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, with three training sessions a week, weekly strength and conditioning sessions, and coaching by video and a 1:1 call.
Whether you want to add on the extra bits is up to you, personally I find the Zwift type set up is just another thing to faff around with setting up, and would rather stick to my structured training intervals accompanied by a film, cycle race, some music or a podcast.
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 (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 more coaching tips on all these things, as well 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 three structured training sessions a week and strength and conditioning, sign up for my new Intro to Turbo Training six week plan.