Turbo training may not be hugely popular but it is exceptionally effective and will help keep you fit during winter when the weather is too bad and the days become shorter. Here's everything you need to know and our pick of the best.
What is a turbo trainer?
Turbo trainers are quite simply a device that enables you to ride your bike, stationary, indoors. As such they have become the de facto training equipment for the winter months and for warming up ahead of a race. Turbo trainers, or turbos as they are commonly known, clamp around the quick release skewer of a bike’s rear wheel suspending it in an A-frame.
>>> Looking for something more? Check out our guide to the best smart turbo trainers
This frame positions the rear tyre so that it sits on a roller, as you pedal and spin your rear wheel the roller turns too. A resistance unit is attached to the roller and uses air, fluid or magnetic means to vary resistance against which you are pedaling.
Turbo trainers are usually classified by the method used in the resistance unit. Some will automatically get harder as you pedal faster, others are adjusted manually, typically by a lever that clamps to the handlebars. See below for more on the different types of turbos.
Why use a turbo trainer?
Many riders see turbo trainer time as tortuous and or extremely boring, so opt not to use them. However, even those that dislike them acknowledge turbos as a great tool for targeted training and maintaining fitness. Winter is often seen as turbo time, as icy conditions mixed with rain, wind and generally unpredictable conditions makes heading out on long rides no fun. Choosing to turbo is a safer and more time efficient riding option.
Avoiding bad weather is a good enough reason to use a turbo, but the real benefit is to use it as an effective method of training, as you can work on any specific fitness component and focus a training session to the second. This is why many elite riders use them year round focusing their sessions and supplementing their road miles.
Turbo trainers also allow for intense efforts to be completed without worrying about traffic, road junctions or undulating terrain that doesn’t allow for constant, steady state efforts. Whether a speedy sprint session or a longer interval pyramid there’s a specific session for whatever it is you’re looking to improve.
Similarly it’s great for those tight of time, or training after work in the winter when it’s too dark to head out on the road. Just a 30 minute blast on the turbo every other day before or after work can have major benefits on your overall fitness levels. With research showing the effectiveness of high intensity, short interval training on cardiovascular fitness it’ll really benefit those with little time to ride.
Turbos are also perfect for those who need to warm-up ahead of a race; typically a time trial or track event. Only in the last few years have riders started warming up (and down) at pro-level road races. Team Sky started this trend in 2011 and the rest of the WorldTour teams have since followed suit. With turbos small enough to fold up and pack into a car boot they are perfect for this.
Our pick of the best turbo trainers
Wahoo Kickr turbo trainer
£950 is a hell of a lot of money to spend on a turbo trainer, but the Wahoo Kickr is worth every penny. Most importantly the ride quality is superb, and the Wahoo Kickr feels just like riding a normal bike. There is also a companion app, a whole load of smart training features, and, very importantly, it’s also quiet.
Jet Black Z1 Fluid Pro turbo trainer
If you’re after realistic ride feel from a quiet turbo trainer, but can’t face the price tag of the Wahoo Kickr then this Jet Black turbo is a good cheaper alternative. It’s dead easy to set up straight out of the box and has a really stable base that will keep you secure even when putting in really hard, short efforts.
Elite Qubo Power Fluid turbo trainer
If you’re after a quiet turbo trainer at a reasonable price then the Elite Qubo turbo is hard to beat. The fluid resistance unit is very impressive at different power outputs and is quiet enough that you can get away with some late night and early morning sessions without getting complaints from the neighbours
Kinetic Rock and Roll turbo trainer
The Kinetic Rock and Roll turbo trainer is unique in the market in that it has the ability to sway from side to side, mimicking the feeling of riding a bike out of the saddle. Away from this headline feature, the Rock and Roll turbo also impresses with its fluid resistance unit, which is able to cope with a wide range of power outputs. The only real downsides are its size and weight.
Tacx Blue Motion turbo trainer
For a penny under £200, the Tacx Blue Motion turbo trainer offers no fewer than ten resistance settings and a maximum power output of 950W that should be more than adequate for the majority of riders. The design is also nice and compact, meaning that it can be folded flat for easy storage, although we’d recommend a turbo mat underneath to reduce the noise.
