When the weather takes a turn for the worse, your training shouldn’t take a back seat. Turbo trainers are machines that you connect your bike to that provide resistance, and imitate cycling on the road. They give you the chance to stay indoors while still getting all your training done. In fact, with all the amazing technologies that are featured in today’s turbo trainers, you’d be tempted to just stay in even on dry days. Turbo trainers are also great for after work riding when you just need to get your heart racing after sitting in front of a desk all day long.
By using the same bike on the turbo trainer as you do when you’re riding, you get the exact same experience and your training doesn’t vary when using alternative bikes, or when on an exercise bike. Turbo trainers are the ideal solution to putting in the miles when it's cold and wet outside and you’re keen to stay warm and dry. Entry-level turbo trainers will simply offer resistance training, while mid-range trainers will give a few more features, like more accurate or adjustable resistance. High-end smart turbo trainers will be able to connect to your sensors, cycle computer and apps, giving you the full range of experience, including virtual training.
Turbo trainers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, as well as price points, catering to a wide range of cyclists. The two biggest categories of turbo trainers are wheel-mounted trainers, where you connect your whole bike to the trainer, and direct drive trainers, where you remove the wheels and connect the bike via the drivetrain to the trainer. There are a number of different kinds of resistance, including air, fluid and magnetic. The high-end trainers also offer smart training technologies.
Usually found on budget turbo trainers, though can still be found on premium models, air resistance turbo trainers use a fan to create resistance when you’re riding. As you’re pedalling, the same motion is used to drive a fan or blade. This resistance is meant to resemble that which you find on the road, as you pedal harder, the greater the resistance (similar to air resistance as you ride).
A downfall of air trainers is their relative noise, however as a budget trainer, they provide a worthy option. With air resistance trainers it’s not possible to change the amount of resistance.
Similar to air resistance trainers, fluid resistance trainers spin a blade or fan while you ride, but instead of spinning it in the air, its spins within a fluid. The fluid and blade are held within a sealed chamber making fluid resistance trainers some of the quietest trainers around. Fluid turbo trainers can often provide a very realistic resistance feeling, and manufacturers will use specific fluids with different viscosities (or thicknesses) to try and recreate the same feeling as riding on the road. As with air resistance trainers, you can’t adjust the amount of resistance you feel on a fluid trainer.
Magnetic resistance can be found from entry level turbo trainers all the way up to high end models. They produce resistance when a metal disc is spun by your pedalling and interacts with a magnet that slows it down, effectively causing a resistance to your pedalling. The resistance on magnetic turbo trainers can be changed, making them particularly versatile, as you can increase or decrease the difficulty based on how you’re feeling on a particular day.
To counteract the heat build-up of the magnets, a fan needs to be used, and this can add extra noise to the system. This makes magnetic turbo trainers a little noisier than fluid turbo trainers.
Instead of using the rear wheel of your bike to power them, direct drive trainers connect directly to the drivetrain and rear end of your bike. Some direct drive trainers come with a cassette, while on other you need to attach your own. Direct drive trainers are more efficient than other trainers as there’s no lost power transfer from the tyre onto the rollers, and can be quieter too as there’s no tyre noise. Direct drive trainers sometimes use fluid resistance, but you’ll mostly find magnetic resistance used.
While it can sometimes become tiresome to always have to remove the rear wheel to use the trainer, direct drive trainers are particularly great if you have a second bike that you can use mostly on it, or during winter when you’re less often on the roads. It is also perhaps easier than having to change your tyre or wheels for non-direct drive trainers. Direct drive turbo trainers are also more stable than other options, due to their extra weight and on the fact that your bike is directly attached to the trainer.
Smart turbo trainers combine with sensors, computers and training software to create a whole training exercise, so you can get the full information and experience. Most smart trainers feature magnetic and electromagnetic resistance, though some have fluid resistance and there are also direct drive options too.
Smart turbo trainers have the great ability to wirelessly connect to your sensors and computer via ANT+ or Bluetooth, relaying all that useful information into one package, so you can really get the most out of your training. Smart trainers have a built-in power measurement, which adds yet another aspect to your training.
Virtual training can give you that extra motivation that may be lacking when cycling in your lounge. By connecting your smart trainer to a program like Zwift or another manufacturer’s app, you can watch yourself ride in real time on a screen, taking you outside your home and into a beautiful location. Pit yourself against your friends or online competition – including professional athletes – challenging your best times and theirs as you race against the clock.
There are a lot of accessories that go along with turbo trainers that increase their usefulness and versatility. Some accessories will make the training experience better, like mats or sweat covers, while others like computers and sensors will add to the kinds of information you receive while you’re riding, helping you hone your training techniques.
Sweat thongs or sweat covers protect your bike from excessive sweating while training hard. Sweat can potentially damage your paint job over time, so sweat covers make sure your bike doesn’t take the strain of your training sessions, looking as good as before.
Mats can make your training experience on your turbo trainer that much easier. A specially made mat will keep the trainer in place, even during hard efforts. It also helps keep the overall noise of the turbo trainer to a minimum, as the sounds will be absorbed into the mat and not reverberate through the floor. This is particularly useful for living in a flat.
Turbo trainers can raise the rear wheel a bit higher than it would normally when connected. To cater for this, front wheel supporters raise your front wheel just a bit, getting the geometry back into place. Front wheel supports also keep the front wheel from wandering from side to side, allowing you to focus on the task at hand.
Sensors are great for getting more information about your training. Speed and cadence sensors as well as power meters can give you that greater amount of info to help your training. By pairing these sensors and even heart rate monitors to a computer and a smart turbo trainer, you can set out a regime to suit your own fitness level and make sure you’re getting the most out of your turbo trainer.
Cycling computers pair up with sensors and give you greater information about your cycling and training. Wired computers and ANT+/Bluetooth Smart compatible sensors work well with smart trainers, and it’s important to make sure all your sensors, computer and trainer are all compatible to make sure they can work together.
While you can use your standard road tyres on your turbo trainer, it’s not worth wasting the tread on it, especially if it’s an expensive tyre. Specially made trainer tyres have much thicker treads, which will last longer. They also not provide much grip at all on the road, so are not recommended to be ridden on. Turbo trainer tyres make the perfect accessory for training, but it’s really important to ride on the roads with a proper tyre.
Some turbo trainers will only work well with specific axles on bikes, including thru axles. To make sure your bike’s axle standard will work, there are a number of conversion kits that turbo trainer manufacturers offer.
There are a few more things that may affect your turbo trainer buying decision. These can include things like weight, storage potential and stable frame designs.
A sturdy frame which won't flex or bend under your riding – the heavier the better for stability.
Some trainers fold up a lot smaller than others, perfect for when you have limited space and want the trainer to pack away nicely.
Turbo trainers are great to use before a race to warm up with, so weight and transportability make a big difference for this use.
Not all floors are made even, so adjustable legs will help alleviate that and keep the bike and trainer on level.