Having spent the last month only riding the turbo trainer due to personal choices during the UK lockdown, it made me start to think about the many benefits of turbo training. On the flip side, after 35 days straight of riding the turbo, I am beginning to learn all the downsides to only riding indoors. I’ll cover some of the pros and cons here:
The most obvious pro to riding the trainer is the fact that you pedal for all the time you are training. On average, on a flat ride outside, you free wheel for 10% of the time and up to 30% of a hilly ride. Therefore, in terms of value for time, the turbo wins every time. This is a big plus for people with limited time on their hands.
The risk of crashing and having an accident is obviously much lower and the most obvious plus for lockdown. While I have heard of the odd crash from people not affixing their bikes correctly, hopefully they are never too serious.
By riding the turbo, real world variables are eliminated from the daily equation. Traffic lights, road conditions and road gradients are not something you have to worry about when choosing where to do your intervals. So often, I’ll read a client’s feedback on TrainingPeaks which says: ‘ran out of road for the effort’ or ‘got stuck at some temporary traffic lights.’ Although neither of these things are the end of the world for training, I know how annoying it can feel at the time and how important completing efforts can be from a psychological point of view.
You can train at any time of the day and be safe doing so. Although the roads have been a lot quieter, training before sunrise or after dark can still be dangerous. Rush hour has still been pretty busy in different areas of the country, but this just isn’t a factor which needs to be considered for training on the turbo.
Often the hardest part of training is the mental barriers we put in place: getting kitted up, the weather not being as nice as we want, trying to think of a route for the ride. The turbo means only throwing on a pair of shorts and maybe a jersey, not worrying about the weather whatsoever and choosing a route has never been easier on Zwift.
If you have limited time, then precious time can be taken up getting changed, checking the weather, washing and preparing your bike before and after rides. I can go from the sofa with a coffee in hand to riding on Zwift in around 10minutes… unheard of for a ride outside!
On the turbo, you are much more likely to stick to a training plan simply to make the time on there more interesting. Completing a structured workout every single day can have huge benefits for your fitness. You are much less likely to do ‘junk’ miles or ‘waste’ time riding in the incorrect zone.
You can ride with anyone on a virtual platform. Due to the ‘stick together’ modes on virtual training platforms, everyone in the group can stick to their specific training zones while riding with friends. This means that weaker riders don’t have to ride above and beyond all day long to keep up… and stronger riders can get the workout they want without having to wait for others.
You can train on any length of climb in the world. Raise your front wheel to simulate the climbing position and recruit the same muscles as you would if you were climbing outside.
You can race in your living room! Zwift and other platforms have brought cycle racing to your home. I won’t get into the arguments over how legitimate or ‘real’ the results are but no one is in any two minds about how hard the racing is on there. Virtual racing is a great way to tune up for the real world, some might say it will make the real-world racing feel easy….
Suddenly you don’t have to think about counting down the minutes to the end of each interval or worrying about the exact wattage you need to hold while riding along an open bit of road worrying about traffic and potholes. This can be solved with Zwift or or by downloading your workout to your head unit - your plan will now be on the screen in front of you with no outside distractions.
It’s much easier to hold an exact power on the turbo compared to out on the road, which can be really useful to learn how different zones feel if you are new to riding with power. It can be really hard to understand the effort required for a certain wattage and while out on the road it can feel like the watts jump around almost uncontrollably at first.
If you lack climbs or quiet rides, the turbo can provide a stable platform for you to perform back-to-back testing. 5 minute max, FTP testing and such-like can be difficult out on the road in the real world.
The first and biggest con for me is the fact that you can’t practice bike handling skills and real-world riding discipline. Cornering technique, braking, riding close to others in a small group and riding on a wheel in front of you are all fundamental skills you should be practicing.
Riding the turbo can be boring and monotonous and being fixed in one position can be uncomfortable for long periods of time. Saddle sores, neck problems and general aches and pains can become a problem.
Although you can ride with other people on a turbo, it just isn’t the same as meeting up with a friend and riding through the countryside together, chatting or ripping each others legs off up climbs and then stopping for a coffee in the sunshine.
A turbo doesn’t get your body used to the very minor gradual changes in gradient and road surface which require changes in body position, changing gear or subtle changes in getting the power out at different cadences.
Simply doing enough hours on the turbo can be difficult. Creating that aerobic load requires a fair bit of training volume, no matter what your level of racing. Steady-state riding is far from stimulating without the outside world to keep you occupied.
Racing in a virtual world is fun but it just isn’t the same as racing outside. The race craft is still there but it’s entirely different and (on the whole) not transferable. The bike-handling and craft of saving energy in a bunch is different, there are no cross winds in Watopia!
Overheating can be a big issue when training indoors and this can really affect performance numbers. Even with a good fan, your sweat rate can be a lot higher which can lead to dehydration. Taking your weight before and after sessions can be a good way of monitoring this.
The vast majority of people struggle to hit the same numbers on a home trainer compared to the road, which means that you’ll need two sets of training zones for outdoor and indoor training. Training to a lower set of power zones can be demoralising.
For younger riders, skills are more important than W/KG. Given the choice between a turbo session or a skills game/obstacle course in the garden, I know which one I would choose. Free speed is king in the real world, especially in cyclocross and off-road disciplines.
Depending on the turbo setup you have, it can be really tricky to find the correct gear ratio to perform certain cadence drills at certain wattages. I have found that even one gear change can have a large impact on my cadence.
Technical glitches! Even the most expensive turbos seem to have problems: power dropping out, resistance piling on or disappearing for no reason, wifi-connections, bluetooth connectivity. These issues can be really frustrating and you begin to think it would have been far easier and quicker to actually just go out on your bike.
Hopefully this blog has highlighted some pros and cons that you hadn’t thought about before and given you something to think about when looking to perform your next workout. Whether that be inside or out, the key to all of this is keeping the motivation high and enjoyment levels even higher!