Updated: Jan 11
More and more people are getting their first turbo trainer, so here's some answers to 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're just getting started then the dumb trainers are cheaper and generally take up a bit less space but dont give such an interactive or targetted experience.
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’m a big fan of 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 to get started, 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, down to much simpler, cheaper options.
Or there's rollers, with power meter on your bike/rollers for structured training. But I would also go for that option if you're already happy on rollers.
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 there's a lot of turbos bought in lockdown sitting unused in garages, so try asking around.
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 (generally a better experience, but more expensive - 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, but you'll get bored of that pretty quickly and it's not very effective for building fitness.
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), but these aren't essential. If you want to build bike fitness efficiently, then a structured training plan is key.
I am a massive fan of turbo training, in the winter it's invaluable, but even in summer I include it in most clients plans as you can achieve so much more in a shorter amount of time.
If you’re interested in trying out structured training, then consider my Light Touch turbo plan for structured training focussed on your goals and level of fitness, plus monthly coaching calls.
Some other tips for success
The first time you have a go on your turbo, especially if it’s a smart one, be prepared for some faff and to potentially achieve very little in terms of training whilst you work out how to set everything up. There’s a million different ways to get things set up, but generally Google has the answer to most of them. So work out what you’re trying to connect to what, whether you’re using Ant+ (often you need a specific dongle) or Bluetooth etc, if things don’t pick up, try restarting, or disconnecting and reconnecting. And once you get it all working, take a note so you remember next time. And don’t worry, this is the worst session, it will get much easier, and be much more fun than this!
Leave as much as possible set up in advance. If you’re very lucky in terms of space and those you live with, you might be able to leave your bike set up. But even if you don’t have that luxury, have a box/bag with all the stuff that you need, so that it’s ready to go. Otherwise you’ll find your one hour work out quickly turns into 90 mins or you never start because you lose interest when you start to think about the faff of getting set up. I have a bag that I hang over my handlebars so I can just jump on and set up whilst I warm up.
Things in my bag:
- Towel (one for me, one to protect my bike)
- Sweat band (oh yes, bring on the 80s! But really helps if you don’t like getting sweat in your eyes, on your phone)
- Nutrition and electrolytes
- Charged Garmin
- Heart rate monitor
- Notebook/phone (for all those amazing ideas I have whilst warming up/ cooling down)
- Water bottle (one for the bike cage, plus a bigger bottle to refill it from)
Other things to have close at hand:
- Something to protect your floor (e.g. yoga mat or plastic sheet)
- Something to protect your bike from your sweat (which is corrosive given the salt, you can buy special covers, or a towel is fine)
- Fan (and if you’re going all out, a remote power switch to ramp it up when you get past the warm up)
- Extension lead to the turbo and fan
Music and tv – things to keep you entertained are great for just that. And if that’s what you need to get through a workout then go for it. But if you’re training for something like an Ironman then remember that a lot of that course is likely to actually be quite long and boring, and spending some time working on psychological skills to keep yourself motivated and pushing on can make all the difference on race day.
To get coaching time to discuss things such as bike set up, nutrition, skills to improve your cycling, how to adapt your training based around your menstrual cycle, psychological skills to get the most out of your training, plus strength and conditioning options, have a look at my Light Touch turbo plan for structured training focussed on your goals and level of fitness.