The low down on getting started on turbo training

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

Given the context of Corona Virus and exercising indoors, more and more people are getting their first turbo trainer, so here's a quick blog to answer the many questions I’ve been getting.

What turbo should I get?

Broadly turbos are either standard or ‘dumb’ - you pop your bike onto them, and pedal. You can judge intensity by feel, heart rate or add in a cadence sensor that can estimate speed.

Or smart – they know how much power you’re putting in (i.e. how hard you’re training) and if you can put them in ERG mode, and are following a structured session (more on that later), they’ll adjust the resistance to match the target power or simulate inclines in virtual sessions.

Which is better depends on what you want it for. If you want something to keep you generally fit whilst you’re not able to get out, but don’t plan to use it loads in the future or don’t have particular cycling goals, then the dumb trainers are cheaper and generally take up a bit less space.

If you want to use the time to really focus on your cycling and do some structured training, then power is the gold standard in cycling, so you might want to look at either a smart trainer, or a dumb trainer and a power meter (I’d usually recommend the latter, because can also use the power meter out on the road). But you don’t have to shell out on a smart trainer, a dumb trainer plus a heart rate monitor can still be a great training tool, and will also allow you to use apps such as Zwift.

The other option is a non-turbo gym bike, great if you either don’t already have a bike or there’s a few people in the house wanting to use it (because you can easily change the position by moving the seat and saddle etc) but you’ll need space to store it (and generally won’t want to move it far to use it). These range from top of the range like the Wattbike Atom, which fall into the ‘more expensive but great for structured training’ category (try checking eBay etc for ex-gym models), down to much simpler, cheaper options. (Or the, in my opinion, completely over-priced Peloton bikes which stream classes as if you’re in the gym)

Or rollers, with power meter on your bike for structured training. But unless you’re already used to them, to avoid putting any additional demands on medical services, I wouldn’t recommend starting on rollers right now!

I’m not going to recommend makes here, there’s many people that do that much better than me (I always recommend DC Rainmaker for impartial advice on anything tech), but before you spend ages researching your dream turbo, bear in mind that at the moment most shops have sold out of many brands, so choice is limited.

You might be better checking eBay, Facebook For Sale groups, asking friends, or see if a local gym that’s currently shut will hire you one. Or this page apparently has an up to date list of all turbos available in the UK right now.

And do check compatibility before you buy. For example, if you've got a through axle rather than quick release you'll need an adaptor, you can get one for most modern turbos but less likely for older models. Or, for example an 8 speed bike would need an 8 speed cassette on the turbo (which can be an issue if you're sharing the turbo between different bikes) and might need some spacers. There's adaptors or fixes for most of these things but it's best to check what it will involve before buying.

What else will I need?

For most wheel-on turbos (where you put the whole bike onto the turbo, either dumb or smart) you’ll need a spare training tyre (and unless you plan to change it each time) a wheel as well. This is because the friction of the tyre on the turbo will soon destroy it, leaving you vulnerable to punctures next time you go out.

For a direct drive turbo (you take off the back wheel and pop the bike onto the turbo) you’ll probably need a new cassette to go on the turbo.

I’d also strongly recommend a fan, stronger the better, as once it starts getting hot outside, your performance/ enjoyment will be significantly limited by getting too hot.

How to train on your trainer

Then you need to decide how you want to train. At one end of the spectrum you can just get on the bike and pedal (ideally with some music to keep you entertained). And you can either do some steady state efforts, or add in some intervals where you work harder and then recover. Whilst the latter is more ‘fun’ and done right, can get you fitter faster, the risk especially at the moment, is that high intensity efforts can have more of an impact on your immune system, and so right now, I wouldn’t recommend anything max effort.

Then at the other end, you can add in all manner of extras to keep you entertained and structure your training. There’s lots of platforms offering you a virtual cycling experience (e.g. Zwift, or it’s rapidly growing, thanks to a new partnership with Ironman, competitor Rouvy, BKool) where you can ride on well-known or fantasy courses ‘with others’.

And then there’s platforms offering you structured training (e.g. Trainer Road, training plans on Training Peaks, many smart turbos come with their own) where you do a test of your bike fitness, and then the training is based on your fitness, and there’s ones offering a bit of both (Sufferfest, Zwift etc).

I am, unsurprisingly, a massive advocate of structured training if you’re wanting to make tangible progress in your bike fitness and advise my clients to include structured training (which given the reality of UK roads where most of my clients live usually means indoor training), even when outdoor options are available.

If you’re interested in trying out structured training, see my new Introduction to Turbo Training 6 week training plan