Turbo trainers or rollers? Indoor cycling sessions are the key to many top cyclists and top triathletes performance. Many athletes dust off their turbo trainer or their rollers in the winter to stave off the flab and maintain their hard earned fitness when the bad weather makes it impossible to get out on their bike.
However the results are so good, and so time efficient that I am a fan of keeping the indoor trainer out all year. Of course in good weather I do the majority of my riding outdoors but for getting max results in minimal time, I still cannot beat regularly visiting the “House of Pain” on the turbo.
This article will discuss how to get awesome results with indoor cycling and whether to go for turbo trainer or rollers.
Indoor cycling all year round
I needed to set myself up to win.
Of course a “win” for me simply means riding it! And so that is what I do. At least 3 times a week in the winter and at least once a week in the summer.
Yes it might seem strange to most people why I would actually keep riding it in the summer.
Many cyclists pack their indoor trainer up (with relief) during the summer and stick to outdoor cycling.
I suspect this is because:
- Indoor cycling is HARD
- Indoor cycling is HARD
- Indoor cycling is HARD
It’s true- there is no place to hide on the turbo.
There are no traffic lights, no downhill coasting and no waiting for your friend to repair his tire puncture.
Nope, just you, the clock (which seems to move very slowly when you are on the turbo) and your bike computer spitting out data.
The reasons I keep doing turbo sessions all summer:
- I don’t have to pack it away (lazy reason)
- It keeps me super focused. I find just one of these sessions a week is an amazingly difficult workout achieving MY goals. I push hard. I control all the variables- ie heart rate zones, intensity time, pedal cadence, resistance and I can compare exactly the same workout this year versus last year or last month to keep a check on how I am doing (non-lazy reason)
- It is remarkably time efficient-in just 30-45 minutes I can get a brutally devastating workout before/after work in the dark/cold/wet no matter what- without having to waste 15 minutes rushing around making sure I have all my gear ready, tires pumped up, lights working, find my gloves, helmet and overshoes. It is so time efficient and I can truly compare my weekly rides easily without variables like traffic, wind resistance, faster/slower cycle companions distorting the data.
- I get to watch TV or listen to podcasts(lazy reason)
- If I keep it going each week- I don’t seem to hate it as much- it is just part of my routine- not a dreaded looming beast that must be faced each season.
- Indoor trainer makes going outdoor even more pleasurable- I love contrast in my life.
But this is just me, it is different for everyone and it depends on what your season goals are.
For most people, time is their biggest challenge and the bike can be so time consuming. Using a turbo trainer or rollers is a fantastic way to stop whining about how much time cycling takes and get in some brutal speed sessions or interval sessions, get the shaky leg syndrome and sweat it out!
All joking aside- this is the fastest way to get fitter and faster in the minimal time.
The Big Secret To Great Cycling Results Fast
The indoor sessions must be HARD.
Short and intense is the key to most turbo workouts.
Of course people do sometimes do their 2-3 hour cycle on the indoor trainer during the winter, which is fine.
But I would rather not be on it for 2 or 3 hours sessions. There is a ton of research confirming that short hard> 90% intensity is far more effective than steady state riding.
You need to do at least 2 short high intensity sessions a week.
Now many people “know” this but not many people do it – they simply do “moderately hard”.
This is fine but know that you will not get the results you think you deserve.
Here are some tips to enhance your experience on the turbo trainer or rollers:
Have a dedicated space
If you have to set it up and pack it away each time- quite simply it will be such a chore that you are unlikely to use it! It you are unable to leave it out (at least for the winter season) I would say do not even buy one.
You can add in a social element either virtually or in person. There are some awesome programs like Sufferfest where you can be riding in a group or in a race with others.
This makes it so much more fun and helps keep your mind off the clock. I know a lot of cyclists who record the Tour de France then only allow themselves to watch it if they are on their bike. This is a great thing to do –picture yourself in the peleton then riding the breakaway with others.
Some triathlon and cycle clubs have a “indoor trainer” night- where everyone brings their turbo to a village hall and someone leads the sessions- so it is like a spin class except for hard core triathletes or cyclists and you all motivate each other to turn up and push yourselves to the limit. Play some load music and all bury yourselves in pain. It is very bonding!
