Introduction to Turbo Training

My Training History

Last year I entered the Marmotte Cycling Event with several friends.  (You can read more about the event here.)

This was the most challenging event I’ve ever attempted. The course is 174km long. I’ve completed this distance before, but the killer is in the fact that over the course of this you have to climb 4 alpine stages; the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and finishing on the Alpe d’Huez.

We decided to do this at the end of 2012, so this left about 6 to 8 months of training.

Coincidentally with this, I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical, so I was able to use this time also to train.

This was also the first event I used a turbo trainer as part of my programme. For previous events, I relied on being a regular commuter, covering about 110km per week (10 rides of around 11km each, so about 5 hours of training), plus some longer weekend rides with friends covering about 60 to 80 km in the North Kent downs.

My first attempts at turbo training weren’t great. I had a turbo that I’d bought a few years previously after an accident, so I could keep up training whilst I was off my bike. This wasn’t particularly successful for the following reasons :

  • no clear plan or goal to aim for
  • just getting on it and
  • pedalling like mad for about an hour

So for seven years it had remained folded up and stored away.

So I had the turbo, but no real idea how to use it effectively. The training plan was:

  1. Put the bike on it pedal like mad for an hour watching a movie of
    listening to music.

In a nutshell, this is the method for wasting an hour of your life, getting bored and not achieving anything. It’s also not very motivational. As this was my approach last time, it was little wonder the turbo stayed packed away.

This time around

This is a description of how I went from a turbo-time-waster to getting the most out of it and achieving my goals.

The two critical pre-training planning are:

  • Set a goal
  • Be realistic about the amount of training you can timetable

Setting the goal was easier this time. I wanted to complete the Marmotte. I had no idea how long this would take me, but I knew I wanted to finish and I most definitely did not want to walk up any of the climbs.

Considering the time I had was easer. As I wasn’t commuting I decided that the hour that would have been commuting would also provide the time to use the turbo. I also saw that I would have to have rest days, so I wouldn’t be on it every day.

Disclaimer: This is the description of my plan. Before undertaking any training,
it is your responsibility to ensure that you are able to do it safely.

If you are in any doubt contact your doctor and explain what you are trying to do, and
what you are trying to achieve.

You have the responsibility for ensuring that you are not pushing yourself into a danger zone. You
must make sure that you drink enough fluids during the workout.

If something doesn’t feel right, Stop. Assess. Resolve. There are no prizes or points for injuring yourself on an indoor training session.

Equipment

There’s obviously a certain amount of critical equipment, some nice to have kit, and some optional.

The Bike

A great advantage of a turbo is that you are using your own bike. This means you can make sure it is set up for you. Using a gym bike trainer or a spin bike is not the same.

By using your own bike you can play around with different seat heights, stems and so on to get the bike right for you. There are instructions on the internet telling you how to fit a bike
if you want to do this yourself, although for some measurements having a willing friend (or press-ganged partner) will make things a lot easier.

By placing the bike in the turbo you have a good stable platform to work on. (I actually had a bike fit a few years ago, and most of it was done on a fairly basic turbo-trainer.)

I’ve used both carbon and aluminium bikes.

The Tyre

You can buy specific turbo training tyres for your bike. The action of the roller makes rubs the tyre smooth very quickly and almost polishes it. It you try to ride on the road with a tyre that’s been used on a turbo trainer, you’ll find it’s like riding on ice (or so I’ve been told by friends who’ve done that – (smart: learn from your mistakes; wisdom: learn from others’ mistakes).

The tyre will also wear out quickly. However, if you’ve done a fair few miles/kilometres on your bike, or have owned a bike for more than a year you’ve probably got some old tyres knocking around. I use these after checking that there is no glass or other sharp items embedded in the it. I’ve never had a blow out with any of these recycled tyres even though some have had big cuts in them.

The only problem here is that you may find yourself swapping tyres when you want to go out on the road. Over the middle of winter this may not be an issue if you’re using the turbo to replace outdoor training, but as the weather warms and you want to mix your training, this can get to be a hassle.

Use a Spare Wheel

This definitely falls into the “very nice but not essential” category.

If you’ve upgraded a wheel then pop an old tyre on it and just swap the wheels when you want to go out. This is a lot quicker than changing tyres. Alternatively you can just go out and buy a cheap wheel. You only need the rear wheel, and because you’re on the turbo, you don’t need to be too concerned about the weight either. A Shimano WH-R500 Clincher Rear Wheel will cost about £60 You will also need the cassette. You could either recycle the old cassette or get a new one.

The turbo

I already had the turbo, a Tacx Swing, an entry level trainer. This is a magnetic trainer which allows you to vary the resistance.

Depending on your budget you can spend from around £90
(Stealth Magnetic Trainer) right up to virtual trainers which show the road or even let you compete with other riders globally (with prices moving closer to the thousands of pounds).

There are different types of trainer.The difference in how the resistance is generated against the wheel. There are plenty of articles about the pros and cons of each. Not all trainers allow you to alter the resistance, but this isn’t actually an issue, because you use the gears on the bike to increase or decrease the work load.

