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Indoor Training

A few years ago, I coached an athlete who didn’t like to run in the dark. She lived in an unlit town, and training outside after sunset made her feel unsafe. As we got closer to the cold months and it started getting dark earlier, she began to get nervous about how she could run enough miles to accomplish her springtime goals. To me, the answer was obvious: she would run inside. To her, though, running inside sounded terrible. Even though she had never done it, she had swallowed all of the negative hoopla around treadmills (“dreadmills”) and had concluded that there was nothing worthwhile about running in place. “My race is on the road,” she told me. “How will running inside help me go faster outside?”

(image courtesy of Erin Klegstad)

She was wrong, of course. There is a lot to be gained from running and riding your bike indoors when you can’t go outside. In fact, training inside offers some distinct advantages over training outside—so much so that I run on the treadmill and ride on the trainer throughout the year, regardless of the weather. I recommend that my athletes do, too. Above all, training inside offers a controlled environment that allows you to hone your effort to the precise level required for any given training session. Without having to worry about stopping for traffic or even making turns, you can dial in the specific intensity that you need for a given session, and you can hold it for the exact amount of time required. On the trainer or treadmill, I can put all of my focus on the work that I’m doing without having to worry about following a particular route or navigating distractions such as cars, rain, roots, or even downhills . This past weekend, Coach Chris and I rode our bikes for almost four hours inside, putting in eight fifteen-minute intervals in the last two hours. There is no way that we could have done such a workout on the road without having to repeatedly speed up and slow down in order to deal with traffic, dogs, pedestrians, and other intervening variables. I think that we will both be much better off in May for having done this workout in February.

Even if a workout is supposed to be outside, there are advantages to doing it inside if the weather requires it. Besides being more convenient, being inside can be much more social. When I’m on the trainer, I can ride with people that I normally wouldn’t be able to keep up with, or who wouldn’t be able to keep up with me. I can do my own workout on a treadmill while the person next to me does a completely different workout, but we can still talk about the races we’ve run, the goals we have, or how Coach Chris doesn’t know the difference between Motley Crue and Michael Jackson. (That’s not a joke, by the way.) When she was training for Race Across America, my wife would use the rest intervals on the trainer to catch up on emails with her sponsors. She certainly couldn’t have done that on the road.

(At Pedal 4 Pancakes, cyclists of all levels can ride inside together.)

Sometimes, of course, you just have to suck it up. In the last two weeks, between the bad weather and my wanting to run on softer surfaces—the treadmill is softer than the pavement; another advantage!—seven of my eight runs and all six of my rides have been indoors. I’m missing the great outdoors, and I would much rather be outside today than inside. My schedule, though, calls for a trainer workout, and that’s what I’ll do. This is not unique to indoor training, though; there are simply times in our lives as endurances athletes when we must do workouts—indoor or outdoor workouts—that we are not entirely fired up about doing but that we know will help us reach our goals.

These advantages, of course, are born out of differences between the indoors and outdoors. As such, you should always discuss it with your coach when you move an outdoor workout inside. While some workouts will lend themselves to fairly easy outdoor-to-indoor conversion, others are a bit trickier. For example, if you have a six mile easy run on your schedule, no changes need to be made. You can simply run that six miles on the treadmill. If, however, you are supposed to run hill repeats that involve sprinting up a hill for ten seconds and then walking down, there is more of a challenge in converting the outdoor workout to an indoor one. Here are some general tips that will help you mimic the outdoors when you go inside:

--When you’re running, your baseline incline should be 1%. That is, you shouldn’t put the incline lower than 1% unless you are trying to imitate the sort of recovery that happens when running downhill. If you leave it at 0%, you may find the effort too easy, even if you are running at the same pace you normally run outside. Recent research suggests that this rule of thumb only applies to those who are running over 8.4 miles per hour, so your results may vary. Incidentally, if you find that your outdoor pace feels really easy or really hard on the treadmill even after making the 1% adjustment, perhaps you should rethink your outdoor pace.

--If you are moving a bike ride inside, take about 10% off your total ride time. That would mean, for example, that two hours outside would become between 1:45 and 1:50 inside. The reason, of course, is that you don’t coast inside. By the time that you get to about 1:45 on the bike, you will have turned the pedals as many times on the trainer as you would have turned them on the road. Sorry: no such conversion for running.

(When riding inside, take 10% off your total ride time.)

--When you’re riding or running outside, your HR and pace aren’t constant, owing to the hills that you must climb and descend. When I run or ride inside, I often will play with the inclines on the treadmill or mix up my power and cadence on the trainer in order to make it feel like an outdoor run or ride. (This also helps break up the monotony a bit.) For example, on a recent 6.5-mile run, I ran the first 2.5 miles at 1%, gradually working up to a steady pace. After that, I went .25 miles at 2%, .25 at 0, .25 at 3, .25 at 0, .25 at 4, .25 at 0, .25 at 5, and .25 at 0. I increased the pace a little when I put it down to 0, as if I was running downhill. I ran normally for a half-mile, then I did something else for a mile. It was a good run for me. If I am doing a ride inside, I may do something similar, such as riding 3:00 at medium power and high rpm, 3:00 at high power and high rpm, 3:00 at high power and low rpm, and 3:00 easy.

--You may sweat more inside because it’s warmer and more humid. Almost certainly, the perspiration won’t evaporate as easily, and you may be a sweaty mess by the finish. Use a fan if you can, bring a towel and a bottle of water, and don’t use your sweat rate as an indicator of your effort. Normally, it’s not so hot in a gym that it will drive your heartrate up and force you to slow down, but that is a possibility if you are in an “old school” establishment where they keep the temperature high or if you’ve been in the same small room for more than a couple of hours.

(Make sure to stay hydrated when riding indoors!)

-Monitor your effort when you’re inside through use of a power meter or a heart rate monitor. It’s easy to go too hard or not hard enough given the distractions that abound. If you’re watching a particularly exciting movie, you might end up going harder than you need to. Similarly, if you’re watching a boring one, you’re likely to slow down.

--Most cyclists agree that there is a difference between your outdoor and indoor FTP. There are a lot of theories as to why this may be—ranging from heat to kinetic energy—and there are some cyclists who say that no difference exists. In my experience, there is about a 3-5% difference between my indoor and outdoor FTP. In addition, I find it much harder to stay in the aero position indoors than I do outdoors. If you can’t seem to hold the same power indoors or stay in the aero position as easily indoors, do not beat yourself up. Both are very common.

--Finally, don’t try to step on to an already-moving treadmill. Look up “treadmill fails” on YouTube, and you will see why. Fortunately, I learned this lesson (the hard way) before the advent of cell phone cameras.

Happy training!

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