Saturday, 25 January 2014

Turbo trainer vs. Just man-up and get cold and wet!

I'm lucky enough to have a bike almost permanently set up on a turbo trainer in the warmth and comfort of a spare room at home (yes, my man cave, with the turbo trainer also joined by my weights bench!).  When you live in sunny Scotland, a turbo trainer becomes an essential piece of kit to keep your training going over the winter.  On those cold, wet, dark days and nights, knowing that you can still get an hour or two of riding done means you won't miss out on important base training.

But then there are other times when you just have to get out there.  Whether it's on the road or on the mountain bike trails, a turbo trainer will never make up for a proper ride out there in the elements.

Today, I thought about using the turbo trainer instead of the training ride I'd planned (which was part on-road / part off-road) but I'm so glad I got out there and got a good old soaking!  So, when should you stay in and when should you just get on with it and brave the elements?

To help with that decision, here are a few turbo trainer tips I've picked up over the past few years, some my own and some good advice from others:

Turbo Training Tips:
  • I realise not everyone is lucky enough to have a 2nd or 3rd bike, but if you do, get it on the turbo trainer in November and leave it there until March.  Having to go out to the garage or shed, change the rear tyre, drag the bike inside, and set it up on the turbo is just going to give you an excuse not to train.  If you can just jump on it anytime you are far more likely to use it.  I cycle to work most days and it used to be such a pain dragging the filthy wet bike inside to put on the turbo trainer so I now have another bike set up on the trainer to save me that hassle.
  • Use a turbo trainer tyre.  It'll save you wearing out your expensive "proper" tyres and it'll save you wearing down your partner/flatmate/family with the noise!  I use the Schwalbe Insider, and remember you can get road or mountain bike sizes so you don't need a road bike to turbo train.  Lock out your suspension and pop your mountain bike on there - it'll look ridiculous with a wee skinny tyre on the back, but you'll look far more ridiculous yourself once you get training, and nobody is watching!
  • It doesn't matter how many fans you point at yourself, you will sweat!  Keep the clothing minimal and a towel hanging over your handlebars - you'll need it
  • Use a bike computer with a cadence sensor and get a heart rate monitor.  Note when I mention heart rate zones, they are based on Lactate Threshold Heart Rate, not maximum heart rate. 
  • Mix it up.  It's really difficult to just sit there plodding away for hours on end, going nowhere, so mix up your workout.  The longest I've ever managed on a turbo trainer was 2.5 hours but typically I'm bored after an hour or so.  Try some of the following workouts, and always warm-up for 10 mins first and cool down for 10 mins at the end:
    • Spin-ups: Every few mins, spend 30 seconds taking your cadence up from normal to as high as possible without too much wobbling (perhaps 120 - 130rpm).  Keep it there for at least a minute and focus on pedaling technique (so a reasonably easy gear)
    • Isolated leg: Pedal with one leg only (resting the other on a chair or similar).   Try to focus on technique and avoid that dead spot "clunk" at the top of the pedal stroke.  If you've never done this before, you'll struggle to get above 70rpm without the clunk, but you'll soon be able to do 90rpm smoothly.  Alternate legs every 30 to 60 seconds
    • 10 mins 50rpm, 5 mins easy, 10 mins 90rpm with heart rate in Zone 3, 5 mins easy.  Do a few sets of this.
    • There are loads of other workouts you can do on the turbo, some of which you'll find on the British Cycling website or just by searching the web, but I'll post some more later in the season.  These are all base period workouts, so later on there will be more intensive intervals to build power and anaerobic endurance.
  • Listen to music or watch some TV to help keep you from going clinically insane through boredom . . . but watch you don't get distracted.  You won't get much benefit from just spinning away in an easy gear watching the latest episode of your favourite TV show.  There's nothing wrong with watching something but make sure you keep an eye on your watch, cadence meter, and heart rate monitor so that you don't miss out on the main point of the workout.  I've found that watching cycling helps, surprisingly enough!  For example, re-plays of mountain bike XC world cup rounds on You Tube.  I've tried the DVDs you get with some turbo trainers, where you watch a film of a road hill stage or similar, but I find that zones me out a bit and I stop working as hard.
  • Remember when you're on a turbo trainer, as long as you are working hard and not just spinning away easily, you are not getting any breaks to freewheel like you would on the road or trails.  So don't worry if your planned workout outdoors was going to be 2 hours and you only do 1 or 1.5 hours on the turbo.  You probably had fewer rests or easy periods.
Silly looking skinny tyre on a mountain bike, fan and towel for the unavoidable heat, headphones and tablet on the window sill for prevention of boredom:

So, why did I go out in the pouring rain today instead of staying in the warmth of my man cave on the turbo trainer and following some of my own advice above?  Well, first of all, I wanted to get a solid 3 hours of riding in and even 2 on the turbo can be tough for boredom.  Also, one of the workouts I was doing today involved sustaining a Zone 3 heart rate for a prolonged period and while this isn't too hard to do on the road, I personally struggle to keep my heart rate up at that level or higher for a decent length of time on the turbo.  It's not that I can't be bothered working hard - I just seem to struggle even with high resistance and high gears when indoors.

Finally, the reason I realised when I got home . . . Mountain bike training isn't just about the fitness or getting the kilometers under your belt.  Skills are a really important part of it and you're going to take a big backwards step if you spend the whole winter on your turbo trainer and road bike without ever hitting the trails.  Yes, they are wet, muddy and slippy.  Yes, you have to spend ages cleaning your bike, your clothes and yourself afterwards (and note, cleaning the bike always comes first before cleaning yourself!).  But it gives you a chance to hone your skills in those more challenging conditions.  We shouldn't just practice in perfect grippy dry conditions.  You never know when that summer race you thought would be dry and warm, is suddenly transformed into a river of mud by a heavy summer downpour.  And that's when you'll be glad you spent hours slipping and sliding your way around your local trails in the winter.

I had great fun over at Cathkin Braes today and I'm so glad I got out instead of sitting inside on the turbo trainer.  I stopped and sessioned a few sections, trying new lines, seeing what works better in the wet, and did it on my heavier  bike with chunkier tyres and laden down with all my waterproof clothing.  Just think how fast those sections will feel when it's warm, dry, grippy and I'm on the race bike.

So, do use your turbo trainer to build up those base hours and work on specific areas but don't always be put off by the miserable weather.  If we hid away from it in this country we'd never get out on the trails!


  1. Cycling is a good hobby. It is a great exercise for health. Bike trainer is essential for bike riding. It is helps to learn perfect bicycle riding.

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