Turbo training may not be hugely popular but it is exceptionally effective and will help keep you fit during winter when the weather is too bad and the days become shorter.
- How to set a turbo trainer up correctly
- Different types of turbo trainers
- Tayloring your turbo session
- Handy tips for your personalised 'pain cave'

What is a turbo trainer?

Turbo trainers are quite simply a device that enables you to ride your bike, stationary, indoors. As such they have become the de facto training equipment for the winter months and for warming up ahead of a race. Turbo trainers, or turbos as they are commonly known, clamp around the quick release skewer of a bike’s rear wheel suspending it in an A-frame.

This frame positions the rear tyre so that it sits on a roller, as you pedal and spin your rear wheel the roller turns too. A resistance unit is attached to the roller and uses air, fluid or magnetic means to vary resistance against which you are pedaling.

Turbo trainers are usually classified by the method used in the resistance unit. Some will automatically get harder as you pedal faster, others are adjusted manually, typically by a lever that clamps to the handlebars. See below for more on the different types of turbos.

Why use a turbo?

Many riders see turbo time as tortuous and or extremely boring, so opt not to use them. However, even those that dislike them acknowledge turbos as a great tool for targeted training and maintaining fitness. Winter is often seen as turbo time, as icy conditions mixed with rain, wind and generally unpredictable conditions makes heading out on long rides no fun. Choosing to turbo is a safer and more time efficient riding option.

Avoiding bad weather is a good enough reason to use a turbo, but the real benefit is to use it as an effective method of training, as you can work on any specific fitness component and focus a training session to the second. This is why many elite riders use them year round focusing their sessions and supplementing their road miles.

Turbo trainers also allow for intense efforts to be completed without worrying about traffic, road junctions or undulating terrain that doesn’t allow for constant, steady state efforts. Whether a speedy sprint session or a longer interval pyramid there’s a specific session for whatever it is you’re looking to improve.

>>> Turbo training sessions: Get the most out of your indoor training 

Similarly it’s great for those tight of time, or training after work in the winter when it’s too dark to head out on the road. Just a 30 minute blast on the turbo every other day before or after work can have major benefits on your overall fitness levels. With research showing the effectiveness of high intensity, short interval training on cardiovascular fitness it’ll really benefit those with little time to ride.

Turbos are also perfect for those who need to warm-up ahead of a race; typically a time trial or track event. Only in the last few years have riders started warming up (and down) at pro-level road races. Team Sky started this trend in 2011 and the rest of the WorldTour teams have since followed suit. With turbos small enough to fold up and pack into a car boot they are perfect for this.

Turbo trainers: six of the best

Kinetic by Kurt Rock n Roll trainer

Kinetic Rock and Roll trainer

We’ve seen a big shift towards using home trainers, mainly down to how busy we all are. Bike rides take…

Score 8

Tacx, Turbo trainer test

Tacx Blue Motion T2600 trainer

The Tacx Blue Motion T2600 resides at the lower end of the turbo trainer price spectrum, possessing fewer features than premium…

Score 8


Minoura LR340 Trainer

Minoura has a great track record when it comes to turbos, being instrumental in the development of magnetic trainers for…

Score 7


Jet Black Z1 Fluid Pro Trainer

Turbo-training is not the most attractive proposition at the best of times, but when it involves a perpetual whooshing noise…

Score 9


CycleOps Magneto trainer

The standout feature of the CycleOps Magneto Trainer is the progressive resistance unit which adjusts resistance depending on your speed…

Score 7


Wahoo KICKR trainer

The Wahoo KICKR has an ever-growing list of compatible apps, making it one of the most comprehensive trainers available for…

Score 9

Setting a turbo trainer up correctly

Getting a specific room or area for your turbo sessions is the ideal scenario. A garage, utility room or covered outside space would make for a perfect Pain Cave. Riding a turbo creates a lot of noise, sweat and heat all of which need to be considered.

Find a solid, smooth, flat surface – tiles, lino or concrete for example. The feet of the turbo need to be level to stop it from rocking around under your momentum and with sweat dropping off you we’d advise avoiding carpeted floors.

