Beginner’s guide to turbo training: what you need to know

Rebecca Bland
7 mins

It’s no secret that turbo training has grown exponentially in popularity in recent years. What used to be a tedious and sweaty training experience of looking at your wall in a chilly garage has turned into a fully immersive experience, with smart turbo trainers and enough gadgets to warrant a room entirely dedicated to indoor training.

But while this is all great for providing a bit of entertainment during your indoor training, can it actually provide any training benefit? And what should you be doing to get the most out of it as a cyclist?

What is turbo training and why do people do it?

Let’s breakdown:

  • Turbo training is riding on a static trainer indoors, either direct drive or wheel-on or rollers or a full on indoor bike. Basically like a treadmill for cyclists!
  • Training programmes/apps like Zwift, Rouvy etc. offer a more immersive experience.
  • Why do people do it? It’s good for riding when the weather is foul, or for busy people.
  • Is a turbo trainer good exercise? Yes! In fact, some people say one hour of turbo training is equivalent to two hours of outdoor riding. We’re not sure on the validity of this, but it certainly feels like time sometimes stands still on the turbo!

Want a turbo workout to ride?

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Spoked 1 hour workout
Spoked 1 hour workout

Benefits of training indoors

Turbo training gets a bit of a bad rap with some cyclists. Other than for warmups before races, some shun indoor training entirely. But in some cases, it’s actually better to get your training session done on the turbo trainer than it is outside. For instance, there are times when the weather is so bad outside, it’s just not worth the risk to try and ride in it, unless you absolutely have to. If it’s blowing a gale, or there’s ice, if you have an incident, it will set you back weeks or months. So in these circumstances it’s better to stay inside and complete your training on the turbo.

It’s also more time efficient. Heaven knows how long it takes to get all your winter gear on, with fifteen layers and struggling to zip up your overshoes. Sometimes you’ve had a workout before you’ve even left the house putting all your kit on. With a turbo trainer, the prep time is minimal - especially if you’re able to leave your bike on the trainer. And with avoiding the weather comes less cleaning time - something we’re sure everyone enjoys avoiding! If you’re not adding salt, debris and mud onto your bike, you’re less likely to need to get the hose out after every ride. Additionally, and it’s not something we enjoy talking about, but there can be a risk on the roads. Either from drivers or from elsewhere, but the only risk you take on the turbo is overheating.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly when it comes to indoor training, is the ability to workout to precise intervals. Sure you can try and do them on the road, but without a specially curated route with zero inclines/descents at the wrong time, or junctions, it’s much easier to just let the turbo tell you what to do so you stay close to the planned session.

Spoked - can be flexible. If the weather forecast changes then you can change your session accordingly.

Drawbacks to turbo training

Of course, like anything, there are drawbacks to training indoors. Investing in a fully immersive setup with a smart trainer, a subscription to a programme like Zwift or Sufferfest can be expensive. You can expect to spend anything up to £3,000 for an indoor trainer - some brands have even brought out static bikes that act as trainers so you don’t need to use your own bike. Although this is great for ease of use, it means you need a lot of space to allocate to your setup. If you live in a flat or somewhere small, this isn’t always easy and so a cheaper option like a wheel-on trainer that can fold up might be more suitable. Furthermore, although there have been great strides in the technology and immersive experiences you can now have on the turbo, for some of us, it just won’t ever replace the feeling of riding outdoors.

How often should you use turbo training?

So now you know the benefits of turbo training, when should you be doing it to get the most out of it? Even with all the entertainment in the world, riding the turbo trainer is still an unappealing prospect for most people. Additionally, it’s also a time where you’re not moving around as much. Remember, you don’t get to free wheel during your turbo sessions, and you’re likely to be moving in and out of the saddle as much as you don’t need to keep your balance. Thus, we’d recommend keeping the turbo trainer for your shorter workouts.

A popular approach for someone who works during the week is to train indoors for up to an hour during the weekdays, and then leave the weekend for your longer endurance focused rides. This type of schedule works well if you’re busy during the week but want to get in some solid training sessions without risking losing time on other areas of your life. You could even do a spin class, where you follow along a live or recorded workout with prompts. Whether this is a good fit for you depends on your goals, but we’ll get to that.

That’s not to say that you can’t do endurance training on your turbo. In fact, you just need to adapt to the situation. If it’s too cold or windy outside, but you have an endurance session planned, then there’s nothing to stop you from breaking it up into two rides, perhaps doing one 60 minute ride in the morning, and the second in the evening. It’s all about being pragmatic in order to get the best results from this type of training, and using it to your advantage rather than dreading it.

To incorporate turbo training into your schedule you might think that you need the latest kit and all the gadgets, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. You can still get a good session in with a £100 wheel-on trainer from Halfords, the only difference is the integration between laptop/cycle computer and your bike. Many have manual resistance settings, similar to that of spin bikes. Simply follow the workout you have planned but manually adjusting the settings as you go.

Spoked - able to adjust your time to train to fit your schedule, so  if you want to do an hour each day during the week, and leave the longer sessions for the weekend, then the algorithm will factor this in.

What turbo sessions should you be doing?

So now you know when you should be doing your turbo training sessions, just what type of sessions should you be doing? Turbo trainers are great tools for shorter and more intense sessions, or ones where you need to be without interruptions to focus on your interval power. Popular workouts might include a focus on sweetspot, strength, threshold, or the dreaded FTP test.

