How do turbo trainers work?
Turbo trainers (or simply turbos) clamp around the quick release skewer of a bike’s rear wheel, suspending it in an A-frame. Once in position, the frame sets the rear tyre on a roller so that as you pedal, your rear wheel spins and the roller turns too. A resistance unit is also attached to the roller and uses air, fluid or magnetic means to vary the resistance against which you are pedalling. Typically classified by the type of resistance, which you’ll find outlined below, some turbos will automatically get harder as you pedal faster, while others are adjusted manually.
Over the past several years, there has also been a move towards ‘smart’ turbo trainers. The technological integration allows them to pair with training software such as Zwift and provides a more realistic road feel, thanks to advanced resistance units.
Types of turbo trainers
A pricier option, fluid turbo trainers provide a smooth and quiet ride. They generate resistance with an impeller that revolves in a thick, oil-like solution. This system provides a natural adjustment of resistance due to the fact that the effort to turn the impeller increases as you pedal harder.
Another fairly smooth and quiet option, magnetic turbos work thanks to a metal plate situated inside the resistance unit, which creates a magnetic field of resistance. Good if you’re looking for a really specific feel, this type can usually be adjusted manually.
More affordable than the two types mentioned above, fan turbos are pretty noisy and definitely less refined. 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. Pretty outdated, you’re likely only to see these guys being sold second-hand.
One of the more advanced turbo setups available, direct drives come with a cassette mounted directly onto a resistance unit. You remove your rear wheel and attach your bike directly to the unit. This gives you a much more realistic and stable experience but be warned, these ones don’t come cheap.
Why use a turbo trainer?
Although they have a bad rep in some circles for being tedious and boring, there’s no arguing with the fact that turbos are a great tool for targeted training and achieving fitness goals. Especially in winter, turbos can offer a more efficient and safer way to get your miles in. With the explosion of training software like Zwift and TrainerRoad, you can even train with others in a virtual world if you have a power meter on your bike. Turbos are also a lifesaver for those short on time looking to squeeze in a quick sweat, as just a 30-minute workout a few times a week can have a significant impact on your overall fitness level.
Setting up a turbo trainer correctly
Whether you have the space to keep your turbo permanently set up or not, you’re going to want to find a solid, smooth, flat, ideally uncarpeted surface. The feet of the turbo trainer need to be level to stop it from rocking around under your momentum and you should also keep in mind that you’re going to be creating a lot of noise, sweat, and heat, so ventilation is important.
Ensuring the resistance is set up correctly is also vital, so make sure the rear wheel is resting directly 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 up above it, so take your time getting it in position before you hop on. It is also important to position the wheel straight so that it sits perpendicular to the roller and to ensure the rear quick-release skewer is sitting straight within the clamp that fixes it into the A-frame. Make sure your wheel isn’t wobbling around inside the A-frame, in addition to causing damage to your bike and the clamp, it will give you uneven riding experience.
Planning your session right
Before you jump on your turbo, it’s good to have an idea of what your session will look like and what you hope to accomplish. This will keep you motivated and allow you to tailor a session in order to improve upon the previous one and actually see some progress. You should always start with a 15-20-minute warm-up and towards the end of your session, raise your effort to a level just below the intensity of the main intervals. Remember that riding in intervals of different lengths with varying degrees of intensity will allow you to get the most out of your workout will help keep things interesting.
Some final tips
As most people prefer riding with their wheels levelled, you’ll likely want to buy or make a turbo block that will raise your front wheel three to four inches and level it off with the back. Before you start your ride, you should also make sure to have a small towel on hand to mop up sweat and, if you don’t have a bike computer, a stopwatch or timer within reach to keep track of time and pace your efforts. If you live in a flat and have hard floors, you may want to put down some kind of barrier to help minimize the noise and keep your neighbours off your back. Otherwise, just put on your favourite upbeat playlist and get ready to sweat!