Turboing is a sweaty affair so a well ventilated area is essental. Whether it’s through opening windows or having a fan on, having some way of creating a breeze to keep cool is vital. One thing many people forget is that as sweat drips on dirty wheels or drive trains it can flick dirt around, so either clean your bike beforehand or be prepared to clean the walls. If you’re a heavy sweater investing a sweat catcher, a piece of material that stretches from handlebars to the saddle, may be an option.

Turbo training with fan

Here are a few other handy tips:
– Keep a small towel close to hand to mop your face, arms and hands during the session. There’s nothing worse than sweat dripping in to your eyes.
– Buy or make a turbo block to raise your front wheel off the ground and make it level with your rear wheel that is sitting in the A-frame three to four inches off the ground.
– Keep one or two water bottles close to hand. You will get thirsty. Very thirsty.
– Print or write out your session on a piece of paper, or even better, a large white board. It needs to be clearly set out with a minute by minute breakdown and clear, bold writing.
– A stopwatch or timer is essential. If you don’t have a bike computer, Garmin, power metre or heart rate monitor you will need something by which to tell the time and pace your efforts.
– A good playlist will help with the harder efforts and pass the time. Headphones will get sweaty, so use a stereo or speaker.
– If you live in a flat and have hard floors, you may want to put down some kind of barrier as the noise can be over-bearing, and can annoy the neighbours. Be careful not to make the turbo unsteady.

Get the resistance right

Ensuring the resistance is set up correctly is important when turbo training. The rear wheel should be resting on the roller so that the tyre is slightly squashed, as it would be on the road. It should not be pressing so hard that the wheel barely turns, or hovering above it so that the wheels skips forward when you apply pressure when pedalling.

It is essential to put the wheel in straight so that it sits perpendicular to the roller. Ensure the rear quick release skewer is sitting straight within the clamp that fixes it into the A-frame. It should be securley clamped so the wheel doesn’t wobble within the A-frame, this could damage your bike and the clamp and will mean your effort is not always constant.

Ensure the rear wheel sits centrally on the roller itself. Most turbos will allow for left to right adjustment on the A-frame (usually on the side opposite to the clamp).

Turbo training magnetic setting

Get the session right

Planning your sessions on the turbo is vital. Having a specific idea of exactly what you will be doing will help you get the most out of your session, keep you motivated and allow you to taylor a session in order to improve on the previous one.

A turbo session, must start with a warm up. This should last between 15 – 20 minutes and towards the end raise your effort to a level just below the intensity of the main intervals.

Any session should involve different intervals, which vary in the length and intensity. You should never just sit on a turbo and ride for, say, 45 minutes – this will achieve very little. When planning sessions on the turbo a key factor to think about is keeping it interesting. Breaking it down to make the intervals short and sweet will keep your attention, prevent boredom and make the session pass quicker.

If you’re focused on longer events, perhaps multi-day sportives, you may need to do longer sessions, but spice these up as if you’re on a ride with varying intensities. It’s usually better to do three 10 minute intervals of a set intensity rather than trying to complete a longer 30 minute one.

>>> Turbo training sessions: Get the most out of your indoor training 

If your goal isn’t a specific event then focus a session on improving the areas you know are weak. There’s no point doing long, ten minute intervals if you’re looking to improve your sprint.

Having a long-term end goal, as well as some specific goals for the session itself, will give you the justification for sitting there and sweating it out.

Whether you’re doing short sprint intervals, threshold efforts or just mimicking a steady winter ride, having something to measure is vital. It may be power, speed, cadence, heart-rate or just feel, but it must be measurable. If you measure it, you can later review it and improve it. For example, if you can ride at 250 watts for five minutes during a session, you could look to ride at 260 watts during the next session. If you didn’t measured that effort in the first place, you’ll have no baseline on which to build. Power and heart rate are the best two measures, although it’s possible to use the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) if you’re a technophobe.

