Indoor cycling: Everything you need to know

Indoor cycling on a smart trainer
(Image credit: Torwai)

Indoor Training Week has arrived at Cyclingnews, which means a deep dive into all things related to indoor cycling. As the nights start to draw in and the temperatures fall for those of us north of the equator, an increase in indoor riding may well be high on your schedule.

For some that means a spin on Zwift with friends, and for others that's an interval session on TrainerRoad. Whatever your preference, smart indoor trainers and engaging apps mean your winter cycling are more varied, specific, and fun than ever. Not to mention they're safer, with the lack of icy roads or traffic to contend with, the only danger is falling off the back of your virtual pace group. 

This deep dive into indoor cycling covers everything you'll ever need to know, and probably more besides, and this week we'll be dedicating plenty of server space to covering even more indoor cycling related features. 

Here are just a few we've done so far:

It's safe to say at this point that indoor cycling is well and truly here to stay. The days of basic turbo trainers and flogging yourself through an interval session whilst staring at the garage wall are long gone. (for most of us). Indoor training provides a fun, engaging structured and safe way of training inside during the winter months or all year round for fun and if you are perhaps a little time-crunched. 

The rise in popularity is primarily down to a revolution in the hardware - today's best smart trainers are worlds apart from the basic trainers that dominated the space just a decade ago - and the development of advanced software. 

There is a wide array of equipment, apps and software you can use as part of an indoor training setup and when you start looking into things or doing some research it can at times feel a little bit overwhelming. 

So here is a full rundown of everything you need to know to get started with indoor cycling. Depending on how much time you have, you can read the whole lot from top to bottom, or skip ahead to the most relevant section for you! 

How to get started

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To begin indoor cycling, there are a few must-haves. Of course, you are going to need a turbo trainer and a bike, but we're going to assume you want to take advantage of those aforementioned tech advancements. 

Turbo trainers explained

Our in-depth guide to the best turbo trainers will help you choose the right option. But, put simply, there are two types you should know about: 'smart' and 'simple'.

Smart turbo trainers

Smart turbo trainers have electronics built-in, as well as Bluetooth and ANT+ connectivity, meaning they can connect to your smartphone, tablet or computer. Your smart turbo trainer will monitor your power output and share this data with the training app on your device. The app can then send commands in order to increase or decrease the resistance of your trainer, which in turn can replicate climbs, descents, or structured interval sessions. 

It also enables 'ERG mode', whereby your trainer will continually adjust the resistance to ensure you ride at a given power output, no matter your cadence. After all, power = cadence x torque. You can then lose yourself in a Netflix series and all you need to think about is turning the pedals!

Smart turbo trainers are comprised of two forms, which are almost universally known as 'wheel-on' and 'direct drive'. 

Wheel-on trainers use a roller pressed against your bike's rear tyre and are often cheaper, but they're also generally noisier and can often feel like you're pedalling through treacle. They can also chew through tyres, although many brands do manufacture turbo-trainer-specific tyres, which are made up of a denser rubber compound to combat this. Don't be tempted to use these on the road, by the way, as they grip like a Teflon-coated frying pan.

Trainer maintenance

A wheel-on trainer uses a roller to sit against your rear wheel tyre  (Image credit: Courtesy)

Direct-drive trainers require the removal of the rear wheel from the bike and your chain connects directly to a cassette mounted onto the flywheel of the trainer. You need to ensure you have the correct cassette and freehub for your bike, but the resulting gains include quieter operation, no tyre wear, and a really smooth road-like ride feel. 

Trainer maintenance

A direct drive trainer uses a cassette mounted to the trainers flywheel and requires the removal of the rear wheel  (Image credit: Courtesy)

Simple turbo trainers

Simple trainers are devoid of electronics. They are wheel-on in operation, rather than direct-drive, and come with a choice of two forms of resistance: fluid or magnetic. 

Fluid trainers offer a progressive resistance curve, meaning the harder you pedal, the greater the resistance. 

Magnetic trainers have a remote shifter and a number of resistance steps that peak at anything from 500 to 1,000 watts, which will still far exceed riders' physical capabilities for longer efforts. For reference, a powerful pro cyclist will hold around 450 watts for an hour, while sprinters will peak at around 1,700 watts for a few seconds. 

