“We are approaching the end of the biking season for all but the most hardy riders. I will be riding an exercise bike.
“I have asked the same question of many others including fitness trainers at the gym and a cardiologist in the bike club. No one has been able to answer my question but I remain hopeful.
“When I get on my road bike, and start pedaling my heart rate jumps to about 120 bpm. That rate is not taxing and I can sustain it for a long period. However when on a stationary bike, either at the gym or at home, I cannot get my heart rate over about 105 bpm. If I increase the resistance to a higher level, I can’t push the pedals. I use the same heart rate monitor in all situations.
“The question is relevant as I don’t believe I am replicating the road effort on a stationary bike, and hence not training myself for the road experience.”
Coach Hughes responds
Eli, this is a great question because there’s no obvious answer. There are several related questions. Why is (does it seem like) riding the trainer is harder than riding on the road? How should I gauge my effort on the trainer? The answers to all of these is both physiological and psychological.
I’ve written a column about about Training Zones by Perceived Exertion, Heart Rate and Power May Differ on the Trainer.
Coaching is part art and part science — there aren’t always obvious answers — which is why I like it. Here are a couple of possible parts of an answer.
Fewer Upper Body Muscles Used on the Trainer
Your heart pumps in response to the load put on it by your working muscles. The harder the muscles work or the more muscles activated, the faster your heart beats. On the road your leg muscles are working and you’re probably standing and sitting some and also your upper body muscles are working to control and turn the bike, brake, etc. On the trainer you’re using your upper body muscles much less so the total load on your heart is less and your heart doesn’t have to beat as fast to provide just your leg muscles with oxygen and nutrients.
I cross country ski and my heart rate is higher than on the bike because I’m using poles with my upper body for propulsion.
Your heart rate of 105 bpm on the trainer is a little more than 10% lower than 120 bpm on the road. I suspect the quiet upper body only accounts for part of the difference. Another factor is the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) riding on the trainer compared to riding in the road.
Perceived Exertion is the Governor on How Hard You Can Ride
I was off the bike and on my back for six weeks recovering from surgery on my right foot. I used the time as a sabbatical to catch up on my professional literature. I just finished reading an excellent book How Badly Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald, which explores why we get fatigued and don’t go longer or harder. He uses a number of excellent examples of endurance athletes. He says the limit is perceived exertion. If you perceive you’re going as long or hard as you can then you can’t do more. But if your perception changes, you can do more. The book talks about various ways RPE can be changed.
The day before my surgery my buddy and I rode up the canyon to Jamestown, CO. I didn’t have my computer on — just riding along chatting and having fun. I looked at my watch when we got there. Ten minutes faster than when I ride alone but it didn’t feel like I was riding any harder! Psychologists call this the group effect.
We know the yellow jersey effect — when a rider dons the maillot jeune he feels stronger and rides better. In stage five of the 2004 Tour de France Thomas Voeckler was in a five-man breakaway that built up a 16-minute lead and finished 12:36 ahead of the peloton. Voeckler who had finished 119th in the 2003 TdF was suddenly in the yellow jersey 9:36 ahead of Lance Armstrong. Armstrong wasn’t worried. He wanted someone else to wear the yellow jersey so his team the U.S. Postal wouldn’t have to defend it. He’d get the jersey back in the mountains. Voeckler is French and overnight he became the hero of the French. In stage 10 the race entered the mountains and Voeckler was still in yellow. Day after day Voeckler rode beyond himself losing time every day but staying in yellow through stage 16. He rode beyond himself because of energy from the crowds, the audience effect. The home field advantage in team sports is another example of the audience effect.
In the 2011 TdF Voeckler surprised everyone but himself by taking the yellow jersey. Again he held onto it much longer than anyone else expected. Based on his 2004 TdF Voeckler knew in 2011 he could take the yellow jersey and defend it, the success effect.
The psychological mechanisms in the audience effect and success effect work the same way. The rider expects more of himself and performs better.
Psychologists’ lab research substantiates th at that the group, audience and success effects are real and all change an athlete’s perceived exertion. (How Badly Do You Want It?)
You’re not racing in the peloton. How does all this relate to you on the trainer?
Change your Perceived Exertion (RPE)
For almost everyone riding the trainer feels harder than riding on the road and lab tests substantiate this.
You’ve been riding for decades on the road and have a good feel for what that’s like on an endurance road ride your RPE is probably 2-3 on a 10-point scale, 2 cruising on the flats and 3 climbing or riding into a headwind. You get on the trainer, ride at an RPE of 2-3 and your heart rate is only 105. It feels like you’re riding as hard as on the road but you are you really?
What to do?
Your muscles don’t know how hard they are working. They send signals to your brain. At the same time your brain is getting signals from other parts of your body about how hot it is, etc. And you’re thinking (at least subconsciously) how much you hate riding the trainer, how boring it is, etc. Your brain compiles all of this into an overall perception of how hard you are riding.
Here’s an experiment to separate the different signals. When you are riding the trainer so it feels as hard as riding on the road, pay attention to where in your body it feels as hard. Do your legs feel like you’re riding as hard as on the road? Are you breathing as hard?
Once you’ve dialed in your perceived exertion, your heart rate probably will be higher than 105 bpm but not all the way up to 120 bpm because you aren’t using your upper body.
“If I increase the resistance to a higher level, I can’t push the pedals.”
Based on your prior experience on the trainer it feels like you can ride at an RPE of 2-3 but can’t ride harder … so you can’t. What if you’re self-expectation were different? You’re not riding in a group or in front of a crowd but you can use the success effect. Get on the trainer and ride at the effort you usually do. Periodically for a minute or two increase the resistance slightly and back off. Or you can briefly ride one gear harder. These aren’t intervals but experiments to learn successful riding at a slightly higher resistance. Heart rate lags changes in effort so your heart rate won’t go up.
Over time gradually increase the time of the amounts of time at the harder resistance / higher gear.
I’m “not training myself for the road experience.”
Riding well is the result of a number of factors, not just time on the bike. Here are:
Your cycling and general health and fitness will improve if you include strength training, stretching and intensity training, not just riding simulated road miles.
Eli, I hope this helps answer your question. Have a good winter, which is really the pre-season to 2021. “Off-Season” sounds like taking a break from exercise.
My e-Book Productive Off-season Training for Health and Recreation has two 12-week programs for
- Healthy Riders includes a weekly program of aerobic exercise, strength training you can do at home and stretching. The 12-week program starts at about 4 – 6 total hours a week and over 12 weeks builds to 5:15 – 7:15 hours a week. Cross training, indoor cycling, strength training and stretching are also explained.
- Recreational Riders adds intensity training and training drills to the weekly program of aerobic exercise, strength and stretching. This 12-week program also starts at 4 – 6 total hours a week. It has more volume and over 12 weeks builds to 7 – 10 hours a week. Cross training, indoor cycling, strength training and stretching are explained.
The 28-page Productive Off-season Training for Health and Recreation is just $4.99.
My eBook Off-season Conditioning Past 50: 12 weeks to Greater Health and Fitness is dividend into three parts:
- Review of the physiological effects of aging.
- Training modalities to combat these.
- A 12-week off-season training program with a range of options.
The 12-week program’s options include options for new riders, health and fitness riders, recreational riders, club and competitive riders, endurance riders and also riders with limited to train. The 12-week program starts at about 3:30 – 6:30 hours a week and over 12 weeks builds to 6 – 10 hours a week.
The 26-page Off-season Conditioning Past 50: 12 weeks to Greater Health and Fitness is just $4.99.
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.