Road.cc have
a buying a turbo guide here, and a few minutes on searching will pull up many more articles.

My only comment regarding the resistance, was, that as part of my training, I followed a video of the Alpe d’Huez climb, so for this session I put the resistance on high and worked that out for an hour. It meant that I was in the lower gears, but with the high resistance, there was no bail-out opportunity in the workout.

Don’t forget to get a block for the front wheel. This lifts the front of the bike up so that it is level and provides a natural feel for the bike. (you can also get stands that you lock the front forks into after removing the front wheel. These also have the advantage of allowing a fan to be placed right in front of you).

Rollers

Some people prefer rollers. I’ve never tried these, so I can’t comment directly. Reading reviews, the advantage seems to be that it provides a more realistic road-like experience.

Turbo trainers that you lock the rear wheel into also allow you to perform other training like one-footed spinning without the risk of falling over.

Cooling

You’ll get hot on a turbo. Without the wind cooling passing, the body temperature will rise rapidly. You’ll need a big fan not a desk fan. You’ll be surprised just how quickly your core temperature rises when you start a workout.

If you can get a fan that can be angled up at you, you’ll feel the most benefits. Because of the room I was training in, I used a 12inch oscillating fan to the side of me. I was next to a window also, so by opening that I found I could keep from overheating.

Do not be tempted to train in a closed room with no airflow.

Hydration

This goes along with the cooling advice. You will need to have a bottle of water handy. If you’re using your bike, just stick it in the bottle cage, or place it on a surface you can reach without getting off the bike.

You must keep well hydrated during a workout. I used High5 Zero Electrolyte drink tablets (high5-zero-electrolyte-drink-20-tabs/). I’m not worried about bonking during a workout, so I don’t need the calories, but as you’ll be sweating so much I found these a good way to replace the salts and prevent cramp.

As you get used to the training you’ll also get a feel for how much liquid you need to drink. My rule of thumb was about 500ml for an 50~60 minute session.

Floor and bike protection

You’ll sweat buckets, so you’ll need protection for the floor. You can buy purpose turbo mats, I just got some training mats from Decathlon. I also used a bike sweat cover (like this) to protect the bike

Sweat is very corrosive and it’ll work its way into the bearings et etcetera. A sweat cover will help keep it out of places it shouldn’t be. It’s also good practice to wipe the bike down after each workout with a damp cloth.

Technology

Cycling is a sport that really lends itself to technology. Once again, you can spend as little or as much as you want here, but the minimum items you require to get the most out of a session is a heart rate monitor.

HRM (Heart Rate Monitor)

This is essential if you are to get the most out of your training. These have a strap that goes around your chest with a couple of contact electrodes which pick up your pulse and relay it to the display device, which could be a watch, a cycle computer, a cycle GPS or even a smart-phone.

A simple £20 watch will give enough to show your pulse, but you’ll need to do the conversion to
the heart rate zone yourself. (I originally had a cheap heart rate watch which only reported the beats per minute, I had a small printout which showed the range for each zone and referred to that during the workout.)

The heart rate monitor enables you to see how hard you are working. Most training plans refer to heart rate zones and the target is to get into a particular zone which maximises the benefits of the training plan.

For example, some plans push you right up to your maximum rate (zone 6) for brief periods. Others require you to keep in zone 3 for an extended period for endurance or stamina purposes. As you get fitter, you find you are doing harder workouts whilst remaining in the same zone.

A simple heart rate calculator with explanations can be found here: Heart Rate Zone Calculator and more background can be found here at bikeradar.com

If you can afford it, a device that actually shows the zone you’re in will make the training easier.

Finally, make sure you can mount it where you can see it easily. Strap watches to the handlebar or stem – it’s easier than trying to read it on your wrist. Cycle computers will have a mount of course. If you’re using a smart-phone, you can get mounts for them also.

Cadence Sensor

The cadence sensor shows the speed at which you are pedalling. There’s been a lot written about the benefits of different cadences, but generally you’ want to be pedalling from 70 to 120 revolutions per minute (depending on the type of workout). Also many training programmes use cadence as the measure that ride to.

The cadence sensor helps you develop your technique also. By training and monitoring your cadence you can get a very good feel for the cadence you are maintaining when you are actually out on the road.

Cadence sensors have two parts: a magnet that is attached to the left hand crank and a sensor that goes on the chain stay. Each time the crank arm passes the sensor it sends a signal to the computer/receiver.

Optional Items

Speed sensors

Speed wasn’t a metric that was given in any of the training workouts I used on the turbo, so I didn’t need  this. My cadence sensor (Garmin Sensor) also included speed, so it got recorded.

Record your training in a journal

You could do this on a book, in a spreadsheet, but there are also plenty of training sites on the internet, or biketraining applications like GoldenCheetah.

If you’ve got a cycle computer (or GPS) that can record your rides, then you can also upload your session to the these. The advantage of uploading your session is that you can track your performance
and improvements. This is also good for motivation.

Your Training Plan

There is a wealth of information on the web about training. BikeRadar has a good section about training. For example, you’ll find plenty of example sessions in cycling magazine and website.