Semi-smart turbo trainers

Sitting somewhere between the two are what are best described as half-smart trainers. These still have electronics built-in, and they still talk to your device in order to share real-time data, but they can't receive commands. Therefore, the app cannot control the resistance of your trainer, so 'ERG mode' isn't available.

These will usually sit at the halfway point in price, too, but with the ever-increasing competition in smart turbo trainers, we'd recommend hunting a deal for a fully-equipped turbo if your budget is holding you back. 


The alternative option to a turbo trainer for indoor riding is a set of rollers. These don't fix your bike in place, instead, your bike simply balances on the rollers in the same way it stays upright on the road. This means they require more mental focus and learning to balance to ensure you don't simply ride off the side. You need a good amount of practice before you can put out big power on them. It's harder still to ride out of the saddle, so rollers are probably limited to longer endurance efforts, rather than maximum power sprints. 

Where they come into their own is building core stability and leg speed. Riding them is more engaging and fun and will help you learn some new skills. Given you're not bolted in place, you'll use more of your stabilisation muscles to keep yourself upright. Leg speed is useful for early-season training and is also great for sprinters. Like turbo trainers, they come in smart and simple versions.

Smart bikes and exercise bikes

At the premium end of the spectrum exists the smart bike, which is often likened to an exercise bike. Our guide to the best exercise bikes will help you work out if one of these is right for you and also help you distinguish between which of the two works best for your needs. Essentially, opting for an exercise bike or smart bike means getting an all-in-one solution, not requiring a separate bike to be mounted to the turbo trainer. 

They're often quieter, easily adjustable and have extra features such as connected braking, but they can be big and heavy, so they're not ideal for apartment dwellers where space is at a premium. Oh, and good luck getting them up the stairs!

Indoor cycling apps

No longer are we forced to stare at a brick wall while we aimlessly pedal fast but go nowhere. Neither are we faced with the tedium of watching our heart rate or power data. Instead, with the advent of smart turbo trainers came the subsequent rise of applications such as:

Our indoor cycling apps guide will explain the differences between them all and help you choose the right app for your needs because they all vary in what they offer. 

Some offer a social aspect, while others focus more on performance enhancement. TrainerRoad, for example, is an all-in-one training platform in which you can build your own training plan based on your goals, and then follow structured sessions to help you get there. Or, if you want a ready-made plan to follow so you can get started straight away, check out our eight-week indoor cycling training plan.

Zwift, on the other hand, offers a comprehensive package for indoor cycling. There are virtual 'worlds', in-built workouts, and organised group rides and races, as well as challenges that enable you to unlock faster bikes and new kit. Plus, you can 'meet up' with your friends and ride together.

Our guide to the cheapest Zwift setup will talk you through the process of setting up from scratch in the most affordable way. You can also consult our indoor cycling hacks for some useful tips on getting started.

We've also put together a guide to the best Zwift setups, which explains three of the most popular turbo-trainer setup combinations to get onto Zwift. This considers the full setup, including whether it's better to use a smartphone, laptop, or an Apple TV.

Finally, if you want to have a bit of extra fun, see how many of these Zwift easter eggs you can find while you ride.

What do I need?

As a bare minimum, you'll need a turbo trainer with a bike, and you'll need something that can transmit data to your device. 

If you're using a turbo trainer, then a speed sensor will be required in order to connect to your app and transmit your speed. 

This is then used to calculate your power, and while it's often the most affordable option, it's not the most accurate. A power meter will improve this accuracy, but the cost does start to rise quite sharply in this realm. Our guide to the best power meters will help you choose the most suitable for you. 

If your cycling is going to remain purely indoors, you might be better off spending this extra money on a better turbo trainer, but if you're going to mix your cycling between inside and outside, then a power meter will offer the same accurate data collection when you venture out of the pain cave. 

If you opt for a smart turbo trainer, you won't need a power meter or speed sensor, as they will transmit this data for you.

Best bike for indoor cycling

Unless you're using a smart bike, you'll need a bike mounted to your turbo trainer. If you're looking for something that will also get used outdoors, choose a bike that suits those needs best. 

Most riders tend to use their road bike on the trainer indoors, it's comfortable and familiar and it stays clean. Just make sure you clean it regularly if it's getting sweaty. If you have a winter bike or training bike, this is ideal to use on the turbo trainer too. We don't know many riders who buy a new bike for indoor duties only but it's always an option. One important point to make note of is whether your bike has carbon fibre frame dropouts, some manufacturers don't recommend mounting bikes with these to trainers so if in doubt check with the manufacturer first. 

