Ditch the indoor trainer

Indoor trainers suck and you will quit using it in roughly 90 days, likely much, much sooner.

Modern indoor trainers are extremely expensive, easily costing $3,500 without including the extras which include everything from special mop-up towels to entire basement/person-cave renovations. And of course the time that you waste setting it up, “dialing it in,” coordinating it with whatever program you choose to purchase, and “analyzing the data” is time that will never come again.

The indoor trainer won’t make you fitter, faster, or help with your weight goals. Within the shortest of time spans it will join the treadmill, the dumbbell, the Nautilus, the jump rope, the yoga mat, and every other piece of home exercise equipment in “storage.”

The first problem with indoor trainers, whether smart or dumb, is that they are simply pieces of equipment and they require the magic sauce of “motivation” to use. There is no research I could find on how long people stick with their indoor trainer, but there is massive data on how long people stick with their New Year’s exercise resolutions. One such review, conducted by Bloomberg looking at over 100,000,000 exercise uploads to Strava, shows that these resolutions begin to flag on exactly January 17.

The same review, using Foursquare data, shows that gym participation fares a little better, beginning to crater in mid-February, when data shows that people’s fast food purchases equal their gym attendance. In real words: “Fuck this diet I’m getting a cheeseburger.” None of this is surprising. Americans are obese, lazy, and avoid physical activity whenever possible.

But what does it tell you for your indoor trainer purchase? Nothing good.

That of course is the opposite of what the winter bike/pandemic marketing hokum would have us believe. This article is a perfect example of the silliness that marketers spout, as it makes the preposterous claim that indoor training isn’t horribly boring, and that somehow the new technology makes sitting alone in a room sopping in sweat GOING NOWHERE is analogous to cycling.

The idea here is the same idea with e-bikes, that a thing can produce the special sauce known as “joy” or “anticipation” or “motivation” to exercise, except that in the case of the e-bike, or motorcycle as I call them, at least they are fun. Consider this piece of nonsense:

We’ve seen the technology used by the apps and the trainers themselves evolve at warp speed, and indoor training today is unrecognisable compared to what it was only a few years ago. The result is people are getting faster year-round, by riding their bike nowhere fast.

CyclingNews

Indoor training is unrecognizable? What does that even mean? It’s indoors. It’s a stationary bike. I recognize these flagellation devices from 1984 when I bought my first and last turbo trainer. And people are getting faster year-round by riding their bike nowhere fast? Which people? And for how long do they keep it up? And is it some kind of infinite thing, where every year you’re faster until you are winning the Tour and ultimately outsprinting the speed of light? Or does it flatten out, as physics would suggest? Or do you finally quit because you hate it, as every gym owner knows and has known since the first gym was founded?

All of the benefits of training indoors are trotted out: It’s like a video game, it lets you do structured workouts, it allows you greater intensity, it allows better coordination with your coach, you generally won’t get hit by a car or fall off while doing it, it’s efficient, you can still be home and around your family (???), won’t wear down your tires, blah blah blah.

But no one bothers to answer this question: How long before you quit using it? Answer–January 17.

What is silliest, or “That’s dumb,” as Manslaughter would say, is that the purchase of an indoor trainer is predicated on racing fitness and race-prep activities like intervals, structured workouts, and simulated racing. I don’t know much about indoor training, but I know a lot about outdoor racing, and here’s a fun fact: Hardly anyone has the motivation to continue racing for more than a few years. It’s too fucking hard and it’s too miserable even when you are doing all your training outside. The idea that you need a training device to hit some imaginary fitness/speed/race conditioning that you are never going to use, while neglecting the fact that virtually everyone quits racing after a few seasons, is absurd.

And what’s worse, even if there were a core of racers who really bought these things and used them to sharpen the knife for Paris-Roubaix or the local crit, they are the wild, longest-tail exceptions. The great unwashed herd of indoor trainer purchasers are overweight, undertrained, and going to stay that way whether they buy a gym membership, a Wahoo, or a new set of sweat pants.

