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!

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

It's not all about the bike

On Saturday 9th January, I braved the snow, ice and cold to join a few others for my weekly group training ride on the road bike.  It was pretty sketchy in places but most of the main roads were fine and it was great to be out for a good training ride.

Despite the cold, it was great to be out on the bike!

Skip forward a week to this weekend just gone and it was a whole other level of snow here in Glasgow.  I was all ready, just about to step out the door for a road ride on Saturday morning and my street turned white!  I went back inside and did a session on the turbo trainer instead.

While I'm happy spending time on the turbo trainer at this time of year, I knew if I had to spend Sunday indoors again I'd probably go crazy!  I could have got out on my mountain bike, as it's loads of fun in the snow, but sometimes it's not all about the bike . . . 

. . . and that brings me onto winter cross training.

Cross training simply means doing a different sport or activity instead of the usual bike training.  You may wonder why I would want to spend time doing something else when my training is focused on doing well in bike races.  Well, there are a few reasons:
  1. It can still help improve your aerobic capacity, strength, power, specific bike-related muscle groups and various other areas that will help your riding
  2. It provides a bit of variety so you don't get bored on the bike
  3. It gives you the chance to do something on a day when the weather or something else may prevent you from riding your bike
Earlier in my training plan, back in October and November, I was spending a bit of time wearing these:


I've got an old running injury that prevents me doing a lot of running these days, especially on hard surfaces, but for the first few weeks of my current training plan, back in October/November, I was doing a couple of 5km runs each week.  It helped ease me back into training.  It provided some variety.  It stimulated muscles I probably don't use as much on the bike.  And it gave me a quick 30 minute workout I could fit in after work rather than spending time on the turbo trainer.  There was still plenty of time for the turbo trainer in the coming dark, cold winter months!

Unless you're a duathlete or triathlete, you obviously don't need to spend time running to improve your performance.  However, even if you're focused solely on cycling like me, consider doing a bit of running earlier in your training plan to mix things up a bit.  Try to stick to soft ground and make sure you have a well-fitted, supportive pair of trainers though, as you don't want to risk any running injuries preventing you getting back on the bike!

So, back to the weekend just passed.  I didn't want to spend another day indoors.  I could have gone somewhere with my mountain bike for some fun in the snow.  However, I instead decided to spend a day pursuing my other sporting passion: skiing.  We arrived at Nevis Range ski resort, just about 2.5 hours drive north of Glasgow, to be welcomed by great conditions.  Loads of early season snow up on the mountain (Aonach Mor) and great visibility.


I was pretty excited to get skiing again for the first time this year.  Skiing was my previous sporting passion before mountain biking, and I still love it.  It's also great cross training if you're a cyclist.

I used to worry about missing a day of training to go skiing but I've realised I can get just as good a workout at the same time as adding a bit of variety and doing something else I really enjoy.  A lot of mountain bikers do ski or snowboard too, so don't spend your whole time on the bike at the cost of not enjoying your snowsports passion - you can still get a good workout.

Even if you spend the whole day skiing downhill, make sure you complete full runs and don't stop too much.  Throw in more turns - the more you turn, the more you'll be working your legs.  In fact, it's a really good way to work some muscle groups you may not fully engage as much on the bike.  I find it helps hip stability, quads, glutes and calves in slightly different ways from the bike.  It will also work some of the same skills and reflexes you require on a mountain bike:  skiing tight turns around trees or moguls helps with your quick decisions and turns when you're back on a bike.  

You also get just as stunning scenery (if not better?!) with snowsports:


You'll get a pretty good workout spending all day on skis or a snowboard, using the ski lifts.  However, if you really want to include a good cardio workout to make up for the cycling you're missing, you could do what I do and invest in a set of skins for your skis.  I use Black Diamond ones.

What are skins?  Basically, a material that you stick to the base of your skis that allows you to ski uphill.  Why on earth would anyone want to ski uphill?  Well, plenty of people use them to go off piste into the back country and seek out more challenging terrain.  However, my main use is actually for a workout.  You also need touring bindings on your skis, that will let you release the heel to go uphill (although not to be confused with telemark bindings).  I tend to do a couple of hours normal downhill skiing, then stick the skins on, loosen my boots, release the heel of my binding and then spend an hour or two "skinning" uphill.

You can just make out the hook at the front of my skins, over the tip of the skis, in this photo

Not only does this give me a great leg workout, but it also stresses my aerobic system.  I got a great 1 hour workout on Sunday, as well as all the downhill skiing, with my average heart rate in Zone 2 and going right up to Zone 5 at one point as I pushed hard up the side of a red ski run.  I sometimes venture a bit further afield like in the photo above, but if you want to keep it safe you can just skin up the side of the marked ski runs, staying well out of the way of the downhill skiers and boarders, and you'll get a great workout.  If you're heading off piste, make sure you are with someone, have a transceiver, probe and shovel, and know how to use them.  But if you just want a workout, stick next to the safety of the marked runs.

Then, a bit like on a bike, you get the satisfaction of having fun heading back downhill again without having had a lift pull you up there!


