’s look at the big three players: The Sufferfest, Trainer Road and Zwift.

Zwift-screenshotI don’t have a fancy set-up that integrates everything, so I mainly use The Sufferfest ( videos when I am training indoors. I’m a huge fan of these videos, partly because when I first tested them out for a review on a cycling website I was amazed to find that the style of workout matched almost perfectly those I had created for myself.

I’m also a big fan of ‘feel’ as opposed to zones and watts so the Perceived Rate of Exertion (PRE)—a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a frothing-at-the-gills, on-the-cusp-of-a-breakdown effort—suits me to a tee. There’s obviously a time and a place for power output figures but essentially I believe that the very best system for feedback is wrapped up right under our skin; we just need to learn to listen to it more.

Anyway, The Sufferfest rocks and is brilliant for alleviating boredom with its non-stop demands on the rider, ‘interesting’ music and the rather humorous lines of text that pop up from time to time. There are a variety of workouts that will zap and prod your form in all the right places whether you need to work on stamina or top-end sprint work. The cons are that, as mentioned, these videos are workouts as opposed to tools in the way the other two are; however, these vids can be integrated with the next application we’ll consider, Trainer Road (

Adherents of indoor suffering on the whole come down on the side of the subscription-based Trainer Road as being the most effective way to become stronger and faster on the trainer. Why? Well, like The Sufferfest, this platform incorporates a variety of workouts aimed at taking you from the winter-break sofa right up to race day, and it is a fully integrated system that is compatible with every electronically-controlled ‘smart trainer’. Interestingly, many also recommend using The Sufferfest videos with Trainer Road for the most rewarding experience. I have used it in this way briefly and must say I agree.

Finally, to Zwift (, the ultimate in gamification of cycling training. Prerequisites are an ANT+ bike computer (eg. Garmin) at a bare minimum, but ideally a power meter and smart trainer for best effect. Zwift pairs the indoor trainer with an online multi-player game, where you can race fellow cyclists in real time around fictional courses. The benefit of the smart trainer is that it can reduce resistance if you’re drafting behind another rider, or increase resistance for different gradients of the course. It’s especially great if you want to have an ego-bash with someone somewhere in the world that you’ve never met, never will and who is probably a very nice person but YOU MUST CRUSH THEM ANYWAY. Zwift is probably the most fun of the lot, but if you’re serious about making specific targeted gains, you need to be very disciplined and ignore the urge to race. It can also be used in conjunction with a Sufferfest video but many find that they end up ditching the plan and racing instead against John from Buffalo because he just has no respect and thinks he is better than them.

Screw you, John from Buffalo!

Winter workout sessions

The great thing about the indoor trainer is that you can jump on it with very little prep and get a properly decent workout done in as little as 30 minutes. The other great thing is that it can be used at any time of the year, either as a way to build stamina in the pre-season or to use to taper before a mid-season target. New research shows that hard, high intensity interval training (HIIT) can bring similar benefits to the body as long slow distance (LSD) riding—in much less time. These four workouts are designed to work on that.

Stamina builder

50 minutes

Short ride, not easy though. Can do in 30 if you cut the breaks to 3 minutes, and the 5 minute TT effort to 4 minutes.  

Warm up five minutes with Perceived Rate of Exertion (PRE) of 5 out of 10.

Sprint 1: 30 seconds at PRE 8.

30 sec break.

Sprint 2: 30 seconds at PRE 9.

30 sec break.

Sprint 3: 30 seconds (or less, if you can’t hold it) at PRE 10.

3 minutes break at PRE 4

Interval 1:

2 minutes at PRE 6

1 minute at PRE 7

5 minute effort as hard as you can hold for that period, seated, pushing hard. Work on isolating leg muscles and keep your upper body steady but relaxed, focusing also on the push and pull of your pedal stroke. Find the cadence that works for you.

4 minutes recovery.

Interval 2:

1 minute at PRE 6

2 minutes at  PRE 7

5 minute effort as hard as you can hold.

4 minutes recovery

Interval 3:

2 minutes at PRE 6

2 minutes at PRE 7

5 minutes as hard as you can hold.

Cool down.

AIM: This workout will bring benefits to muscularity and stamina while also working on power thanks to pushing bigger gears. An on-bike gym effort, if you like, that works as an introduction to HIIT work.

Half-hour world record

45 minutes

Five minutes warm up, then 30 minutes as hard as you can, seated, in as heavy a gear as you can manage. Be careful not to wreck your knees, by the way! This is a workout that requires strength and some experience to be able to gauge the effort to be able to finish. 5 mins cool down too.

Less experienced riders can do 3×10 minutes like this, or 2×15 minutes. The goal by the end of winter would be to be able to do 60 mins of this. This is real HIIT stuff and not for the fainthearted!

AIM: To turn you into a beast, basically. There’s something to be said—lots, actually—for not grinding all the time, but if you want to get strong and to build a power base and are short of time, this is the workout for you. It’s old school stuff and it hurts like hell but it will serve you well long-term, if you can manage this for 30 mins plus.

Winter deluxe

60 minutes

Designed to replace Long, Slow, Distance (LSD) workouts.

5 minutes at PRE 4

5 minutes at PRE 6, but in highest cadence you can sustain—lightish but get sweaty

10 minutes at PRE 5 at your usual cadence, but every second minute 2×10 second full-on sprints with 10 seconds recovery in between

8 minutes at PRE 10! Put it in the hardest gear you can manage and go for it!

4 minutes easy at PRE 3–4

8 minutes at PRE 10 again!

4 minutes at PRE 6, at highest sustainable cadence once again

Then again do: 10 minutes at PRE 5, normal cadence, but every second minute 2×10 seconds full-on sprints with 10 seconds between

And cool down.

AIM: A bit of everything here, sprints, high cadence work, and hard interval stuff that will get your system a-rumbling. Bring on the power!

Short and not sweet

35 minutes

4 minutes at PRE 4, with 3×10 second sprints at the end with 20 seconds recovery between.

1 minute recovery

6 minutes PRE 6

5 minutes PRE 7

4 minutes PRE 8

3 minutes PRE 9

2 minutes PRE 10 (ouch!)

3 minutes recovery

3×10 sec sprints with 20 seconds between

Cool down

AIM: This kind of workout really tests your understanding of your capabilities. The first couple of rides might come to a teary end but, with a little perseverance, this workout will not only build stamina and power but also get your head listening to your legs—funny how few riders do that, instead relying on numbers and beeps…

A former pro road racer, Lee Rodgers works for the Mongolia Bike Challenge and the Taiwan KOM Challenge as well as being a cycling coach, with his company CrankPunk Coaching Systems. Head over to for more on his system.

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