Before you sneer at the great unwashed herd, consider that they are the vast majority. And for the vast majority, who will never bump shoulders in a race, indoor cycling itself is probably not even what they need. Many women find after they fall in love with Peloton or SoulCycle that an activity focusing exclusively on the buttocks, thighs, and calves, leads to much larger buttocks, thighs, and calves. That’s fine but it’s nowhere to be found in the fine print. How many people would sign up for Peloton with this pitch: “We’ll grow your ass in 30 days or money back!”

People buying a trainer for weight loss will also be chagrined to learn that cycling is a poor choice for burning calories unless it is done in a way to put your muscles into oxygen debt. This is hard to do in a 60-minute spin class or indoor trainer session unless the workout is specifically tailored to you and you have the special sauce of motivation–and guess what? If you don’t have the motivation to get out on your bike when it’s cold, what are the chances that you can do a set of fat-burning intervals four times a week? Well, you can, but statistically not past January 17.

At least one fitness trainer is willing to talk about his gym’s numbers: 90% of all people quit after three months. Why? Many reasons, but in the final analysis for your indoor trainer purchase, all you need to know is that 90% quit and you’d be a fool to plunk down $3k in the hope that you’re the 1 in 10 rather than the 9 in 10. The adult OBESITY rate stands at 42%, and when you include simply being overweight the number swells to 73%. This isn’t because Americans fail to own an indoor trainer, it’s because of a capitalist-corporatist system that supports and encourages over consumption and depresses anything militating to physical activity. “Car society” means “sedentary society.” Oh, and don’t forget the fucking alcohols.

Buying home fitness equipment to achieve a goal has nothing to do with achieving fitness and everything to do with your psychological makeup, as shown by researchers who concluded that it’s not the presence or absence of fitness equipment but, shockingly, the presence or absence of motivation.

Meeting your own expectations also influences whether you stick with exercise. Study participants who were satisfied with the results of their exercise plan were twice as likely to keep it up as those who were not. While believing that you can do it and being happy with your results may seem to be obvious parts of success, researchers say that people often fail to take these psychological issues into account when they start an exercise plan.

https://www.the-dispatch.com/news/20090106/with-the-right-motivation-that-home-gym-makes-sense

What is your confidence in your ability to stick to your exercise program when you’re on vacation, when you’re not feeling well, when you’re busy?” asked David M. Williams, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, who led the exercise study. “The message isn’t that home exercise equipment doesn’t work. It’s just one very small piece of the puzzle, because it might make it easier to exercise, but they still have to motivate themselves to do it.”

David M. Williams, Alpert School of Medicine, Brown University

Research and experience strongly suggest that if you lack the motivation to, you know, ride your bicycle, you’re also going to lack motivation to train indoors, and even if you do, you aren’t going to do it for very long. So why the indoor trainer craze? Why is it that Peloton can’t sell its trainers and 3-year memberships fast enough, and every shill on BikeRadar and CyclingNews is jerking off to unvarnished publicity materials furnished by indoor trainer companies, with zero reportage, zero critical writing, zero critical anything?

Because if there’s one thing that sells in America, it’s stuff that promises to make losing weight and getting fit easy, preferably something you can do while watching TV and eating.

Too bad we have those damned bicycles rusting away in the garage. They are an ugly reminder that fitness and health are cheap, at your fingertips, and that without motivation they’re just things.

END

34 thoughts on “Ditch the indoor trainer”

  1. A couple of friends tried a new race format on Zwift. A 6×6 3 lap race of a well known Zwift course. I was not a participant, but I did tune in “live” to watch, and it was pretty exciting. One of the participants is the founder of the Zwift “DIRT” club as in Dad’s Indoors Riding Trainers, and in the intro ten minutes, his bio listed something like 34000 indoor training miles against less than 100 outdoor miles. Clearly, an exception to the rule. I never tried Peloton, but there was a time when another friend of mine hosted us in his basement most mornings where he had the pre-zwift race-mate pain cave where some hardware, and software allowed 8 people to “ride” a course together. That was the most fun I ever had on an indoor trainer. His poor wife, having 7 sweaty motherfuggers, with bags of soaking wet cycling kits pouring out of her basement door 4 or 5 mornings a week. Anyway, again, an exception, and not the rule. By myself, I can barely motivate to ride my rollers, which has been made better by the addition of Zwift, but I would still rather ride outside. If only I lived in Southern California. Those 6×6 races were covered by the No Breakaways YouTube channel. This was the race I watched: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSVZCG9B55A&t=8s