Again, in order to do this ask yourself What are you trying to achieve?. I had a specific event so I knew how long I had, plus the type of course I would be on, so that directed me towards a regime that concentrated on climbing and stamina.

For me, the Marmotte was going to be about 6000m of climbing, so my plan were biased towards workouts that concentrated on climbing. I didn’t solely do climbing sessions, but this was what I needed work on.

The workout sessions

Assemble your set of workout sessions. This may be from a fully detailed plan which gives full details of the actual workouts, or one that gives an overview of the type of session you need and lets you choose the actual workout.

Good general purpose sessions are interval training sessions. Working out a regime that included interval training and specific climbing sessions plus some rest days gave me a good variety of workout sessions.

One thing I found was that a full workout would take just over an hour with some stretching at the end of each session.

Training Videos

My preferred method was to use training videos.
I used three types of video:

  • prompted sessions
  • coached sessions
  • virtual rides

The first video I tried was a Sufferfest video. This worked extremely well for me. The session takes about an hour and throughout it you are prompted to achieve different levels of exertion (on a scale of 1 to 10). At various points suggested cadences are also given. The video I used used licensed footage from various races ( Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Paris-Nice and Dauphine) with footage of the breakaways and chases. The final part of the video gives some old Parthe cycling videos to warm down to. (My only criticism of the video is that at the end it has some footage about a cycling calendar-girl photo-shoot from a few years ago which seems a bit pervy, so I stop the video before this. However, the training session is excellent.)

It was because the Sufferfest video was so engaging and I found it much easier to follow that a typed out plan, that I looked to increase my collection of videos.

Another video provided an interval training session. The timing instructions didn’t quite match up with the on-screen instructions, but as it gave the prompt and count of each segment, it meant I could count the seconds on my computer quite easily and hit the targets.

Both these videos have soundtracks, which give you something to listen to. Think of it as gym/aerobic class music and you’ll have a good idea of what you’ll be listening too.

These interval training sessions gave a good base fitness and I use these videos the most frequently.

The second type of video was from 3LC cycling. This films a coached session of the Isle of Man team, and includes athletes like Sky’s 2012 Olympic Gold Medal Winner Peter Kennaugh and twice British Champion Steve Joughin.

There is some banter during the session, but all the instructions are clear. It also has the best on-screen dashboard showing you what you need to do, and what is next. You get an audible countdown into each segment also. I bought the climbing video initially. This uses a combination of cadence and gearing to simulate climbs. There are three climbing segments of about 8 minutes each. It really felt like a climb.

This is the most professional produced of the videos.

As a bonus, you also get some coached warm-down stretching exercises also. I also have tried the road race session. It’s an absolute killer.

There is no background music to these videos. Mark Cavendish appears in the road race video also.

Finally, I also bought a couple of virtual rides when I found a video of the Alpe d’Huez and the Galibier.

The Alpe d’Heuz video was the best. The video took about an hour to play out (so the ride was about 14km/h). It is just a video of the climb, starting from the base of the climb. The useful thing here was a graph along the bottom of the screen showing the slope. The climb is an average of around 8%, but there are a couple of parts near the start which are 10~12% and a few flatter sections which drop to around 4~6%.

For this workout I cranked the trainer resistance to 8 and took it to the maximum (10) for the steeper sections and eased it off by a notch for the easier sections.
The Galibier video was taken from a car and the video was too fast to really get a good workout, so I didn’t use that one much.

The difference in using planned sessions, rather than just hitting the turbo for a hour was dramatic. In February I had the opportunity to travel to northern Spain with my bike. A 6km climb I’d done  previously when I was regularly commuting was knocked off considerably quicker after a month of these sessions even though I hadn’t done more than a few long rides out during this period.

I also found my recovery rate was very much improved.

Price: None of these videos are expensive. They cost around £10 or less per video. (In London, that’s about three coffees.)

So don’t copy them, Buy one and support the authors. If you have a fast broadband connection, you can download them directly from their websites.

Final Observations

An advantage I found from doing the turbo sessions was that I was much more in tune with my heart rate. I was fitter, so I found I was going for longer at higher speeds whilst maintaining a comfortable heart rate. The turbo sessions also trained me go go right up into the red (zone 6), so I know what that felt like and knew what the recovery would be after this.

The turbo also helps mentally. It’s a really unforgiving method. You are pedalling non-stop for the entire session. Even during the warm downs and rests you have to keep pedalling, whereas on the road there are plenty of opportunities to rest and stop pedalling altogether.

Because the turbo holds the bike firmly in place, it’s also a good way to improve your technique. Some exercises such as pedalling with one leg help develop a smooth action throughout the stroke. The only thing I found I didn’t like doing on the turbo was getting out of the saddle.

Links

I’ve referenced quite a few sites directly in and here are the some I’ve found the most useful:

General bike fitness and information.

These sites have forums, advice and training plans and are a good place to start

Retailers

I have used all of these retailers and had good service from them all

Ride journal/recording and analysis sites

Offline

This works on Linux, Windows and Mac OS X.

Online

There are quite a few online training systems. These all offer a basic membership
for free, and a premium for a very reasonable cost.

Videos

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