The best ways to build endurance with an indoor trainer

Knowing how to get the most out of your indoor training sessions will help you to ride faster, further, and for longer than ever before

Clock11:46, Friday 10th November 2023


Smart trainers offer so much, from virtual racing to power testing and even social rides. All this is available to you without ever needing to leave the comfort of your own home.

One thing that smart trainers struggle with, regardless of all the virtual training aids, is making long indoor rides as engaging as they are when riding outside. This is a real nuisance, especially when looking to develop your aerobic endurance. It is typically said that the only way to build your endurance is with long steady rides at a low intensity. This type of riding can be hard to do on an indoor trainer because of the mental tedium it can cause.

There certainly is a place for long easy miles, however there are a few things you can do to help tick off those miles that little bit easier when you head indoors. Here are few ways to make longer indoor rides more fun and engaging.

Use a virtual training platform

The first thing you can do to try and remove some of the boredom you might have experienced with indoor training is to use virtual training software. If you don’t use one at the moment, check out our top cycling apps for indoor cycling.

Rather than just staring at a data screen or just putting the TV on in an attempt to make time pass by that bit quicker, a virtual training platform will give you a more engrossing riding experience. Virtual training with a smart trainer will replicate what is being displayed on your screen through the resistance of the trainer. If there is a hill in front of you, as you approach it and begin climbing, the resistance will build and feel like you really are riding up the hill. Not only will it feel reminiscent of the real virtual world, you will also have to change gears like you would out on the road.

Through the partnership of visual graphics and the exploration of virtual ‘worlds’,  along with the more involved rider dynamic, it is easier to keep your mind occupied. This means that rides over 90 minutes become attainable on an indoor trainer without the typically associated mental fatigue.

Virtual group rides

Even if you are surrounded by snow or the forecast looks to be torrential rain all day, the group ride doesn’t need to be called off. With the help of a smart trainer and a virtual training host, you can meet up with your mates or tag along with other public group rides. Along with the ability to message each other along the ride, you can also keep the fun of the group ride alive with town sign sprints or KOM challenges.

Most virtual training platforms have an extensive library of routes and worlds to ride in. This should work nicely to stave off any encroaching boredom whilst putting the miles in.

Endurance workouts

If you want to get more scientific about endurance training, a smart trainer is the right tool for the job. If you have read any of our indoor training content, you will likely have seen ERG mode mentioned. This is a feature of smart trainers that allows you to control the trainer and get it to hold you at a fixed power output. This can either be used with a workout provided by the host or, on some platforms like Zwift, you can create your own.

If you are the type of rider that heads out with all the best intentions of a zone two ride but within sight of your home you are already pushing on into zone four, indoor training could be a great tool for you. Using ERG mode means that you simply cannot get carried away; if you try and pedal harder, only your cadence will increase but not your power.

A good workout to complete is a three-hour ride with a regular oscillation between higher and lower-end zone two power. You should be looking to mix it up every 10-15 minutes, as this will provide you with a bit of variation, but most importantly, keep you in the correct zone to get the training benefit.

Sweet spot workouts

This really is where an indoor trainer starts to come into its own. Although endurance workouts can be more accurate and more pleasant on an indoor trainer, especially when the weather is anything but motiving, a long and steady zone two ride can be easily done outside.

As you step up the intensity, finding the right roads to facilitate a sustained harder effort can be tough, making a move indoors potentially wise. Sweet spot training is not traditionally associated with endurance training however, there is evidence to suggest that it can be beneficial, especially for the time-crunched riders among us.

Riding at 88-93% of your functional threshold power (FTP) for 20-30 minutes at a time, two or three times in a session, will give you a big block of training at a higher intensity. This style of workout is particularly good for riders who do not have four hours to spend riding in zone two and need to condense a workout into around 90 minutes.

Cadence drills

One of the limiting factors when it comes to building your endurance is the resistance your muscles have to fatigue. Over the course of a long ride, your leg muscles will tire and lose power output. A good training session for developing your muscular endurance is to do over-geared drills. By riding at a sub-threshold power, but at a reduced cadence of between 60-70 rpm, you force your muscles to do most of the power generation rather than your cardiovascular system.

A ride with three or four blocks of 15 minutes at this lower cadence will develop your muscular endurance, which will see you remain fresher for longer towards the end of a ride.

Dialling in your nutrition

Indoor training can give you a lot more flexibility for trying new things, as well as being a little bit more scientific in understanding your findings. Nutrition is a classic example of something to try and get right whilst indoor training. Throughout a three-hour ride, you are going to need to stay hydrated and fuelled to maintain your performance. Typically on an outdoor ride, you’ll take two bottles and some energy products and once they are gone, they are gone.

Indoor endurance rides allow you to try different strategies and see the effects that they have with relative ease. Putting four or five bottles next to your bike means you can drink as much as you like as well as trialling a mix of foods throughout the ride.

Having your ride time on display and with no descents, towns, or big junctions getting in the way, you can structure a fuelling plan with accuracy to find what works best for you, and how often you need to top up the tank.

Virtual racing

Although most certainly not a form of low-intensity endurance training, getting involved in some of the longer-distance virtual races will put your endurance to the test. Finding the right race to challenge you but keep you competitive is the main thing that will make the experience enjoyable; typically this is done by grouping people's FTP power-to-weight ratios.

Once the race begins, try and hold your own and stay with the pack, putting into practice the nutrition strategy that you worked out in training. The nature of a virtual race will have the time ticking by quicker than normal, so a three-hour virtual race might feel more manageable than a solo two-hour ride. Even though this won’t count as endurance training, as you are almost certainly going to be spending a lot of time in your higher power zones, it provides a good gauge of how your endurance is improving over time and it is a lot of fun!

In conclusion

An indoor smart trainer is a great tool for specific training; it can keep the pedals turning on the days when heading out just isn’t an option, maintaining the consistency that training requires. Moreover, it allows you to dial into your specific training zones with ease and can give you a better environment to trial nutrition strategies.

One of the added benefits of riding inside, especially for prolonged durations is the mental resistance it builds. This is something often overlooked but developing the ability to dig in and get it done is certainly a good thing for riding and beyond.

If you are a fan of indoor riding or if you are just getting started, be sure to head over to GCN's , where you can find out everything you need for this season of indoor riding.

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