    1. Exactly. The indoor trainer industry pimps a few freakish exceptions, combines them with dreams of race glory or crushing it on the group ride, and uses the “allure” of the fast crowd to lure in the suckers. The suckers go all in and in 90 days they go all out. Why? Because of physics. More about that later, but in a nutshell, you can’t make sweating on a “bike” that goes nowhere fun for 99.999% of all sentient beings. The exceptions prove the rule. But you can certainly feel good about resolving to train indoors … until Jan. 17.

  2. For those of us in the northern climates with young children, the modern smart trainers and apps like zwift are a godsend to get us through winter until the sun returns. It makes getting up at 4:30am before work and the family wakes to hop on a race or a group ride downright enjoyable, something I never would have done prior to something like zwift.

    you can get a lower end smart trainer that is still good for around $300 new, and apps like zwift are $15 a month, not a hell of a lot of money in the scheme of the bike world for cost of entry. Or to speak a language you better understand, about the same cost as a full carbon, 100% all carbon stem.

    All Im saying is, the old’ wanky, the one who would sing the praises of getting your ass out of bed and “doing the work” , would be singing the praises of it. And the “work” on zwift is massively harder than ridding outside if you race or do higher level groups rides.

    1. There are some people who benefit. But they aren’t the market. The market is the suckers who are never going to initiate long-term change. And even among the truly converted, how many of them continue indoor training for more than a few winters? How many smart trainers are already gathering dust, along with expired USCF racing licenses, aero helmets, canceled checks for private coaching sessions? In the main, indoor training is geared to statistics: Most people quickly quit, so make it seem like the don’t, make it seem like it’s better than riding, use the people who find success and portray them as the norm. Behavioral science understands that if you wanted to be fit, you’d go out and walk if it’s too cold to ride. But “winter fitness” is some mythical state where people who never race or compete in reality are trying to match footsteps with people who race for a living and need to be ready for the late February Euro road races … so much marketing flimflam! On the other hand, it works for you and you like it so #winning.

      1. I guess I respectfully disagree. The very first time I used zwift I think it was either still in Beta or was free and I remember thinking at that time if I could invest every penny I had in this company I would because I felt that there were so many ways it could be enjoyed, from the couch potato to joe racer. I used it with rollers for the first 3 years, and a buddy gave my his old smart trainer recently and that experience has been even better than rollers.

        Im on zwift 3-5x a week, but only about 4 months a year. I never save my rides on zwift, never train with a plan, never train with power, not on strava or any social media, and only use a bike computer to navigate things like gravel races. All that to say, I could give a crap about any metrics or what others think, ride how I want, and I still really like zwift.

        I have gotten my brother in law and two sisters to become regular zwift users as well over the last two years, and none of them are doing it to lose weight, nether were huge bikers, neither had ulterior motives except maintain some level of fitness in the winter time as part of a healthy lifestyle.

        I got my best friend on zwift about 3 years ago and he uses it year round 5x a week and rarely rides outside any more (was hit by a car on a bike a few years ago). I went from being able to thoroughly kick his ass before I got him on zwift, to thoroughly get my ass kicked by him in that time- he’s pushing 700w x 1 minute now. I used to make fun of him for not ridding outside much anymore, but he loves it and is fit AF now, so who am i to judge.

        All that to say, for sure there are going to be people that buy the crap, and never use it again, but I don’t think I am the exception that I like it and still use it. Of the 6 people I have gotten to use zwift over the last few years, only 1 is still not using it regularly. I guess Im more OK with people wanting to get motivated about their health and buying crap related to that vs another ipad or something.

        My 2cents….

