Last week, I shared how I truly feel that indoor training is a five-star, all-inclusive resort and that we should be mindful about what we’re doing when we train indoors so we set ourselves up well for what we’re actually training for. This week’s conversation builds on that by discussing one of the biggest additions to indoor training that’s occurred over the last several years: ERG Mode.
ERG Mode came along with the invention of indoor smart bicycle trainers and is a setting in training platforms such as Zwift, TrainerRoad, Rouvy, Wahoo, Full Gaz, and others that fixes your power output by automatically adjusting your resistance to match your cadence. More simply put: You give over control of your bike/trainer to the trainer itself and just ride. You don’t have to change gears or - honestly - do much of anything. The trainer adjusts things as you go, making the workout more or less difficult depending on the structure of the workout being executed and ensures that the rider is compelled to stay in the target power ranges. It forces you and your body to be in compliance with the planned workout.
To Use Erg Mode, or Not to Use Erg Mode? That is the question.
ERG mode is a topic that generates some fairly heated discussion among athletes and coaches. As a coach, I generally recommend that athletes do not use ERG Mode. I make this recommendation for the exact reason that so many athletes love this mode and want to use it: I have observed that ERG Mode greatly decreases athlete self-awareness by turning them into mindless cyclists because it doesn’t allow their brains and bodies to control their outputs. An athlete who is not self-aware is never going to reach their potential.
It should be noted that I do have one major notable exception to my standard recommendation, and that is for visually impaired (VI) athletes. Since VI athletes cannot see a device like a Garmin or computer/tablet, ERG Mode is a wonderful invention and tool that enables them to independently get in precise power-based workouts. Without ERG Mode, this wouldn’t be able to be done unless the VI athlete has someone with them during their workouts to tell them if they are in the desired target ranges or not.
In my opinion, riding a bicycle in ERG Mode is like running on a treadmill: the trainer is riding you; you are not riding your bike. If you use ERG Mode for interval or structured workouts, you are letting the trainer dictate the work (not just the workout) for you. This is a skill that does not translate to real-world scenarios, where YOU have to do the work in outdoor training and racing. Most notably: Remember that ERG Mode does not require you to shift the gears on your bicycle; it forces you to be in compliance with whatever the file says.
When it comes time for you to try to execute structured workouts in the real world, race in the real world, or even just push yourself to do something hard in the real world on a bicycle, you will find that you are unable to achieve those results or replicate what you did on the trainer in ERG Mode because the circumstances/situation surrounding the workout are so vastly different and you didn't train your body and mind for the specificity needed for those scenarios. (Remember: Specificity matters. Always.) Perhaps most concerningly, forcing compliance significantly increases the probability of injury, since you are forcing your body to do something an exact way, even under fatigue or when it may not be truly capable of hitting those targets anymore.
When the athletes I coach ask me about how to best approach indoor workouts using smart trainers, I always recommend that they train in Resistance Mode, which is a mode that allows you to select a percentage of resistance and then change gears throughout the workout. (Setting the resistance somewhere in the range of 20-30% usually works well for most athletes.) This more closely replicates the scenarios that athletes will encounter outdoors and when they actually need to ride their bicycles. I personally think it’s better to focus on a range of watts and try to hit it (and perhaps fail to) rather than being forced to. In addition to all of the concerns I outlined above, any time we force our bodies to do something, we are opening the door to the possibility of injury.
Many athletes tell me that they like (and prefer) ERG Mode because they feel like they “get a better workout” and that they can “hit the workout targets more easily.” I can admit that ERG Mode is extremely useful in ensuring strict workout compliance (meaning that the planned power ranges were hit), but training isn’t just about completing workouts exactly as they were planned all the time. It’s not even about “feeling” a hard effort or a “good” effort all of the time.
To successfully train for performance, one needs to be training more than just hitting targets in a workout. Specifically in cycling, skills like shifting, keeping the brain engaged and making choices throughout the workout, learning how to truly listen to one’s body when fatigued, and learning how to control power outputs with muscular force and cadence (especially while fatigued) are all necessary if one wants to improve their actual performance. (Read: in a race situation or even just in an outdoor workout). Physically feeling like you had a hard workout isn’t enough. You need to be training your brain and your practical skills, too. And that means facing challenges and learning new things. It’s as simple and as hard as that.
If you choose to train in ERG Mode, of course that is okay! Just make sure that you're making an informed choice and you understand what you are sacrificing and what you may be losing by making that choice. If you’ve been training with ERG Mode for indoor workouts and you’ve been feeling stalled in your actual performance, you may want to reconsider your choice to use ERG Mode and consider switching to Resistance Mode. We don’t gain muscle mass at the gym by lifting ribbons; we need to lift actual weights and do work that is hard. Similarly, it’s important to challenge ourselves - mentally and physically - in workouts in order to elicit the adaptations and gains that are needed to successfully reach goals over the long-term. In the world of cycling training, ERG Mode is a foe, not a friend. I encourage you to train with friends. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.