Attach pleasure to the cycling session
Give yourself a reward to look forward to when cycling. This may be a movie, your favorite music or the big game.
Personally I always watch Tour de France when I am on the turbo trainer. I am also a big fan of Sufferfest. I also love podcasts at the moment. I only allow myself to listen to them when I am on the turbo-so I actually look forward to my turbo sessions(weird, I know) even though I know they will be hard.
Know your purpose
- Is it a drill session?
- Is it a max power session?
- Is it an endurance session?
- Is it a fat loss session?
- Is it an active recovery session?
- Is it a hill repeats session?
- Is it a speed session?
This is very important to be clear at the beginning.
The most common reason people give up is that they do not define at the every beginning what their purpose is.
So they never know if they have achieved it.
Make sure you have a defined measurable goal for each month.
For example: I will be able to hold 300W for 20 minutes by March 25th.
Write down every session you do and the results you get.
You will be surprised how quickly you improve if you do it at least twice a week.
It does not have to be an hour each time either.
The beauty of the indoor trainer is you can get an intense, highly effective workout in just 10-15 minutes.
I am not saying to ONLY do 10-15 minutes bike sessions- of course you need to do the longer sessions as well- but if you find you have 10-15 minutes to spare here and there, and go for it- the results happen really quickly.
Make sure you train HARD – this is the whole point!
Do your drills
Most cyclists are guilty of not doing cycling drills.
One leg pedalling is one of the most valuable drills you can do and will make a massive difference to your pedalling technique. The turbo trainer or rollers is an awesome place to practice this as there is no danger from cars or potholes in the road.
Do 30 seconds left leg only, 30 seconds right leg only. Repeat. Observe the power or speed you generate with each leg and try to make sure they are the same. You will notice a disparity between your leg power and coordination. Work a little more on the weaker side. You will also notice places in the pedal stroke where you lose power. Try to maintain even power through the pedal stroke and get a sense that your feet are moving in circles. This will help your cycling massively when you are back on the road and your performances in races.
You may be surprised at how difficult this actually is. By comparing your speed on each side, or by using a power meter like Garmin Vector, which monitors left and right power output, you can work specifically on any imbalances that you may have.
Regular one legged drills will certainly help to improve your overall pedal stroke and can really give the sense of pedalling in circles when you return to using both legs. Aim to keep your upper body still and really focus on using your single leg to pedal. Doing this on the rollers can really help your core stability too.
It is also a great idea to use a mirror to observe your posture. Place the mirror facing you and watch your shoulder posture-make sure it is level. Look at your neck and shoulder tension- try to decrease your tension and relax in the upper body.
Watch your pelvis- make sure your pelvis and upper body is still and does not rock from side to side.
Watch your knees- make sure they are pumping up and down and not moving laterally.
Place the mirror side on.
Watch your back posture. Ensure your back is not too rounded, and you are not generating much power from your back. Power should be coming from your gluteals and legs primarily. Your ankles should move as you pedal. and not be rigidly fixed.
If you spend a few minutes each session improving your technique your cycling performance will skyrocket
You will improve your ability to generate power and reduce likelihood of injuries.
Effective training on the turbo trainer and rollers
Mixing up the training helps keep it interesting.
Do sprints, do standing in the saddle, hill repeats, drills, heavy power and speed work. Watch good cyclists and observe the subtle nuances of their posture and pedal technique and copy that.
Use a mat
Place a mat underneath the trainer. If you have not done an indoor workout for a while you will be surprised at the pool of sweat that collects underneath you and the bike. But you may be in the doghouse more than you like if the living room carpet is constantly a constant damp pool of sweat.
The mat will protect your floor from sweat, it will also help reduce noise and keep the trainer more stable.
Plan your fuel
Treat the session just like an outdoor session. Plan in advance how long your session will be, how intense and then plan your hydration and fuel accordingly.
You do not want to have to jump off the bike to fill up you water bottle again- because trust me you will never get back on!
Aim to be scientific about this- if you weigh yourself before and after the bike session, you will start you get an idea of how much you sweat per hour and can then be more confident of how much fluid you will require.
Yes training indoors is hard but face it with enthusiasm. Many people get into a bad habit of misery and dread. Do not let this be you.