        1. I think we are still saying (mostly) the same thing. There are people who benefit from indoor training in terms of getting fit/losing weight/staying in “race” shape, whatever that is. But statistics show that people buy and quit, and they do it in vast numbers. Look no farther than AA or the diet industry. Only 7% of people succeed with AA. The rest go back to drinking; that’s a 93% failure rate. It doesn’t discount the life-changing effects on the 7%, but it says LOUDLY that we need a different approach to alcoholism than AA, or better put, we need something in addition to it, and we need to remind people that AA is not “the” answer or anything close to it. Of course AA is free, the community is built in, and you’re not out $4,000+ dollars if you give up. Exercise and fitness are not functions of indoor training, they are a function of motivation and you will find that exactly nowhere in all of the marketing crap and fake news generated by indoor training companies. Of course some people like it, some absolutely love it, and a few make it their lives–they are the poster children. I don’t think that $4,000+ is a good expense if you’re virtually guaranteed to quit in a few months. Again, people who like it and use it are #winning, although there are two other aspects about indoor training that bother me, for a later post! And you make a great point about the benefits when you’re snowed in …

          1. My only other major beef now is that you keep using the example of cost of entry being $4000 to get into the trainer game. As I originally mentioned, you can get good trainers for around $300. That to me is cheap to try something and find out if you like it or not. If you hate it, I guarantee you can resell it for half your money, putting the risk at a whopping $150.

            My wife got a gym membership. I told her not to cause she won’t use it, and just use the pay every time you go method which was an option. Of course she didn’t listen. In a year and half, she went to the gym twice- once to sign up, and once to cancel her membership (they make it so you have to cancel in person…ha!).

            Everything health related is worth it if you use it obviously. All things considered, I feel like entering the smart trainer game is a small financial risk compared with everything else , and has good upside if you end up liking it and keeps you motivated to ride your real bike more.

            1. Agreed, but the $300 trainer is a guaranteed dead-end. The only way you will know if you like the video-game, modern iteration of indoor training is with a smart trainer, and $4,000 is a very reasonable estimate for the machine and app alone, not counting home modifications and other items you have to buy. In other words, the only way you can find out if the horrors of indoor riding are something you can endure/enjoy, you have to spend the money.

                1. People who buy indoor trainers and who already have everything else are bike racers, group riders, or people who have already committed to the recreational consumerism of the bicycling industry. Most people don’t even own bike shorts. Most people quit. And the new Peloton inductee has a $2k trainer and a $36/mo subscription contract for 3 years. All of this to sit indoors and force yourself to do something that you don’t really want to do, and then … quit.

              1. Seth, you might not be completely understanding or just don’t know. $300 is a what it costs for a fuggin SMART TRAINER, one that does power, changes your resistance automatically based on grade of hill, etc. here is one example. https://tacx.com/product/flow-smart/

                $4000 is not a reasonable estimate. that is what the absolute, cream of the crop, stand alone smart bikes costs.

                The apps are free. zwift is $15 bucks a month, cancel whenever. Most smart trainers (even the $300 kind) are going to connect directly to any cheap ass modern computer or ipad or apple TV which most people already have, without any additional money or modifications needed.

                also- I think the marketing of zwift is very much geared toward bikers and bike racers , not people trying to lose weight etc etc. Their two spokespeople are Geraint thomas and Mathew van der poel, both bike racers to the core. Now, if they had Lance or even Lemond as a spokesperson, then I can see your point a little more.

                We should be thankful that zwift can’t spend money fast enough on marketing, it keeps the lights on at good cycling publications like cycling tips (cycling news is unreadable to begin with, your fault for going there in the first place).

                1. $300 for a smart trainer is like saying you can get into racing for $300. Sure, you can. And you will immediately realize that you need something else. The fixed price for a Peloton bike is over $2k. And yes, you can hook it up to your laptop, but the ride simulators that are so heavily marketed require big screens in order to fully experience the fake experience. And there’s the issue of space. If you’re really going to train at 5:00 AM, you need a place to do it, unlikely to be next to your sleeping SO, and likely to be in a garage, spare bedroom or other place that requires dedicated and modified space. What is the square footage in your home or apartment worth? It’s not free.

                  Zwift does not market to racers. There are hardly any. Zwift markets to people who self-identify as racers even though bike racing is the last thing they will ever do.

