Turbo Trainer: Unplugged

Take on some turbo-training sessions and see your speed endurance and strength soar



by Jaqueline Wadsworth

turbo-trainers bike
Picture credit: Dave Cox

Turbo-trainers are beasts! They can be tedious, monotonous and they hurt. That’s why it’s so tempting to hook up to some music or turn on the TV to distract from the task in hand.

But don’t be fooled – the human brain can’t concentrate on two things at once. If turbo-training feels pleasant it’s probably because you’re not concentrating. Hard sessions mean effort, but if Neighbours gets exciting you may find yourself easing off the pedals for a moment or two. And if you’re giving your all to Freddie Mercury singing ‘We are the champions’, how can you be sure that you’re pulling up as well as pushing down when working on technique?

There’s only one way to make the most of your turbo-trainer - unplugged.

Turbo-training provides a golden opportunity to develop mental discipline which is often overlooked by triathletes. So next time the going gets tough, don’t look for distractions. Instead face up to the way your body is feeling, then develop strategies to keep going. You may discover reserves of mental strength you never knew you had simply because you’d never really tested yourself. Here are some turbo-tips for tough sessions:

  • Concentrate on maintaining good form.
  • Don’t fidget, you’ll just expend energy needlessly.
  • Be disciplined about maintaining cadence / speed / heart rate.
  • Sessions should be achievable and not over-ambitious.
  • Visualise yourself in a race, ahead of rivals and on course to win!

The ability to stay strong when the body is desperate to stop is what distinguishes competitive triathletes from average competitors. Come race day your new-found strength will pay dividends.

Set Clear Goals

Once you’ve turned off the turbo entertainment, it’s important to be clear about what you want to achieve. Long road rides are excellent for aerobic fitness and bike-handling skills. But the turbo-trainer comes into its own if you want to work on improving speed endurance, strength and technique. These often involve uninterrupted efforts which are far easier if you don’t have to worry about traffic, sharp corners or side-winds.

There are plenty of turbo-training DVDs and schedules available to follow, but it can be far more motivating to devise your own sessions rather than to follow someone else’s. Discover some simple sessions to get you started.

It’s important to remember that training on the turbo is very different to training on the road. Here are some do’s and dont’s from a cyclist who has plenty of experience, former GB international Peter Georgi, who is the current National Masters Track Pursuit Champion:

The Dos and Don'ts

DON’T climb on your turbo and simply ‘go for a ride’ – sessions must have structure.

DO warm up well. Start in a low gear and pedal smoothly and slowly. Just as your legs warm up, so the turbo warms up too and you will feel pedalling getting easier. Increase the gear and speed gradually for about 10 minutes. I then do two one- minute efforts. The aim is to get your muscles to the temperature they will be at under effort.

DON’T make the mistake of thinking that three hours on the road means you must do three hours on the turbo - that will kill you! Cycle training is a mixture of time and intensity - turbos give you intensity. The beauty is that it takes less time to do a good workout on the turbo than on the road.

DO remember that for your training to progress you need to increase the time spent at the higher intensity. As your body gets used to the effort you can add more, and you will get fitter.

DO warm down properly. I find this the hardest part as all I want to do is get off the bike. But stay on for at least ten minutes of easy pedalling. This is essential to start the recovery process and will make the next session easier to complete.

DON’T take your bike out when the weather is rough. A slow, cold two-hour ride trying to stay upright on icy roads will have a much lower training load than a well-structured turbo session.

Winter Weather Solution

Peter, who lives in South Gloucestershire, says his indoor training plays a big part in his cycling success. ‘I use two types of session that see me through a lot of the winter, both help build my general endurance and ability to ride at a higher tempo.

‘One consists of long intervals at just below my ten-mile time trial pace. These efforts are hard, but not too hard, with recoveries in between. The key is to ride at a level you can just about keep going for the full length of the interval. It will feel relatively easy to start and get harder towards the end. The key thing is concentration, you want a steady effort.

‘The second session is shorter ‘power intervals’ when I go as hard as I can with recoveries between. They hurt but are great for teaching you to ride at high intensities, perfect for getting over hills and dealing with hard sections on a course. They also help raise your threshold power, so increase your ability to ride faster over a long period.’

Good for all Distances

Turbo-training can be adapted to suit any triathlon race distance.

Roger Denton competes as a GB age-grouper in half-ironman events and uses his turbo throughout the year. ‘I do all my ‘sweetspot’ training on the turbo – just below threshold pace. My aim is to build speed and endurance,’ he said. ‘After warming up, a typical session involves 3x20min at ‘sweetspot’ pace, with 10min recoveries in between. This is quite a long session for a turbo – any more than 90 minutes and you’ll need a lobotomy!’

Rachel Forrester prefers shorter sprint and Olympic-distance races and is a top regional age-grouper. ‘I find the turbo invaluable for ironing out any bad habits I’ve developed,’ she said. ‘For example, I know my left leg is lazy and leaves a lot of the work to the right one! On the turbo I make sure both are working equally. And in winter I make sure I use the aerobars, which I don’t tend to do on rides outside when it’s cold and wet. This means that spring arrives it’s not such an effort to get into a good racing position.’

 A Perfect Transition

As the race season approaches, use your turbo-trainer to practise changing shoes and getting your helmet on and off as you would at the bike rack on race day. This can save minutes in transition when others around you are fumbling.

The turbo is also excellent for bike-run brick sessions to prepare for the ‘jellylegs’ feeling after a hard bike ride. Cycle at race pace for 10 minutes, then jump off, change shoes, unclip your helmet and go for 10 minute run. Concentrate on taking short, quick steps until your legs have recovered.

Discover three simple turbo sessions to improve your cycling, plus our quick guide to turbo training.


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