Let’s face it- turbo trainer or rollers allow you to ride your bike all winter! In the middle of the night! If you wake up at 3am, if it snows, rains, or there is a lightning storm- you can still ride your bike.
It is a blessing!
Turbo trainer vs Rollers
Once you have decide to get an indoor trainer- the dilemma comes- but which one?
The first choice to make is turbo trainer or indoor bike rollers. Both machines are great ways for you to train indoors because they allow you to use your own bike that you’re accustomed to, they can be relatively cheap (compared to a indoor exercise bike ergo setup), they’re easy to store and transport, they’re quick to set up and take down, and they’re easy to bring to races to warm-up on.
Neither is wrong but you need to be aware of the differences and pick what suits you best at the stage you are at. In fact some cyclists have both and use them for different purposes.
- There is less “learning curve” curve with a turbo trainer- just jump on and start pedalling. You can’t fall off if you get distracted by someone else or the TV
- Most turbo trainers will have a gadget that will allow you to change resistance on the fly. This means that you can do more “strength” and “power” intervals against this added resistance.
- The increased stability that a trainer provides allows you to do hard power intervals and standing hill repeats -if you get a little more sloppy with the bike it does not matter.
- You won’t need to concentrate as much when using a trainer. This is great if you’re flipping through channels on the TV, learning a new language or reading.
- A trainer may be hard on the rear tire because of the increased resistance. I’d recommend using an old tire.
- A trainer is smaller and easier to transport, so it may be a better option if you want to use it to warm-up before races.
The rollers are as close as you can get to real road riding when indoors, and for most riders they really help improve bike handling and pedal technique.
The rollers are exactly that, three rolling drums two at the rear and one at the front. The front drum is connected to one of the rear drums by a band to keep both wheels spinning at the same speed. These are housed in a frame that you simply balance your bike on and ride.
- Rollers allow you to practice your spinning technique. Once you get sloppy with your spinning, you’ll quickly become unstable and you’ll be forced to correct it.
- Feels more like riding on the road, more fun to ride.
- Initial set up is easier as there is no clamping involved
- There is a learning curve involved in perfecting your balance and gaining confidence. This will pay off with practice with better bike handling skills. This also develops core control and better balance.
- Most affordable sets of rollers do not offer variable resistance. Your resistance will come from changing gears on your bike. ( Though the more advanced models do now come with variable resistance)
- You won’t be able to perform all-out sprints or power intervals on rollers while standing up. Too much throwing around the bike will knock you off balance.
- There is zero downtime and training is very efficient. Every minute that you’re on them you are spinning with perfect technique and not slacking off.
- The increased concentration that rollers require make them a little less boring and easier to handle mentally. You need to remain focused.
- It’ll take you 2 or 3 sessions before you get the hang of it. Try staring out by setting up in a doorway where walls are close by.
One last point about both rollers and trainers: they can be noisy and annoying to other people in the house or neighbours
If you want to work on spinning technique and base fitness, go for rollers. If you want variable resistance workouts that require lots of power, go for a trainer.
Use your training journal to maximise indoor cycling effectiveness
Know your purpose and measure – record in your training journal.
Be objective get data and compare each ride. Note your heart rate, time, power and distance.
It is very rewarding and motivating to see progress. Rapid results come from high intensity work. It is fun to track it.
Gadgets and Tech
A triathletes favourite thing to talk about is “the stuff I can buy”
Gadgets are helpful- but remember I favour doing the training now with whatever equipment you have over waiting until you have the “best” gadget or all the measuring devices.
The best results come to those who do, versus those who have all the gadgets but do not spend time training.
To be perfectly honest, the best gadget you can buy(and the one you cannot do without) is a fan! This is essential!
However the possibilities of the tech you can buy to enhance your experience and make it fun are really endless!
For example you can change up the intensity and number of laps on Zwift, or even join one of the many group rides or virtual races!
You can load a Sufferfest workout into your “smart trainer” (like a Wahoo KICKR or Tacx NEO) using software such as TrainerRoad and change the percentage of intensity of the workout based on your current fitness level and workout needs.
What else should I know about turbo trainers or rollers?