When it comes to direct-drive turbo trainers, road bikes, gravel bikes and even mountain bikes are viable options, so most of us will have something that can be used. However, if you're looking for something new, we've got you covered with our road bike buyer's guides.

Our guide to the best bikes for indoor cycling makes a case for considering a second bike dedicated to your indoor cycling and helps you choose the right option for you.

Road bike buying advice

Indoor cycling accessories

As with all aspects of cycling, indoor cycling comes with its own selection of optional accessories that promise to enhance and improve the experience. 

In the great outdoors, you don't need specific cycling glasses, but they help. Nor do you need the best cycling shoes, but again, they help (morale watts are real, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise).

For indoor cycling, these are some of the best optional accessories:


While a fan is technically a non-essential accessory, after an hour of intervals, we promise you'll be looking for one. Without the cool breeze that comes from moving through the air, your body will quickly begin to overheat, and the subsequent downpour of sweat is far from pretty, it's not enjoyable, and the corrosion from the salt will get into your headset, stem, and handlebar tape, and wreak havoc.

Smart plugs

You could go down the premium route by buying a Wahoo Kickr Headwind as your fan, which syncs with your heart rate (or speed) and adjusts the fan speed accordingly. However, there is a more budget-friendly approach. Multiple fans, all plugged into smart plugs that can be controlled via an app or designated remote, and can be turned on and off as needed.

"Alexa, turn on fan one."


A fan is a great tool in the bid to prevent overheating, but a towel is necessary to mop up (or catch) any droplets that form during those harder efforts. Some prefer a sweatband, but a towel draped (carefully, of course) over the handlebars will prevent any drops from landing on your expensive bike components and causing accelerated corrosion.

After your ride, this towel can be chucked in the washing machine, but your bike cannot.

Sweat protector

Like the towel above, a sweat protector is a dedicated solution to the sweat-droplet problem, protecting your bike's top tube, headset and stem from corrosion caused by salty sweat. We prefer a towel as it then provides something with which to dab your brow, but there's no denying that a sweat protector is a more refined solution.

Turbo-trainer tyre

If you're using a wheel-on trainer, your rear wheel's contact with the turbo trainer's roller will chew through your tyres at a pretty alarming and expensive rate. A turbo-trainer tyre is made up of a more dense compound rubber that will not only slow down the tyre wear but also help to reduce the associated noise. 

Using such a tyre outdoors is not recommended – they tend not to be very grippy in the 'real world' – so to save the effort of swapping tyres every time you want to ride outside, it's a good idea to pick up a spare rear wheel for indoor training, mounted with your turbo-trainer tyre. Someone in your local cycling club will no doubt have an old wheel, or you can usually pick up something on eBay quite cheaply.

Indoor cycling shoes

While your 'outside' cycling shoes will probably work fine, a dedicated pair of indoor shoes can help keep your best cycling shoes in race-ready condition. They are generally made to be more breathable, which helps with the overheating element of indoor cycling, and, depending on your preferences, you can opt for something with a less-stiff sole for greater long-ride comfort, or something hyper-stiff for greater Zwift-race power transfer. 

Our guide to the best indoor cycling shoes will guide you through the options and help you decide what's right for you. Many of these aren't necessarily dedicated indoor shoes but are designed for warm weather with breathability in mind. We also have a dedicated guide to the best women's indoor cycling shoes for those who need them.

Indoor cycling clothing

You may be asking the question, do you really need indoor cycling clothing to ride indoors?

While you probably don't, it's certainly better than wearing your old worn-out bib shorts from 15 years ago. When cycling indoors, riders will generally move around less in the saddle (due to lower balance requirements, no cornering, etc.) so any saddle discomfort is even more pronounced, leading to a greater need for high-quality bib-short padding. 

A number of brands now produce indoor cycling-specific kit that is tailored to be as cooling and breathable as possible, doing away with superfluous details and bulk that isn't needed on the turbo trainer. Check out our guide to the best indoor cycling clothing for more.

Wireless keyboard

If you're running Zwift on a laptop or Apple TV, it's likely to be out of arms reach. A wireless keyboard will save you from having to dismount your bike every time you want to access the menu, change trainer difficulty, or send a message to friends.