                  The readership of Cycling News, Cycling Tips, cycling anything is not and has never been bike racers any more than Sports Illustrated’s readers are professional athletes, or even athletes. The NFL is supported by people who are supported by couches. But the bike race “sexy” is something that millions, incredibly, love. Check out the roadside of a Tour stage and tell me how many bike racers you see, and that’s in France.

                  Most people quit. The ones who don’t, good for them. But this is simply another type of hucksterism, insinuating through the use of pro racers and the dedicated recreational riders that equipment, video game technology, and social media will make you do something that is good for you and that you naturally don’t want to do.

                  Each indoor trainer business has its own approach. Peloton/SoulCycle say they’ll make you skinny. Zwift/TrainerRoad say they’ll make you fast. The numbers, at least judged by the behavior of people in general, say that the only thing you’ll get is an unused piece of heavy, unsightly, garage furniture.

                  With regard to publications supported by advertising, especially niche ones like cycling web sites, rest assured that they don’t spend much time criticizing the people who keep their lights on, or even asking difficult questions.

                  Anyway, the fact is that some people like it and stay with it. Most don’t … and won’t.

                  1. Fine, ill change bike racer to bike enthusiast if that helps you mentally get over something, but I will still respectfully disagree with you in general regarding zwift (peloton is a different story and a much higher cost of entry and monthly cost).

                    You appear to
                    be searching out the negatives, (need a space to use it, have to get a special TV to use it, etc etc), but most people with a roof over their head can find a space and already have everything they need without needing to purchase anything else beyond the trainer.

                    Zwift is not about the graphics, I think other programs might focus on that, but until this year, i used a 10 year old macbook pro with it and it was slow but fine.

                    and by all accounts, the $300 smart trainers ive read about work well and are accurate so you absolutely can get a great experience, from a $300 trainer.

                    I will also defend cycling tips as well. They are about as close to a well rounded bike focused website not afraid to call bullshit when they see it that is currently possible without a sugar daddy picking up the tab.

                    Keep fighting the good fight Seth…ill see you on zwift bright and early tomorrow, you can even wear your backpack OR panniers, its a judgement free zone!

                    1. I was a skeptic until you told me that I could do it with my backpack and panniers. Will I also need a Garmin? I am in!

              2. $4k? Really?

                Year 1 of Trainerroad, a wahoo kickr, and a hr strap cost under $1k. Subsequent years have been about $160. Expensive relative to my blog subscriptions. About break even with my magazine/book/newspaper habits.
                I suppose did have to replace a belt on the trainer last year, and the Lasko box fan finally died. Once it warms up a bit I will need another to get me through to spring.

  3. @oldwankylover You are the exception that makes the rule. And it’s figures that Seth’s blog would attract a high percentage of those one-in-teners who actually use that Zwift membership. I’ve been in the bike biz for a long time and the one constant in the state of America’s non-existent bicycle culture is AAFAL, Americans are fat and lazy.
    Too bad, cause a market that will drop $-millions on spurious pills to make your dick bigger will indeed buy anything. Yet Bicycles, with palpable features and provable benefits go unsold unless they’re made so cheaply abroad our own bicycle industry was killed off 30 years ago.
    The “boom” in eBikes confirms AAFAL: suddenly Americans can have a bicycle-like experience without all that nasty muscle use, that alarming need to breath more heavily, that heart rate over 90. For the vast majority of your countrymen– OMG, forgive me!– countrypeople, exercise feels like dying. But apparently dying feels OK.

    1. This, exactly. Indoor trainers are snake oil for the Holiest of Grails: Get skinny, eat all you want, live forever and never have to work at it. There’s not one born every minute, there are hundreds of thousands born every second.

  4. I guess I’m another outlier. I see the trainer or rowing machine as a tool to fill in gaps on days when I can’t get away to ride or row. I also look at data gathering tools (garmin, strava etc) as tools. They helped me develop a sense of cadence when I was new. I still use them to map or share routes if I’m riding with friends who are new ish. I think this may have to do with starting sports before gadgets and trainers (‘70’s). The way to get better if one wanted to race was to go out and do the sport. Information and tips were helpful but never considered a substitute for the work.

