By Coach John Hughes

Riding on the road is fun! Riding on the trainer is not fun (unless you’re a masochist!).

As a roadie, you’re always looking for ways to improve (or at least, maintain): better equipment, smarter training, losing weight, etc. Add your time on the trainer to this list of potential ways to improve. Your trainer is tool you can use to tune up your cycling. Getting the most value from your trainer time is the key to making it work for you. Here's how:

6 Things Require Attention for Improvement

To improve at any sport, you need to work on (at least) 6 things:

1. Endurance—even if you don’t do longer rides, good endurance is the foundation of all that follows.

2. Power—power gets you up the hill with your mates and also speeds your evening commute so you can beat the weather.

3. Technique—power comes from stronger muscle fibers and from muscle fibers that are trained to fire at the right times.

4. Core strength—your legs are levers and your pelvis is the fulcrum, the point on which the levers turn. Core strength stabilizes your pelvis so all the power in your legs moves your bike, not your pelvis.

5. Conserving energy—your heart is beating hard moving oxygen and nutrition to your muscles. You want most of the O2 and calories to go to your legs, not to other muscles.

6. Focus—is the ability to concentrate on the task at hand, to put all of your physical and mental capacities into moving the bike down the road rather than being distracted.

Riding on the road, you can work on all six of these. In the winter, my clients work on all of these on the trainer except #1. I’ve ridden centuries on the trainer training for the Race Across America — trust me: you don’t want to do that!

Keys to Maximizing the Value of Your Trainer Time

An effective trainer workout includes: a warm-up, a main set, and a cool-down.

Even if you’re pressed for time, include the warm-up and cool-down. They don’t have to be long—five minutes of each is sufficient for many trainer rides.

Main Sets

The main set should have a specific purpose (or purposes)—don’t just grind away.Here’s how you can work on the above 6 Keys:

1. Endurance—as I described last week Peter Sagan is building his base doing different intervals below or at his aerobic threshold, i.e., he’s never breathing hard. You can adapt his intervals to the trainer:

2. Strength and powerLon Haldeman, who won the Race Across AMerica twice, built a trainer that has no saddle. He’ll train for an hour or more standing — and his legs show it! (I'm not suggesting the seatless trainer for everyone. The point is that you can use your trainer time to help your strength and power.)

3. Technique—sprinting is the best way to improve the coordination of your muscle fibers firing. Don’t worry about gauging how hard you’re riding, just go as hard as you can for 20 to 60 seconds with plenty of recovery between sprints.

4. Core strength—practice riding your bike with firm core muscles so that your hands are resting lightly on the handlebars like you’re typing.

5. Conserving energy—practice riding with a quiet upper body. Rocking your upper body doesn’t produce more power; it just wastes energy.

6. Focus—rather than trying to think about anything other than how boring / painful your workout is, practice focusing just on your breathing or on the feeling of your leg muscles or pedaling with a round stroke.

My Favorite Main Sets for Trainer Workouts

Endurance and Power

Allow a day of recovery between these:

Long endurance intervals: After warming up, ride 5- to 10-minute intervals at the level of effort you’d ride into a headwind. You can still talk but not whistle. Between each interval, recover for about half the length of the interval (2.5 to 5 minutes) at a conversational pace — imagine you’ve turned and only have a pesky cross-wind.

Long hill intervals: Elevate your front wheel. After warming up, ride 3 to 6 climbing intervals at the level of effort you’d climb a long hill. You’re breathing deeply and your legs are definitely working, but not feeling the burn. Between each interval, recover for about the same duration as the interval by riding at an easy pace — imagine you’re spinning down a gentle decline.

Standing intervals: This takes just 30 minutes. Warm up for five minutes. Then put it in a big gear and stand as long as you can. Every five minutes, stand again for a total of 5 reps over 30 minutes. Each workout I try to increase the time standing by at least 5 seconds in each rep.

Power pyramid: Set a moderate resistance. Pedal for 1 minute in your lowest (easiest) gear, then shift up one gear harder and pedal for another minute. Keep shifting up one gear every minute until you get to your hardest gear. Pedal in the hardest gear for a minute and then work your way back down one gear every minute. Try to keep the same cadence throughout.


You can do these on successive days and can incorporate them into warm-ups for other workouts.

One-Legged Pedaling

This is also a great way to warm up. Set a moderate resistance. Unclip and rest your left foot on a box, stool, etc. and start with your right leg:

  • 0:30 - 60 seconds right leg
  • 0:30 - 60 both (don't bother to clip in your left foot; just pedal easy to recover)
  • 0:30 - 60 right leg
  • 0:30 - 60 both
  • 0:30 - 60 right leg
  • 0:30 - 60 both

Each week try to increase each one-leg effort by 5 seconds.


Use a moderate resistance and in zone 2 and 3 increase the cadence as follow. Only go as high as you can while pedaling smoothly:

  • 1 min @ 80 RPM
  • 1 min @ 90 RPM
  • 1 min @ 100 RPM
  • 1 min @ 110 RPM
  • 1 min @ 120 RPM
  • 1 min @ 130 RPM
  • 1 min @ 120 RPM
  • 1 min @ 110 RPM
  • 1 min @ 100 RPM
  • 1 min @ 90 RPM
  • 1 min @ 80 RPM

This is much like the Power Pyramid, but focusing on cadence instead of power.


Use a moderate resistance. Every 3 to 5 minutes accelerate your cadence as fast as you can for 30 seconds while pedaling smoothly.

The next ones are harder main sets and always take at least a day of recovery between them:

Short Sprints

Repeat three to five times:

  • 20 seconds flat out
  • 40 seconds very easy
  • 4 minutes steady

Every few rides make the workout harder by increasing the number of times you repeat the pattern or by reducing the steady riding from 4:00 to 3:30, etc.

Improvised Sprints

Andy Pruitt told me about a football fan he knows who pedals hard every time the ball is in play, and recovers during the huddles.  Another pedals hard during every commercial break. (That may be tougher!)

Additional Resource:

My eArticle Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 includes 15 different trainer workouts, which also work for younger rides.

Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.

Posted on February 14, 2018 .