Setting a turbo trainer up correctly
Getting a specific room or area for your turbo sessions is the ideal scenario. A garage, utility room or covered outside space would make for a perfect Pain Cave. Riding a turbo creates a lot of noise, sweat and heat all of which need to be considered.
Find a solid, smooth, flat surface – tiles, lino or concrete for example. The feet of the turbo trainer need to be level to stop it from rocking around under your momentum and with sweat dropping off you we’d advise avoiding carpeted floors.
Turboing is a sweaty affair so a well ventilated area is essential. Whether it’s through opening windows or having a fan on, having some way of creating a breeze to keep cool is vital. One thing many people forget is that as sweat drips on dirty wheels or drive trains it can flick dirt around, so either clean your bike beforehand or be prepared to clean the walls. If you’re a heavy sweater investing a sweat catcher, a piece of material that stretches from handlebars to the saddle, may be an option.
Here are a few other handy tips for turbo training sessions:
- Keep a small towel close to hand to mop your face, arms and hands during the session. There’s nothing worse than sweat dripping in to your eyes.
- Buy or make a turbo block to raise your front wheel off the ground and make it level with your rear wheel that is sitting in the A-frame three to four inches off the ground.
- Keep one or two water bottles close to hand. You will get thirsty. Very thirsty.
- Print or write out your session on a piece of paper, or even better, a large white board. It needs to be clearly set out with a minute by minute breakdown and clear, bold writing.
- A stopwatch or timer is essential. If you don’t have a bike computer, Garmin, power metre or heart rate monitor you will need something by which to tell the time and pace your efforts.
- A good playlist will help with the harder efforts and pass the time. Headphones will get sweaty, so use a stereo or speaker.
- If you live in a flat and have hard floors, you may want to put down some kind of barrier as the noise can be over-bearing, and can annoy the neighbours. Be careful not to make the turbo unsteady.
Get the resistance right
Ensuring the resistance is set up correctly is important when turbo training. The rear wheel should be resting on the roller so that the tyre is slightly squashed, as it would be on the road. It should not be pressing so hard that the wheel barely turns, or hovering above it so that the wheels skips forward when you apply pressure when pedalling.
It is essential to put the wheel in straight so that it sits perpendicular to the roller. Ensure the rear quick release skewer is sitting straight within the clamp that fixes it into the A-frame. It should be securely clamped so the wheel doesn’t wobble within the A-frame, this could damage your bike and the clamp and will mean your effort is not always constant.
Ensure the rear wheel sits centrally on the roller itself. Most turbos will allow for left to right adjustment on the A-frame (usually on the side opposite to the clamp).
Get the session right
Planning your sessions on the turbo is vital. Having a specific idea of exactly what you will be doing will help you get the most out of your session, keep you motivated and allow you to tailor a session in order to improve on the previous one.
A turbo session, must start with a warm up. This should last between 15 – 20 minutes and towards the end raise your effort to a level just below the intensity of the main intervals.
Any session should involve different intervals, which vary in the length and intensity. You should never just sit on a turbo and ride for, say, 45 minutes – this will achieve very little. When planning sessions on the turbo a key factor to think about is keeping it interesting. Breaking it down to make the intervals short and sweet will keep your attention, prevent boredom and make the session pass quicker.
If you’re focused on longer events, perhaps multi-day sportives, you may need to do longer sessions, but spice these up as if you’re on a ride with varying intensities. It’s usually better to do three 10 minute intervals of a set intensity rather than trying to complete a longer 30 minute one.
Watch: what are training zones?
If your goal isn’t a specific event then focus a session on improving the areas you know are weak. There’s no point doing long, ten minute intervals if you’re looking to improve your sprint.
Having a long-term end goal, as well as some specific goals for the session itself, will give you the justification for sitting there and sweating it out.
