As winter arrives and the weather gets steadily more miserable, spending hours outside cycling seems less appealing. Indeed sometimes, heading out on the bike is completely out of the question, owing to floods, ice or snow.

Now is the time to dust off the turbo or, if you don’t yet have one, look to purchase. Of course, sitting on a turbo for hours on end is most cyclists’ idea of torture; some would rather not ride at all than climb aboard the turbo.

Are the hours of pain and boredom really worth it? On the flip-side, does saying no to the turbo-trainer mean losing all that fitness you built up over the summer? CW delves into the world of turbo-training to find out how to make those dull indoor sessions more enjoyable, while assessing the real-world benefits.

Benefits
Many riders have a love/hate relationship with turbos. Some use them only when they absolutely have to, while others use them all year round. However you feel about yours, you can’t deny the performance improvements they offer – if used effectively.

The reason many dislike the turbo is because sessions are hard and relentless. Constant resistance on the back wheel means there is often no respite or room for a cheeky freewheeling rest. But, for the same reason, turbo-ing has a big impact on your riding, leading to large fitness improvements.

Specific
The best thing about turbo training is that every session can be tailored to meet your individual requirements. With the numerous technological improvements in measuring output, turbo sessions can now be suited to any ability. Even at a club turbo session, there’s no worry of being the least fit and getting dropped; it’s about working at the level that’s right for you.

Using power or heart rate to measure intensity is very useful for turbo sessions. Once you’ve found your maximum, working to a predetermined percentage of this maximum is an effective way to work specific metabolic systems, thus stimulating improvements. This also means sessions are conducted at the correct intensity for each individual.

Combining these pre-determined physiological thresholds with other output measures such as cadence or speed make workouts even more specific. Leg-speed, strength and other areas can be worked on, depending what needs improving.

The use of different measures also allows riders to focus on sessions, giving something to aim at and keep you going through harder efforts. Once maximum heart rate has been found and intensities have been calculated, stick with them. If you push too hard, you’ll suffer and ‘blow’ before the end; too easy and you won’t reap the rewards.

Variability
The different options on a turbo are endless. You can put a film or a stage of the Tour de France on TV and ride like you’re out on a Sunday club run, or focus on a specific weakness. Then again, you might just want to bash out a 30-minute sprint session to wind down from work.

Every time you climb aboard your turbo, there’s a different session to be done. Variety relieves the monotony and boredom many associate with turbo use. New and adapted sessions keep your mind fresh and focused, making turbo time more exciting.

On the other hand, some riders like to do basically the same session each time, only lengthening efforts or shortening recovery periods slightly to gradually progress. Seeing or feeling improvements through the season is motivation enough for these creatures of habit. Again, it comes down to making training specific to your needs; you alone know what really motivates you.

Seasonal sessions
Traditionally, winter is when cyclists get in their base miles, ready for the season ahead. This means lots of long, low-intensity riding. No one is able to tolerate sitting for over two hours on the turbo with no structure, no matter how much they love it.

This is where longer intervals come into play. These are done at a relatively high endurance intensity, known as ‘tempo’, which is roughly 70-80 per cent of your maximum heart rate. This intensity is hard but can be maintained and causes deep breathing. The longest effort recommended at this intensity is around an hour.

Another indoor training option to consider is rollers. These are another great type of trainer, owing to the light resistance and the fact that a reasonable level of concentration is needed to balance and stay on. Hence, riding on rollers is more similar to being out on the road than a turbo, and a lot more interesting.

While doing these longer sessions, try watching a DVD of a bike race to keep you motivated and focused on the riding. But remember to also have a heart rate or power measurement to keep focused on maintaining the desired intensity.

These sessions are really great at improving aerobic endurance and are a great replacement for not being able to go out for your scheduled ride.

HIIT
Usually, top-end high-intensity sessions are left until spring – once the winter base has been put down. Many cyclists have the old-school mentality, regarding winter as just for getting in long, slow miles to improve endurance. However, recent research has shown that similar endurance improvements come from short, sharp interval sessions too.

These shorter sessions have the added benefits of being quick to do, as well as improving other metabolic systems, alongside endurance. They are also less boring. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sessions should not replace all your long-ride-mimicking turbo sessions or long rides, but used to relieve the boredom and monotony of repeating the same session over and over. That said, nothing beats getting in the miles out on the road – a tried and tested way to succeed in cycling.

HIIT sessions usually include maximum sprint efforts of around 30 seconds in length, with around double the duration of the effort as recovery spinning.

Threshold
Similar to the high-intensity intervals, these threshold sessions are traditionally done during spring. But, again, there’s no harm throwing in a couple every now and again during the winter, to keep a bit of variety in training.