So, what's the point of all this . . . as it's not just to show you nice photos of skiing in Scotland!

Well, what I'm trying to say is: don't beat yourself up if you take a day off the bike to do something else you enjoy - it's all cross training.  You can take something like skiing, or running, or any other sport you enjoy, and turn it into a workout that will actually benefit you when you're back on the bike.  Plus, with the added benefit of a bit of variety and the stunning scenery you've seen above, it's not just great for your body; it's great for your mind too!

I'll be back on the turbo trainer tonight, but I'm so glad I didn't spend Sunday on it and got up north skiing instead!  

Check back soon for my next blog on turbo trainer tips for when you do need to spend time indoors.  I'll also be providing a few tips on gym strength exercises you can do to help your cycling, following some great Personal Training sessions I've had with the expert staff at my new sponsor, Origins Fitness gym.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Keeping it local

Us mountain bikers often spend hours in a vehicle just to get to a trail centre, or the start of a wild trail, sometimes spending more time travelling than riding.  But it doesn't have to be that way!

I did a pretty tough group road ride on Saturday 2nd January.  It was a great workout but left me pretty tired afterwards.  Not surprisingly, when the alarm went off on Sunday 3rd January, to get me up early to drive half way across the country to go mountain biking, I hit the snooze button and went back to sleep!

Yes, dedication to the training plan is important but you need to listen to your body and sometimes that requires a lie-in!

With it getting dark before 4pm at this time of year, and with my plan to do between 4 and 5 hours of mountain biking on Sunday, that lie-in meant I didn't have many options left if I was going to drive somewhere to go mountain biking.  When I checked the weather forecast for the day ahead, however, it looked like the weather was best in the West.  So, why jump into the van to drive for hours, cutting down my riding time, when I could keep it local and mountain bike in the Glasgow area?

I spend a fair amount of time driving to trails or race venues.  It's perhaps one of the downsides of mountain biking.  Unless you live in the countryside, you have to drive to get to the start point of your ride.  I live in Glasgow, and despite the city location, there's more mountain biking than you might think on my doorstep.

In my last blog, I mentioned the benefit of a road ride is that you can ride immediately from your door and also get in a good base endurance ride.  Well, the same goes for mountain biking.  Why not leave from your door and explore the trails in your local area?  Yes, it might not be the number one trail centre in the UK; it might not have perfectly designed jumps and berms; and you might spend a fair amount of time on the road; but you'll get a good workout, can still work on your skills, and you're still riding your mountain bike!

I headed off to the south side of Glasgow first of all, cycling on the road to Cathkin Braes.  A good 30 minute warm-up on the road got me ready for some start practice at Cathkin.  If you've read my blogs over the past two seasons, you'll know I have had a few issues with my starts, so I was doing 10 "standing start" sprints.  Not so much focused on sprint power, but focusing on getting clipped into the pedals straight away and my form for starts and sprints.


A rather grey looking view over Glasgow from Cathkin, but at least it was dry!

Then it was a couple of laps of Cathkin Braes Commonwealth Games mountain bike track.  I may have raced and trained there many times, but you can always work on your skills even on a trail you know well.  Trying new lines, using the flat smooth sections to practice wheelies and manuals, focusing on body position in the corners.  All great practice while also getting more Zone 2 base endurance into my system!


Trying different lines and focusing on body position even on a section I know well

Following, that it was a nice steady spin on the road down to Pollok Park.  The MTB trails in Pollok are tiny and often overlooked because they're too easy.  However, if you take them at the right speed, and especially at this time of year when they are muddy and slippy, it's another great skills workout.  Fast, flat corners can be very challenging so don't overlook an otherwise "easy" trail like the one in Pollok Park.


Don't overlook "easy" trails like Pollok Park.  It's how you use them that counts!

Then it was more steady endurance on the road, all the way over to the north of Glasgow to finish my session off in Mugdock Country Park.  This is where the West Highland Way starts, and with the first section being pretty flat, it can be a good winter endurance ride if you head on up to Conic Hill and back, with the obvious benefit of the hill in there too.  

However, with my focus of Sunday's session on skills, I instead explored the many off-piste "hidden" trails in Mugdock.  I know some of them well, but others not so much.  Some of the local riders have invested great time and effort building these trails and while they are often quite short, they are great for working on your skills on muddy, rooty and/or rocky descents.  Also tight twisting flat corners, which we don't have a lot of in some of our man made trail centres in Scotland.  I therefore sometimes get caught out by these in some of the XC races south of the border, so Mugdock is a great place for me to get faster at those kind of corners.


Slippy, slidey, muddy fun in Mugdock Country Park

I had every intention of riding home too, for even more base miles in the legs, but by this point I was pretty tired and my wife thankfully agreed to come and pick me up!  The train was an option too, given the light was fading.  But even without the ride home, that was almost 5 hours of riding on my mountain bike without having to travel by car to get to the start of a trail and all on my own doorstep in Glasgow.

If you live in Glasgow, don't overlook these trails!  Regardless of where you live, make sure you explore the local area and local parks.  There may be more mountain biking available than you think and it'll save you a load of travel time, as well as doing that little bit for the environment!