Are Turbo Trainers Worthwhile?

A friend asked me on Facebook:

What turbo trainer do you use Phil? I am looking to invest in one

While answering the explicit question is easy (I use a CycleOps Fluid2) his use of “invest” made me start to question whether the return you get from a turbo trainer is worth the cost.

The costs

These are the things you likely need to buy to make use of a turbo trainer:

Item Price
Total £350
Trainer £250
Wheel block £20
Trainer tyre £20
Crappy rear wheel £20
Cassette, inner tube £40
Fan £10

You can try and do without the spare wheel and even the trainer tyre but it’s a false economy. Regular tyres don’t survive very long on the turbo trainer: they will rapidly overheat, melt, and wear out on a turbo trainer. Relatedly, never try to ride on a trainer tyre as it’ll be you that won’t survive very long. Without a specific wheel you will spend more time changing tyres than training, and the hassle will prevent you from using the turbo trainer. Happily the spare wheel can be fairly terrible: it doesn’t need to be stiff because the turbo trainer clamp makes stiffness irrelevant, and it doesn’t need a braking surface because you don’t need to slow it down.

Don’t skimp on the cassette for the trainer wheel; as with any cassette it will wear the chain if it’s worn and again it’s a false economy to use a cheap cassette; you’ll spend more on chains than you save on cassettes. You’re likely to only use one or two sprockets on the cassette, so keep an eye on it. Of course once you know what that one sprocket is you can use a single rear sprocket instead of a cassette; I am considering getting a conversion kit for that purpose the next time I order some other gear from wiggle.

Other things you need

This is not everything you need: you must have a flat area large enough for your bike and the trainer. That area has to be very well ventilated, near a power socket & not exposed to the weather (so you can use the fan), and it must not inconvenience or endanger anyone else in your household when you are using the turbo trainer (pet + spinning rear wheel = vet; child + spinning rear wheel = A&E; etc). This basically means you need to have a garage with power sockets and a level floor.

Using the trainer

Like most I originally thought that I would only use the trainer to ride inside when the weather outside was poor. It turns out this is not how I actually use the trainer at all: it is qualitatively very different from normal riding and has a very different effect on your fitness. The reason is that on a regular ride you are only pedalling about half of the time, whereas on the trainer you have to pedal continuously. You might think this makes a turbo ride roughly equivalent to a normal ride of twice the distance; in my experience, subjectively, a turbo ride is roughly as draining as a normal ride of three to four times the distance.

Another way of looking at it is that your endurance on the turbo trainer is a good guide to how long you can continuously pedal while out on a ride. If you are knackered after 10 minutes on the turbo trainer you won’t get up any hill that takes you more than 10 minutes to climb. Part of my preparation for the Isle of Wight Randonnée this year was a 75 minute continuous session on the trainer: that gave me confidence that I was not going to pop on the south side’s long uphill drags, which are maybe 20 minutes each.

The benefits

Using the turbo trainer will make you fitter. So will cycling around outside. But the same time spent on the turbo trainer has a bigger effect, and you can use the trainer when the weather means you don’t want to be outside. It also lets you push yourself to the limit of your endurance and by doing so extend that limit. You can’t really do that on a road ride because the consequences of becoming completely exhausted at a great distance from home are terrible.

And of course time on the turbo trainer is not exclusively usable for cycling: for example you can watch BBC iPlayer or Sky Go on your iPad at the same time. It’s best to pick something which allows you to keep your normal riding position as it will make your training more road-relevant.

Is it worth the investment?

If you have £350 and want to improve your cycling, can you do any better? Perhaps. If you haven’t had it done for a while, or at all, then having your bike properly set up to fit you will pay immediate dividends and cost a lot less, probably only £50 unless you need a new stem or bars. If you’re using flat or toe-clip pedals then a set of SpeedPlay Zero pedals, cleats, and compatible shoes will do you more good than a trainer at a cost of roughly £125. Other pedal systems are available, but they aren’t as good (in my opinion).

Assuming your bike fits well and you’re on clipless pedals already the next most beneficial thing you could likely get for around £350 is a new set of wheels. A Campagnolo Zonda wheelset and a pair of Continental GP 4 Seasons tyres will cost about that and are a huge upgrade for any reasonably priced road bike. But is a wheel upgrade better than a turbo trainer? I think not: I think that the fitness I gained from the turbo trainer make me faster on basic wheels than if I had not gained that fitness and used fancy wheels. But this is just a hunch; it’s a very difficult experiment to conduct.

6 Responses to “Are Turbo Trainers Worthwhile?”

  1. Chris

    I agree 100%
    I also think that you gain a lot of endurance because you never stop but you burn less calories than a 4h road ride so you recover faster and can do it again the next day.
    I do alternate weeks on the road and turbo, and on the turbo weeks do 10 sets of 10 squats after 90 minute turbe session listening to my favorite tunes.

    Reply
  2. Robin

    I’ve just got a turbo trainer to help get endurance up for a three day mountain bike trip. I have a really old road bike and the mountain bike that I’ll be using. Is it best to train in the riding position that I would be using or is the old road bike just as good?

    Struggling to find any thoughts on this and just about to go off any buy the (appropriate) training tyre!

    Reply
    • Phil

      For what you are trying to do using the old road bike will be fine.

      It’s actually, in my experience, psychologically difficult to hold the bars at all while in the turbo trainer: you don’t need to, and it’s less comfortable than sitting up tall, so you really don’t want to.

      The only other thing worth mentioning that you might not already have worked out: you need to prop the front wheel up on something so that the bike feels level while you’re in the trainer. It’s very much more difficult to use when the bike feels like you are descending the whole time.

      Reply
      • Robin

        I’ve got an antique front wheel lifter from a previous failed attempt to get back into biking. Started XC MTB a couple of years ago but things have moved on somewhat since I stopped road cycling 20 years ago and was last using a turbo trainer!

        West Highland Way here I come. Well, in about 5 months…

        Thanks very much for the advice.

        Reply
  3. Nicholas

    Thanks for your thoughts on Turbo Trainers. Really useful.

    I am considering getting a turbo and wondered whether you had any thoughts on how much of a pain it is to keep switching your rear wheel for outdoor riding and indoor turbo training? Is it

    Also, is dirt or oil from your bike ever an issue when using your bike on the turbo trainer? If so, besides cleaning the bike, are there things that can be done to manage things?

    many thanks,

    nick

    Reply
    • Phil

      Good questions!

      The rear-wheel switching is not too arduous; as long as you’re in the small sprocket and have the same sprockets on both wheels it is pretty quick, certainly well under a minute. You can do it all with the bike the right way up. If the sprockets don’t match then you start to need to muck around with the derailleur B screw as well which is not anyone’s idea of a good time. It’s harder if you have mudguards or a rear rack, but not that much harder.

      Even with a clean bike, some stuff will get flicked off as you ride it on the turbo trainer. You should expect small amount of chain lube and (few, tiny) fragments of the tyre to be distributed below/behind the chain and rear wheel. Now I use it in the garage I don’t even notice because the floor is already dirty; when I used it in the house I would put newspaper below and behind the bike.

      Hope this helps.

      Reply

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