Indoor Cycling: Can You Train Without a Power Meter?

Watts It To You?


I don’t own a power meter. Now before you get your lycra all bunched up in knots, let me explain. It’s not that I don’t think they’re an important tool or that I don’t see the value of measuring watts, I do. The truth is, I simply can’t afford one right now.

“Okay, Gramps, so use your heart monitor.”

Confession time. I lost mine. I put it somewhere “I’d always remember” then forgot and must have accidentally thrown it away. #lifeover50

But I digress. Let’s get to today’s topic:

Can you train effectively indoors without a power meter or even a heart rate monitor?

The answer is yes, but it does make tracking one’s progress mystical at best. And remember this tidbit from TrainingPeaks, “…doing a 60 minute indoor ride would roughly equal 90 to 100 minutes of riding outside.” 

This is because you never coast, stop, or draft and since your bike is in one position and doesn’t require you to adjust your weight to stay balanced, your legs are using the same muscles over & over again. This is good.

Antique Roadshow

IMG_6081So here’s my indoor setup in the garage. And yes, my old trainer probably qualifies as an antique! It’s an Avenir trainer with the turbine flywheel. Hey, don’t laugh! It was free. Although not the best trainer by any stretch of the imagination, it still gives me challenging workouts. If I want more resistance, I can loosen the bottom bracket support and push the rear wheel down on the mini roller but beware: you’ll eat up tires.

Since I don’t use a power meter, cadence monitor, or HR monitor, I rely on how I trained 30 years ago: I listen to my body, discipline my mindset to push through the pain, and create indoor workouts based on song tempos or BPM (beats per minute) which correlates with cadence (RPM.)

Dance to The Music

It’s a bit tough to see in the photo, but in the upper left-hand corner is my iPad. I use headphones because we’re in a condo and when I had it rocking through some speakers, a neighbor complained. Okay, so even my kids said it was too loud, but what do they know? I’m a product of the 70’s; it can never be too loud!

I created a playlist utilizing BPM’s that, along with my gearing, can simulate:

  • Warm up; cooldowns.
  • Aerobic spinning/anaerobic spinning.
  • High-intensity training (HIT.)
  • Sprints.
  • Climbing.

I learned early on as a cyclist that with my chicken legs, I perform better with a higher cadence than my compadres who have tree trunks for quads. So for my warm-up, I spin easily (low heart rate; conversational pace) at around 90 BPM/RPM. Again, this may be too high for you so don’t try to imitate. Instead, adapt to what you typically use when you roll and chit-chat with fellow riders.

To simulate a ride outdoors where the terrain changes and requires different gearing as well as cadence and effort, I incorporate songs that range from 70-170 BPM. On the slower songs, I shift to my outer ring and the smallest cog on my cassette and stand to simulate climbing out of the saddle. I can also sit and grind it out in order to work on strength and power, something I’ve lost being an over 50 cyclist.

The best part of my workout (as in the most beneficial and by far the hardest) is when I come to Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” The song is 170 BPM and is about half-way through my 1-hour workout. I spin at half tempo–around 85 RPM–and then do all-out sprints (outer ring; smallest cog) at 170RPM as timed intervals using my Garmin or the song’s form (i.e., “I’ll sprint until the end of the guitar solo.”)

I use Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” (live version) which is around 96 BPM for high-intensity training. Since it’s a long song (5:16) it pushes and challenges me to not quit. I select a gearing that offers good resistance but isn’t putting me into the “red zone” per HR or effort. As I improve, I adjust gearing to make it more challenging.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall…”

“Okay, Gramps, why the mirror? Are you that vain?” Well, yes, but there is a purpose behind the madness. When I attended a music conservatory, the practice rooms all had mirrors. These were the best silent teachers in the world! With a glance, I could check my technique, observe my efficiency, note if I was relaxed as a performer or tense. For indoor cycling, the mirror does the same thing. I can check:

  • Spinning technique. My left leg is weaker and tends to buckle slightly on the downstroke when using more effort. Watching the mirror, I work to keep all legs uniform & smooth. If my upper body is wobbling, it shows I’m not using good technique or that I’m getting tired.
  • Upper body positioning. Am I relaxed? Am I in an aero position? Am I able to rest my hands on the hoods/bar or am I gripping too hard? When out of the saddle, am I climbing in a relaxed manner? Can I bring my knees up and try and touch the handlebars? (Impossible, of course, but nonetheless a good technique to improve form & power.)
  • Decreases boredom. Watching my legs spin around is better than staring at a wall. In some regards, it is like I’m drafting someone. Of course, using something like Zwift would do wonders too, but that’s not in my playbook at this time.

Does it Work?

This is where having a power meter or even a heart rate monitor would be vital because I could show you measurable data that proves (or disproves) I’m improving. For now, I have to rely on “old school” methodology: when I ride outside, am I better? The answer is yes. I’ve noticed an improvement in my power, especially climbing, and when I’m with my Rogue Racing cronies, I can hang with faster riders.

Sure, I’d much prefer being outdoors to train but I like the results I’m seeing using my trainer which fuels my desire for more.

Keep on spinning!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.