Indoor Cycling – Which Trainer and How Everyone Can Benefit
Indoor trainers (often known as wind trainers or turbo trainers) have long been a training option for cyclists looking to get their fix over winter. They’re a really useful tool for those that want to maintain a certain level of fitness easily, particularly for racers and elite level riders. The domain of trainers had until fairly recently belonged mostly to those aforementioned racers and elite riders, because let’s be honest, dumb static trainers are kind of boring – they’re a tool for getting a job done, and differ little from the exercise bike in your local gym in terms of functionality, with the obvious exception that having your own bike on the trainer gives advantages in terms of fit. With the advent of smart trainers, the entire landscape of indoor trainers has changed drastically for the better, being much more appealing to the more casual riders for a whole host of reasons that we will talk about later on.
What are the benefits?
Let’s start at the beginning – why should you consider a trainer? Well, one answer is fairly obvious – fitness. Indoor trainers make it much easier to get a workout without having to go anywhere, in the depths of winter when it’s harder to get a decent ride in, the trainer is a good way of getting regular rides under your belt, and it can be a whole lot more pleasant than riding outdoors sometimes. If you have a smart trainer, indoor cycling can actually be fun (believe it or not) and can help stave off the cabin fever we all get during the cold, wet months of the year, assuming cycling is your main sport. It’s safer than riding on potentially wet or icy roads in the dark, and more practical – in many places it may not be possible to ride at all due to snow etc.
As well as increased fitness, indoor training can be much nicer to your bike. Winter is typically the wettest time of the year depending where you live, meaning your bike gets covered in muck and water off the road, as well as salt etc., and can dramatically increase wear to all components on your bike. By using an indoor trainer you can circumvent much of this wear, and keep your bike in much better shape year-round. Your drivetrain will still wear, but much slower due to the fact that it’s not wet and/or dirty all the time, but the rest of the bike should stay in pretty good shape, ready for the summer season to kick off!
Trainers aren’t just for the off-season though, they can be great all year round. Some of us have more commitments than others, and time can be precious. An indoor trainer is a great way of squeezing a workout in when time is at a premium. Between kids, work etc. it can be much easier to get a good ride in on the trainer without feeling guilty.
Smart trainers & Zwift
Smart trainers are the real game-changer here. Where before getting on the trainer for a workout could be a daunting thought – having to push hard with nothing but a power meter (maybe) and your own head to keep you going. Now smart trainers actually make indoor cycling fun! Apps like Zwift (this is the most popular app) combined with the automatically adjusting resistance of the trainer means that you can emulate real-world conditions from the comfort of your own home.
Zwift is a great way to have fun on the trainer and has many features that are both useful and enjoyable. Zwift puts you in the point of view of the cyclist with both real-world roads and completely fictional worlds. You can go for a ride on tons of different routes and roads and mix it up so that you don’t get bored. You can choose flatter routes, hilly routes and tailor your ride to what you feel like doing. Zwift is totally immersive and allows you to ride with other people – there are always other people on the courses, and you can set up group rides with your friends, local cycling clubs etc., and they even have regular races directly through the app. Zwift syncs directly with Strava, and so means that if you have a good, accurate trainer, it’s competitive in-game as well as on Strava, and helps you keep tracks of your training both online and offline all in the same place. As well as this Zwift gamifies the entire experience, and rewards gameplay and progression with unlockable items such as bikes, wheels, kit etc. – keeping you interested and motivating you to ride more!
Not only is Zwift fun, but it also has a bunch of built-in training plans. Due to the fact that it can alter the resistance on the trainer, it can lock you into specific power outputs, so you can choose from specific training plans such as interval training etc. and it will make you stick to them! For instance if your cadence drops off, the trainer will simply up the resistance to compensate. This takes the thinking out of the equation, and means you can’t put in any half efforts unless you choose to quit entirely.
Zwift is improving year upon year and is becoming more immersive all the time. There is now a Zwift Running app and Zwift Offroad (for mtb and gravel) with a beta (currently) steering option. There are also new roads, worlds and routes appearing all the time, with no sign of it slowing down.
There exist other apps for use with smart trainers such as Road Grand Tours and Rouvy that have slightly different feels and gameplay (if we can call it that), some of which feature real-world climbs and routes such as Mont Ventoux and the Stelvio Pass that you can ride from your living room. Appealing to some cyclists no doubt! There are also apps such as Trainerroad and Sufferfest that focus more on training and less on the gamifaction/virtual reality element.
Which trainer should I buy?
There are a few options here, and really it depends what you want out of your trainer. The two main differentiations are type of drive – so rollers, wheel-on or direct drive, and smart or basic.
Rollers such as the Tacx Antares are the most basic type of trainer and offer no change in resistance, they are the hardest to use and are not compatible with apps such as Zwift. Wheel-on trainers such as the Tacx Flow can be both smart or not, and as the name suggests, uses the rear wheel of the bike. These are the easiest to take the bike on and off and are generally cheaper, but they’re also the least accurate so not ideal for training, and they can wear out your tires pretty fast. Direct drive trainers such as the Wahoo Kickr Power take the place of the rear wheel and the chain drives the trainer directly – they’re the most accurate, and generally the most realistic in terms of ride-feel, and the most advanced, and are typically all smart-trainers these days.
In terms of smart or basic, you want to determine whether or not you feel like you want to use an app like Zwift or not, or whether you prefer to keep it simple. The cost of entry to the smart trainer world is getting lower all the time though, and it could be worth buying a smart trainer to ensure that you actually feel motivated to use it! If you plan on using it for more than a couple of hours a week, a smart trainer could be well worth the investment.
Past this point, some trainers are higher quality and contain more features than others that might improve the ride feel such as the Wahoo Kickr Climb that elevates or drops the front wheel to simulate climbing/descending. Other higher quality trainers may have greater accuracy and lower noise etc., so really at this point you just have to decide how much you want to invest in your setup.
There are now complete trainer solutions such as the Tacx Neo Bike which eliminates the need for the bike entirely – completely eradicating wear on your regular bike and eliminating the need to fit and remove your bike from a trainer. The sensation is the same as riding a bike and you can set it up to your fit, and easily change it for other riders. As well as this, it has the highest level of reality of any of their trainers including fans to emulate wind, and vibrations to simulate different road surfaces. It’s not cheap by any means, but it’s a cool option if you want the most immersive experience without having to mess around with your regular bike!
There is a little to think about with regards to trainer setup, once you have the trainer that’s the main part done, but there are a few things you can do to optimise your experience.
First things first, if you’re using a smart trainer you will need a computer or tablet to run it through and something to place it on. It’s also useful to have your phone nearby if you want to communicate with people you might be training with.
It can be helpful to use a trainer mat – if you live in a condo/apartment it can help to minimise noise (look at buying a quiet trainer too in this case) and is also good for catching the inevitable sweat. You’ll also want a towel on the bars to catch sweat, and another one nearby to dry your face etc. On this note, a decent fan or two is also a good idea – you’ll be getting pretty hot and sweaty!
Get your setup dialled and somewhere convenient so that it’s easy to get on it and use it without distraction – this will keep motivation high and keep you fit!
Now that you’re informed, get on the trainer and get fit ready for summer! We run a weekly Zwift club ride through winter, find out how to join us here and get involved!
Thanks to Eric Hung for helping provide content for this article.