    1. Yes, you had the motivation long before anyone even imagined video game, data-based ANYTHING.

  5. I ride a bike because it’s the only way I’ve found to exercise while sitting down. I ride a trainer in the winter because it’s the only way I’ve found to exercise while sitting down and not freezing. (I’m kind of a wuss.) The only thing that motivates me to ride indoors is how much stuff I’ve got on my DVR that I can’t watch otherwise OR I have a book that I can’t put down.

    Am I motivated? Yes, not to get any fatter or lazier.

    Good post, Seth!

  6. Agreed on the hype and marketing by the cycling industry that is as snake-oily as they come on every product. What would get you ostracized one year becomes the next big thing the next year.

    At the same time, I’ve been on the indoor trainer wagon (first a “dumb” one for the shorter days of winter, then a smart one over the past year) and it has helped me stay in shape. I started with Zwift but transitioned to TrainerRoad for working out in a structured program. Neither is as fun as riding outdoors but I think it has helped support my outdoor riding, keeping me in better shape than otherwise and helping me to better enjoy the outdoor rides.

    1. One problem with this topic in this blog is that the readership is skewed; it contains many people who really are motivated to stay fit or achieve their fitness goals. No one writes in to say, “Yeah, I was a chump. $4,500 for something to hang my dirty underwear on.”

      You get something out of it and use it, that’s great–I think you reflect a lot of people who read here (all two or three of them!). And you are 100% correct about shifting fashions. Wool was the best, wool was horrible, wool is retro cool, wool is impractical, and now … WOOL IS THE ONLY SUPERFABRIC!

  7. While I will agree with you to some point, I was an early adopter of Zwift. My teammates mocked me constantly but now most of them are on Zwift as well. I have logged over 16,000 miles so far and am just as fast as ever and, I haven’t fallen off once yet or been hit by a car. Still doesn’t beat the joy of riding outdoors but since there are no “elective” surgeries in my area now, I will stay indoors for now.

  8. Arkansas Traveler

    Peloton: Group exercise for people who prefer to be alone.
    The entire physical culture is a racket, and what you have described is also the reason gyms sell 6000 memberships to a facility that can only support 2000.
    Don’t get me started on people who live in SoCal and still pay somewhere between $14K and $80K for a treadmill.

    1. Please, do get started–it’s something you know a ton about and can help folks understand that what’s being sold is hype, and it ends up covered in dust in the garage. Yah, the $80k treadmill. Gimme four. One for each bedroom.

  9. I’m not going to argue your point Seth. I agree your readers are “skewed” and an anecdote never proves the general case … . But here’s my annual comment.

    I am not a ‘hard’ cyclist. When the going gets tough, or cold, or wet, I go home and ride the trainer. I bought a trainer for about $1100 in Nov 2014. I have been using Zwift since then when it was beta and it is so much better now (14,859 miles and 667,690′ elevation). I ride it three or four times a week for an hour and a half each time. Mostly after the rest of the family goes to bed (dark). For the last 5 years 10 yo son has ridden with me a couple times a week with his bike on a $100 magnetic resistance trainer. He spends a lot of time changing the hairstyle, kit, and wheels on his avatar but he is next to me on his bike and I appreciate that. A few weeks ago we did a group ride event on Zwift that started at 5AM. My son got up with me and rode all 42 miles and beat me by more than two miles! I am so proud of him. 🙂 I ride in ‘races’ on Zwift and will never race again in the real world. At 62 years old my goal in the virtual world is to finish in the front half.

    When I started on Zwift in 2014 there would be about 50 people on at a time. I just checked the “companion app” on my phone and there are 11,821 people riding right now. So ya ya marketing blah blah but there are a lot of people got up off the couch and got on the trainer today.

    1. Annual comment beats a decennial one! No argument that some people like indoor training … glad that it works for you!

      11,821 people riding on Zwift, yes, and there are probably several million more pumping iron in a gym. How long will they keep doing it? The stats say not very long. It would be most interesting to see the various indoor training companies release their churn rates, something they’d do if they were trying to be transparent about what they offered and what your real chances of success were. Even the lottery has to tell you your chances!

  10. I ride on my trainer wearing a 40 pound backpack and bluejeans. Feels so good when I stop!

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