Monday, 25 January 2016

Getting started with a turbo trainer

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. 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.

If you’ve never used one before, you’re probably wondering what a turbo trainer is! What you’ll see here in the photo of my “man cave” is a device that attaches to the rear axle of an existing bike, essentially turning your normal bike into an indoor exercise bike. The advantage is that you don’t need to buy a specific exercise bike and for the cost of just the turbo trainer itself you’ve got an indoor and outdoor training option throughout the winter.

There are lots of different models of turbo trainers, from simple to advanced and even with built in software that lets you “race” your friends or try stages from the Tour de France. Pop into your local bike store and their staff can advise you on which model is best for you.

So, you’ve got yourself a turbo trainer, you’ve decided the weather is not encouraging you to ride outdoors today, so what advice can I offer? I’ve been using a turbo trainer for several years, not just for when the weather is bad outside, but also to do some specific training session that are best done in your own home (the kind that involve a lot of pain and potentially crying like a baby afterwards – some things are best done in the privacy of your own home!).

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! 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 for yourself and it’ll also stop the corrosive sweat dripping into your headset
  • 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 different workouts (see below).
  • 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 (unless you are specifically doing a Zone 1 recovery ride). 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 YouTube or Red Bull TV.
  • 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 hour on the turbo. You probably had fewer rests or easy periods.


Some turbo trainer workouts to try:

Try some of the following workouts, and always warm-up for 10 mins first and cool down for 10 mins at the end:


  1. Spin-ups: Every few mins, spend 30 seconds taking your cadence up from normal (80 – 90rpm) to as high as possible without too much hip wobbling (perhaps 120 - 130rpm). Keep it there for at least a minute and focus on pedalling technique (so use a reasonably easy gear)
  2. 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
  3. 10 mins 50rpm, 5 mins easy, 10 mins 90rpm with heart rate in Zone 3, 5 mins easy. Do a few sets of this.
  4. A simple workout to keep your interest for an hour can just involve starting in your big chainring and easiest gear on your cassette then just working your way up the block, gear by gear, changing every 5 mins, then back down again. You can also do something similar with the resistance on the turbo. Or use resistance and gears together
  5. 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
Note that the workouts I’ve suggested above are all “Base” period workouts. They are all aimed at fundamental endurance and skills training, not high intensity anaerobic or power training. That comes later in the season!

One final word of advice . . . Don’t spend all winter on the turbo trainer, especially if you’re a mountain biker like me. An important part of mountain bike training is to work on your technical skills and, despite the horrible weather at times, winter is a great time for that. If you can negotiate a difficult downhill trail when it’s wet, muddy and slippy, think how easy it’ll be in the summer when it’s dry and dusty!

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 to have loads of fun!

4 comments:

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