Quick terminology focus:

  • Sweetspot = An effort just below your FTP. Usually around 86-95%
  • Strength = Low cadence high torque drills
  • Threshold = Intense intervals at your threshold limit, i.e. at your FTP
  • FTP Test = Functional Threshold Power test. Usually done in either a ramp test form or a 20 minute interval where you try to put out as much power as possible. Your FTP is then calculated as 95% of this number as a suggestion for how much power you can put out for an hour.

No matter the type of session you’re riding, the way to get the most out of it is by looking ahead, and understanding what’s going to be expected of you during that session. That way you can prepare by understanding the key zones, how many reps there are going to be, and in turn, how you will need to ride the efforts to succeed.

Pacing, for example, is key no matter the length of interval. You want to make sure you start within your limits, and progress from there. Don’t make the mistake of putting down the power too early and blowing up before the end. A lot of riders find it helps to break the efforts down into chunks. So if you’re doing a 20 minute interval at sweetspot, you might break it down into four sections of five minutes. That way you can tick them off as you go through the interval.

It’s also important to note how each session feels so that you can compare it over time. Finding that you’re now breathing a lot easier in a zone 4 interval compared to the first time you tried it and couldn’t finish it? Progress. But equally, it’s about recognising how each zone feels so you can transfer this to the road.

And once you’re more knowledgeable and at ease with what your zones should feel like, you can start to play around within the session a bit more. Perhaps focus on changing your cadence to make a sweetspot session more of a strength workout. Or upping it for a couple of minutes at a time during endurance workouts to improve on your pedal stroke.

Once you’ve completed the session, it’s imperative you focus on recovery. It’s easy to neglect, but this is where you make the real gains and reap the fruits of your (very sweaty) labour. Stretching, hydration, and sleep (check out our latest blog on sleeping) are key to your success as a cyclist just as much as the hard work you put in on the bike. With this in mind, it’s really easy to start burning out if you get sucked into riding virtual races every night. Focus on the end goal, winter is a long season and the turbo will always be there, and there will always be other races. Sticking to your own plan is what will yield the best results come spring.

Spoked - A rider has gone too hard and didn’t follow the planned work. Spoked will adjust your plan based on your personal performances and feedback.

How to read and understand what to achieve within a turbo session

Session #1 - 60 minutes with a focus of Zone 5

Focused zone - Zone 5

What is it - This is a super tough effort that is around a 8/10 pain level. When riding this kind of effort, you can only speak a brief sentence or a couple of words at a time.

How to ride it - It’s an aggressive effort where you need to be punchy. Aim to start mid-zone and only lift the pace if you can maintain it for the full effort duration.

Key points to think about

  • There are 5 reps, so be careful not to go overboard on your first effort. You’re looking for 5 consistent efforts.
  • Don’t make the recovery in between your Z5 hard, keeping it easy will allow you to dig deeper.  

Session #2 - 30 mins with a focus of zone 3 and zone 4

Focused zone - Zone 3 and Zone 4

What is it - Zone 3 and zone 4 are generally the pace you ride at when you’re climbing for more than 10 minutes at a time. It’s an uncomfortable effort that you need to concentrate on. Zone 3 you can generally hold a brief conversation, while zone 4 it’s a couple of sentences at a time.

How to ride it - These are controlled efforts. You’re riding 5 minutes Z3 into 6 minute Z4 - so the effort builds. So you don’t have to go too hard in Z3, keep it to Z3.

Key points to think about

  • Progressive build throughout the zone as you ride the zone 3 and zone 4 efforts.
  • Don’t get lazy with your cadence, look to maintain 80-100 rpm, unless you want to ride a strength effort, which is around 60-70 RPM.
  • Mix up your hand positions throughout the session - so move from the drops, tops, and hoods.

What should you eat when riding indoors?

Just because it’s indoors doesn’t mean you can neglect your nutrition and hydration. In fact, you may find that you sweat more than you do on an outdoor ride. Try and aim for 150ml or three big sips every 15 minutes on the bike to top up your hydration. But hydration isn’t just about drinking water. When you sweat, you lose electrolytes through salt and minerals, so you need to replace this during and after your ride. If you’re doing a ride under an hour, you can probably get away with water or electrolytes, but anything over an hour you want to consider adding carbohydrates.

“Don’t want to spend loads on tablets or powders? Try this recipe for a quick and cheap electrolyte drink: ⅔ water, ⅓ fruit juice of your choice and a pinch of salt. “

In terms of carbohydrate consumption, everybody is different, but most people should aim to consume between 30-60g per hour. The amount you want to consume per hour differs depending on the intensity of your session as well as whether or not you’ve filled your carb stores pre-ride. The best way to find out what works for you is through good old trial and error. Some people find that they can’t stomach a lot, but it may be due to the type of fuel you’re trying. Real food is a great way to get the right amount of carbs, a banana, for example, has 23g, so topping this up with a drink will let you hit the 30-40g per hour range. If you’re doing more intense sessions you may want to look towards building your total load to 60-90g per hour, but this will take practice.

Final thoughts

When used properly, turbo training can be a great addition to your cycle training plan in addition to riding outdoors. Turbos are useful tools for quick sessions, or for when the weather doesn’t want to play ball. You don’t have to have a fancy setup with the latest smart trainer and programmes to reap the benefits of indoor training, simply having the tools to allow you to do controlled intervals without the uncertainty of riding outdoors will allow you to progress towards your goals.

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