They can be magnetic, fluid, air or electronic.
Electronic: turbos and rollers are the cream of the crop, using powerful motors to apply torque to the resistance roller. They also have the ability to link up with a PC and give enormous amounts of data and even Virtual Reality (VR) training so you can climb up an Alp or fling yourself around a velodrome in pursuit of computer opponents.
Direct drive: This is different type of turbo trainer which replaces your rear wheel. A freestanding trainer with a cassette bolted on the side, meaning you simply pop your rear wheel out and attach the bike straight to the new cassette. These eliminate any chances of wheel slippage and the resistance isn’t affected by wheel size or tyre pressure. Direct drive trainers work fantastically with the VR software they have huge levels of accuracy and consistency.
Parabolic: It’s basically a roller that encourages you to be go back to the centre of the roller if you wander too close to the edge.
Magnetic or Mag: turbos and rollers use a magnetic field to slow down a flywheel that is indirectly connected to your wheel. These normally come with a control switch to adjust the resistance.
For turbos, this is usually a remote which clips onto your handlebars for adjustable resistance.
Fluid: turbos utilise hydraulic principles to provide resistance. A propeller in a fluid bath means the harder you push the harder it is to pedal. These turbos are quiet, stopping the deafening battle between TV and turbo.
It only has to be boring if you approach it thinking it is boring. There are a ton of ways to make it fun.
You will be getting faster and fitter than your friends while they are whining about how difficult it is to get out on the road in the winter and have to start from scratch in spring slightly fatter- you are getting in your sneaky turbo sessions.
You do not need to be on it for 3 hours sessions. Just 15 minutes or 30 minutes high intensity will give you far superior results.
Intensity rules the day here.
Be consistent and plan your winter season. Set some structured goals. It is much better to stick to 2-3 sessions a week than do 8 sessions a week of 120 minutes, burn out and never touch it again.
Add some strength sessions around it-Do squats, lunges, planks, press ups next to the bike then do your session with tired legs!
Review and Analyze
Take the time to review and analyse your workouts.
- Are you making progress?
- Are you training in your correct zones? (Don’t do ONLY steady state moderate intensity rides)
- What max power can you hold for 30 minutes?
- What is your top speed?
- How quickly do you recover?
The same training principles apply when indoors. Make sure you have excellent nutrition, excellent hydration and schedule some time for rest and recovery.
Example workout sessions for turbo trainers and rollers:
Many of you will already have your own workouts to do.
You can also get some tips from here:
5 minute spinning warm up
3 x 10 minutes zone 3
For 10 seconds at the beginning of every minute do full speed and MAX power. Pedal flat out then back to zone 3.
5 minutes easy cycling in between each set.
5 minute warm up
30-minute ride at 90rpm.
Start easy. Every 2 minutes increase resistance. Try to maintain 90rpm. After a while you will be unable to maintain the rpm.
Then go back to easy for 2 minutes and start the increase again.
5 minute warm up
15 seconds all out followed by 1 minute easy Repeat 3 times
30 seconds all out followed by 1 minute easy. Repeat 3 times
45 seconds all out followed by 90 seconds easy. Repeat 3 times
1 minute all out followed by 2 minutes easy. Repeat 3 times.
Repeat whole sequence 3 times.
Whole body workout
5 minute warm up
10 minute zone 3
Jump off bike 20 squats with bar bell/dumb bells/kettle bells/bodyweight
20 press ups
10 minute speed intervals: 1 minute fast 120-140rpm, 1 minute normal speed for alternating
Jump off bike, 20 burpees, 3 x 1 minute plank
10 minutes hill intervals: 1 minute climbing, 1 minute recovery.
Jump off bike: 20 press ups, 20 lunges with appropriate weight, 3 x 1 minute side plank
10 minutes zone 3
Indoor cycling is the fastest way to get lean, fit, strong and fast. Make sure you have a training plan, be specific.
Mix up your training- do speed, hills, power and some drills. Both turbo trainers and rollers are awesome. You need to decide whether you want the no concentrating, hard core power thrashing session or the more thoughtful skill development, road simulating roller.
Look for ways to make it fun and interesting and the time you spend here will reward you disproportionately. Bring the right attitude and the rest will take care of itself.
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