Types of turbos

Fluid  These offer a quiet and smooth ride but are more expensive. They work by creating resistanace with an impeller revolving in thick, oil-like solution. This system provides a natural adjustment of resistance as the effort to turn the impeller increases as you pedal harder or push a bigger gear.

Magnetic These work with a metal plate inside the resistance unit which creates a magnetic field of resistance. These can often be adjusted manually as you are riding so can give your session a more specific feel. They are also quieter than the older air resistance turbos.

Gabrielle Union

Fan  An older, noisy, but cheap option. A fan creates air resistance as you pedal and turn the roller, however there is limited adjustability in resistance and only your gears can change how hard it is as you ride, and this is not always as . These are hard to come across now as they have been outdated by greater technology offering a better ride

Direct drive These come with a cassette mounted directly on to a resistance unit. By removing your rear wheel you can attach your bike into this type of trainer. They offer a much more realistic road feel than the other trainers and are generally much more stable too. They can be quieter too, with the Tacx Neo being ridiculously quiet.

The downside is that they are often much more expensive.

Direct drive turbo trainer

Other things you could use

Rollers are another option, the technology now used in these has improved greatly in previous years. Rollers have three cylinders, one that the front wheel sits on and two that the rear wheel sits between. The front cylinder and rear cylinder that’s nearest the front cylinder has a long band that goes round both of them. When you pedal your rear wheel turns the rear cylinders which, by way of the long band, turns the front cylinder and therefore your front wheel.

Training on rollers

The gyroscopic motion is what keeps the bike upright. Riding rollers does however require concentration and balance and it’s advisable to set them up next to a wall or solid surface which you can reach out to and balance yourself on should you need.

The concentration needed to ride rollers makes them more interesting than riding a turbo.

There are several motivation tools for riding on turbos. The Sufferfest videos use footage from pro races to help motivate and inspire you to get the most out of your turbo sessions. 3LC are downloadable videos that do the same, featuring Isle of Man riders Mark Cavendish and Peter Kennaugh. Tacx have a range of virtual reality and multi-player options that pit you against other Tacx users.

Other Features

Power meters

This measures the power you produce in Watts. This is really useful as it allows you to quantify your work out. You can either use a power meter on your bike or one built into the trainer. More expensive units such as the Wahoo kickr have a built in power meter, where as less expensive units such as the wahoo kickr snap estimates the power you are producing using algorithms. Entry level units have no power measurement.

>>> Watch an in depth video of Zwift

Smart trainers

These can be fluid or direct drive or magnetic. Virtual reality is big news and smart trainers are designed to make the most of apps such as Zwift. Many smart trainers also allow you to create your own courses and ride simulations of real climbs and roads. They are capable of adjusting the resistance to recreate climbs and descents.

How do you decide which is best for you?

Firstly look at your budget, then think about the type of workouts you want to do. Some people will want to use their turbo for warming up at a race and many smart trainers require a plug socket to work.

If you are taking your training more seriously you may decide to chose one with a power meter, so you can more accurately structure your workouts. If your lifestyle dictates that most of your training is turbo based, or you struggle with motivation, then a smart trainer is a great way to make things more interesting.

If you are a beginner or are not likely to use it much, an entry level turbo will do the job. Consider space too as some units fold up and take up much less room than others. If storage is an issue for you, factor this in.

Depending on how much you want to annoy your neighbours factor in the noise, as a turbo can produce alot.

  • Michael Holtham

    I’ve got a single speed bike which doesn’t have a quick release rear wheel. Will it still be suitable to use with a turbo trainer?

  • David Bassett

    Elite not even in the top six?

  • Brendan Delaney

    The gym at my flat has just acquired a ‘spinner’. Basically like a turbo with programs. I tried it out this week and managed a good hard ride over 20 mins and 8 miles of hills, that really had me aching the next day. It doesn’t give watts as a readout, only cadence , a resistance scale and miles covered. Thinking of strapping my Garmin and HRM to the handlebars and using it to keep in the right zone. Would that be as good as a bike Turbo? I don’t have space in the flat for one of these and I don’t fancy doing this in the underground car park!