Improving lactate threshold is particularly important for racing. Efforts within these sessions can vary in length and slightly in intensity; for example, an intensity of 90-95 per cent of maximum heart rate could be held for three minutes, but for a 10-20-minute effort, 80-85 per cent is more realistic. Improving lactate threshold is good for climbing and for time triallists.

Finding your maximum heart rate

A rough guideline often used to estimate maximum heart rate (MHR) is 220 minus age. However, this is now outdated. Newer gender-specific formulas are now used:

Male 214 – (0.8 x age)
Female 209 – (0.9 x age)

These are not always that accurate, though, so here is a simple test that can be done using a standard heart-rate monitor on the turbo to find out MHR. A helper may be required for encouragement and to record results.

After a 10-15 minute warm-up, ride as hard as possible for 10 minutes, similar to an intensive time trial pace. Ride the final minute as hard as possible and sprint the last 20 seconds. This should produce a maximum heart rate reading. Keep pedalling and wind down gradually for 10 minutes.

Turbo sessions

There are so many different things you can do on a turbo that finding the session that best fits in with your needs and goals is important. Here’s a run-down of a few of the different sessions you can do. Remember, these are suggestions and may not suit everyone perfectly.

Tailor them to suit your level of fitness. As you become used to the sessions and begin to see fitness gains, gradually increase the number of sets, and the duration of efforts for each session.

Begin any turbo session with a 10-15 minute progressive effort with a few minutes’ easy spinning. Also remember after finishing your turbo session to spin your legs out for a good 10 minutes to make sure the muscles flushed out; this should reduce the effect of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) the next day.

Russian steps

Total time: 8min (one set)

Again, these are 100 per cent all-out efforts followed by really steady recovery and are great to add on to the end of a session. This session, despite being short, will hurt and isn’t for the faint-hearted. Give yourself at least 5min recovery between sets if you want to do more than one set.

15sec on 45sec off
30sec on 30sec off
45sec on 15sec off
60sec on 60sec off
45sec on 15sec off
30sec on 30sec off
15sec on 45sec off

 

Sprint session

Total time: 35min (one set)

These are great to add on to the end of a session or as a full session as a race approaches. This session helps improve your ‘jump’ – helping you get your final sprint going or getting away in a break. The long recovery ensures the energy system used is fully recovered for the next full-on sprint effort, so choose a low gear and spin your legs.

15sec max sprint
2min 45 sec spin
Repeat 10 times per set with 5min full recovery between sets

Ride replacement

Total time: 2hrs 30min

Intensity should increase slightly as the efforts shorten. This can be achieved by maintaining a set cadence and then increasing resistance or using a higher gear as needed. After each effort, give yourself 5min recovery (steady spinning) in a low gear. You can shorten or lengthen efforts as suits you, or reduce percentage of MHR as needed. For this session, a quick leg-spin of 5min is all that’s needed as a warm up, as it’s long and the first effort isn’t too hard.

55min effort 65-70 per cent MHR
40min effort 70-75 per cent MHR
25min effort 75-80 per cent MHR
10min effort 80-85 per cent MHR

 

Threshold efforts

Total time: 57min

This session will make your legs ache, so ensure you have a solid warm-up and cool-down. Choose a gear big enough to push, but one you are able to keep on top of and not labour, keeping a cadence of around 90-100rpm. During the recovery sections, spin your legs out in a lower gear.

10min effort 75-80 per cent of MHR
5min recovery easy riding
2 x 5min effort 80-85 per cent of MHR
1min recovery between efforts
5min recovery easy riding
3 x 2min efforts 85-90 per cent of MHR
30sec recovery between each
5min recovery easy riding
6 x 1 min efforts 90-95 per cent of MHR
30sec recovery between each one
5min recovery easy riding

 

The original version of this article appeared in the December 6 2012 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine.

Related links
Spin classes: Fad or fab?
Zero in on turbo training
Turbo trainer reviews by Cycling Weekly

  • ukTurboTrainers

    I like to slowly build into my workout, taking my time with a film or something! http://www.ukturbotrainers.com

  • roger roberts

    i understand there are various ones to get which one would be suitable for my bike
    i have a raleigh all terrain mounting bike 26 inch wheels 18 gears

  • Chris L

    +1 for Sufferfest. About as good / interesting as turbo training gets, and lots of different vids / workouts

  • Luke

    Surely not recommending even thinking about heartrate for 1 minute efforts!! It can take 10 minutes just to build up that high!

  • P Dilkes

    Plenty of internet options for advice on turbo session, just use google.

    I like ‘sufferfest’ gives you something to focus on, music and a session to complete.

  • SharonROse

    I need more information on cycling workouts