Whether you’re doing short sprint intervals, threshold efforts or just mimicking a steady winter ride, having something to measure is vital. It may be power, speed, cadence, heart-rate or just feel, but it must be measurable. If you measure it, you can later review it and improve it. For example, if you can ride at 250 watts for five minutes during a session, you could look to ride at 260 watts during the next session. If you didn’t measured that effort in the first place, you’ll have no baseline on which to build. Power and heart rate are the best two measures, although it’s possible to use the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) if you’re a technophobe.
Types of turbos
Fluid These offer a quiet and smooth ride but are more expensive. They work by creating resistance with an impeller revolving in thick, oil-like solution. This system provides a natural adjustment of resistance as the effort to turn the impeller increases as you pedal harder or push a bigger gear.
Magnetic These work with a metal plate inside the resistance unit which creates a magnetic field of resistance. These can often be adjusted manually as you are riding so can give your session a more specific feel. They are also quieter than the older air resistance turbos.
Fan An older, noisy, but cheap option. A fan creates air resistance as you pedal and turn the roller, however there is limited adjustability in resistance and only your gears can change how hard it is as you ride, and this is not always as . These are hard to come across now as they have been outdated by greater technology offering a better ride
Direct drive These come with a cassette mounted directly on to a resistance unit. By removing your rear wheel you can attach your bike into this type of trainer. They offer a much more realistic road feel than the other trainers and are generally much more stable too. They can be quieter too, with the Tacx Neo Smart being ridiculously quiet.
The downside is that they are often much more expensive.
Other things you could use
Rollers are another option, the technology now used in these has improved greatly in previous years. Rollers have three cylinders, one that the front wheel sits on and two that the rear wheel sits between. The front cylinder and rear cylinder that’s nearest the front cylinder has a long band that goes round both of them. When you pedal your rear wheel turns the rear cylinders which, by way of the long band, turns the front cylinder and therefore your front wheel.
The gyroscopic motion is what keeps the bike upright. Riding rollers does however require concentration and balance and it’s advisable to set them up next to a wall or solid surface which you can reach out to and balance yourself on should you need.
The concentration needed to ride rollers makes them more interesting than riding a turbo.
There are several motivation tools for riding on turbos. A common favourite among regular turbo riders is Zwift, which is basically a turbo training game that lets you link your laptop to your turbo trainer and cycle computer, and compete against other riders in a virtual world.
The Sufferfest videos use footage from pro races to help motivate and inspire you to get the most out of your turbo sessions. 3LC are downloadable videos that do the same, featuring Isle of Man riders Mark Cavendish and Peter Kennaugh. Tacx have a range of virtual reality and multi-player options that pit you against other Tacx users.
This measures the power you produce in Watts. This is really useful as it allows you to quantify your work out. You can either use a power meter on your bike or one built into the trainer. More expensive units such as the Wahoo Kickr have a built in power meter, where as less expensive units such as the Wahoo Kickr Snap estimates the power you are producing using algorithms. Entry level units have no power measurement.
These can be fluid or direct drive or magnetic. Virtual reality is big news and smart trainers are designed to make the most of apps such as Zwift. Many smart trainers also allow you to create your own courses and ride simulations of real climbs and roads. They are capable of adjusting the resistance to recreate climbs and descents.
How do you decide which is best for you?
Firstly look at your budget, then think about the type of workouts you want to do. Some people will want to use their turbo for warming up at a race and many smart trainers require a plug socket to work.
If you are taking your training more seriously you may decide to chose one with a power meter, so you can more accurately structure your workouts. If your lifestyle dictates that most of your training is turbo based, or you struggle with motivation, then a smart trainer is a great way to make things more interesting.
If you are a beginner or are not likely to use it much, an entry level turbo will do the job. Consider space too as some units fold up and take up much less room than others. If storage is an issue for you, factor this in.
Depending on how much you want to annoy your neighbours factor in the noise, as a turbo can produce a lot.
How we score
10 – Superb, best in its class and we couldn’t fault it
9 – Excellent, a slight change and it would be perfect
8 – Brilliant, we’d happily buy it
7 – Solid, but there’s better out there
6 – Pretty good, but not quite hitting the mark
5 – OK. Not much wrong with it, but nothing special
4 – A few niggles let this down
3 – Disappointing
2 – Poor, approach with caution
1 – Terrible, do not buy this product