Getting started with indoor bike training

A coworker was asking me about indoor cycling, so I took a few minutes to put together some notes on the configuration I use. He wanted a basic setup that would let him train indoors and minimize time spent away from his family. Here’s what I told him.

First, you should know that you can train in two ways: 

  • Structured workouts that target a particular power level (your functional threshold power, or FTP). An example workout is here. For example, you might ride a warmup for 10min at 60% of your FTP, then do interval sets of 80-115% FTP, then a cooldown.
  • Workouts where you ride for a set distance or duration while keeping your heart rate and/or pedal cadence in a certain range. These are akin to what you might do in a spin class, although a good instructor will provide a much more structured experience with intervals.

Both of these depend on having a way for something to measure how fast the pedals are going (cadence) and, optionally, your heart rate. Structured power-based workouts require you to have some way to either measure or estimate how much power you’re putting on the pedals.

Assuming you want to spend as little as possible, here’s what you need to get started with bike trainer workouts:

  1. A bike trainer. This DC Rainmaker article is the canonical list of recommendations for every price range. I got one of the Performance Bike TravelTrac units for about $100. I had borrowed a Kinetic Road Machine and loved it; it is much smoother than the TravelTrac but also costs 2x as much. 
  2. Speed and cadence sensors for your bike. There are two sensor protocols: ANT+ and Bluetooth Low Energy. You may be able to use BLE sensors with your phone and selected software, and it might work with your laptop, depending on what kind of gear you have. ANT+ is much more widely used for these sensors. I have a Wahoo ANT+ speed/cadence combo sensor but Garmin and several other companies make them. (Ignore the price at that link; sensors cost from $35-75 depending on brand).
  3. If you want structured workouts, TrainerRoad or some other training software. TR is $10/month, has a full money-back guarantee, and is very well worth it. TR will calculate what they call “virtual power” based on your pedal cadence, wheel speed, and the type of trainer you have. You will also need an ANT+ USB stick for your laptop so the TrainerRoad app can see your cadence and heart rate data. I use a $17 one from Amazon.
  4. If you want cadence / HR-based workouts, you need some way to see what your cadence and/or heart rate are. You can use a phone app for iOS or Android such as Strava or Wahoo Fit, the TrainerRoad app if you’ve subscribed, or a bike computer or watch that speaks ANT+. Beware that not every ANT+ device can display all types of sensors. For example, the Garmin Forerunner 15 running watch will display ANT+ heart rate data but ignores cycling sensors because it’s a running-only watch.
  5. If you want to gather heart rate data, you’ll need a heart rate monitor. I use the Scosche RHYTHM+ because a) it’s an arm/wrist strap and not a chest strap and b) it can transmit both BLE and ANT+.

There are lots of other ways to spend money on this stuff: there are computer-controlled trainers that adjust the resistance to give you realistic uphill and downhill rides, power meters that measure your power using strain gauges, bike computers that display your cadence, speed, etc. on a handlebar-mounted unit, and so on. But with the basic stuff above (which I’d estimate will cost less than $200 all in) you can get a terrific training experience without leaving your house.

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