turbo trainer cycling winter training advice tips

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The turbo trainer – love it or hate it, you can’t deny that it is a fundamental piece of training equipment that triathletes and cyclists need in order to execute important sessions, especially during winter. Ironman triathlete and Sundried ambassador Danny Mansfield gives his advice for making the most of your turbo sessions with some key workouts for you to try.

Learning to love the turbo

I think it’s fair to say that not many people like long turbo sessions, and I am one of those. I take my hat off to the few that can stay on longer than 90 minutes. That is about my limit when the mind starts to wander and boredom sets in. For most, including myself, a good hour on the turbo trainer can reap good training benefits. The turbo also comes up trumps when the weather is awful or you need to do specific intervals, which on the road can be difficult, not to mention dangerous.

So how do we learn to love it? There are a few things to consider before we get into what those key sessions are.

Turbo Trainer Set Up

Where you complete your turbo session is a real consideration to make. If you set it up in a cold, dimly lit garage it will not help in motivating you to get on it. Not everyone can have a pain cave, but an area where you are comfortable and have enough space is important. Make sure you have a towel and access to water – you will need it! Another important tool is a fan. By keeping cool, you will control your heart rate a little more, plus it’s a little more comfortable with a fan on.

turbo trainer set up

Danny in his pain cave. It's important to train somewhere you're comfortable.

Distractions

When on the turbo and following a particular session, I tend to have other distractions to help the time go that little bit quicker. My personal favourite is an iPad with Netflix and something to watch, or sometimes just music. You will find that following a structured workout also helps, as you tend to concentrate on what you need to do. Getting on that turbo for some aimless spinning will lead to inevitable boredom!

Time

Ask yourself – when is the best time for me to complete my session? Are you an early morning person? Do you have other people to consider? Have you tried the turbo at different times? This is key, as it will open up flexibility to your training and time you have. Usually, double day training for me means an early morning session, which I don’t mind at all. I much prefer jumping on the turbo trainer early in the morning than running outside in the cold.

Additional Equipment

Do you have a heart rate monitor or power meter? Are you using them to their full potential? Although I train by power on my trainer, for beginners a heart rate monitor is a great addition. If you can combine this with some simple testing to work out your heart rate zones, your training is likely to be a lot more scientific in its approach. Having a plan that matches your current fitness and goals will give you purpose to your training. But, to keep things easy, you can also use perceived effort (RPE) if just starting out.

Once we have worked out these things, we can start to consider what sessions to complete. There are lots of different workouts that allow us to build strength, aerobic endurance, tempo or sweet spot work. For me, there are three key workouts along with the dreaded FTP test that triathletes need to consider. Let’s explore these.

Turbo Trainer Workouts

Strength Building

This strength building turbo trainer workout is all about developing leg strength, making you push harder on the pedals. It will encourage your leg muscles to become stronger, which is great for climbing!

Warm up

Start with 15 minutes of endurance pedalling with some high cadence spinning. We are talking perceived effort 3 or heart rate zone 2. Cadence should be comfortable, somewhere between 80-90 rpm or higher when you add in some high cadence spinning.

Interval Work

Here you will need to change up a few gears to add resistance to the pedals. You want to get into a gear where your cadence drops to around 50-60 rpm and then push as hard as you can for 30-60 seconds. Once complete, recover by shifting down again to easy spin for 3 minutes. Repeat this for around 5 sets and you can increase the sets or the duration of interval as you become stronger and fitter. Be careful though, your knees will take a pounding so start easy and find out what you can sustain and build from there.

Cool Down

10-15 minutes easy spinning bringing your heart rate down.

turbo trainer indoor cycling workout FTP test

Sweet Spot Workout

This workout will be taxing and make your legs, lungs, and heart work hard. The idea is to ride just below FTP/threshold zone for short periods of time, enabling you to train your body to cope for long sustained efforts. It’s a must-do workout for long distance triathletes.

Warm Up

Complete a 20-minute warm up. This will be 10 minutes of easy endurance pedalling followed by 7 minutes of fast cadence efforts – aim for around 105-110 rpm. Split this 7 minutes up into 1 minute fast cadence followed by 1 minute easy. When you’ve completed 4 faster efforts, take the last 3 minutes easy.

Threshold Efforts

Complete 3 x 10-minute intervals at around 85-90% of your threshold power or threshold heart rate. If it is too much or you can’t sustain it, shorten the duration of the interval. Separate each interval with 5 minutes of easy pedalling. As the season progresses, you can increase the length of the interval so you are spending longer in that zone.

Cool Down

Spend the last part of your session with 10-15 minutes in your endurance zone.

Boost Your VO2 Max Workout

This one is all about developing your lungs and body to use oxygen more efficiently. More oxygen means less lactic acid! It involves some high-end short efforts and requires you to have a bit of base fitness beforehand. If you know your FTP number, then your VO2 will typically be 110-120% of that benchmark.

Warm Up

Ride at a steady pace for 10 minutes then increase your effort for another 10 minutes. This should only be slightly harder in which you can still hold a conversation.

Interval Work

We are looking for 5 intervals lasting for around 3 minutes with a 3-minute recovery sandwiched between the hard efforts. Remember, each interval is 110-120% of FTP.

Cool Down

Complete a proper cool down and try not to do this workout back to back. You need proper recovery. To progress this workout, you can always extend the amount of intervals you do or the length of them.

What is FTP Testing in cycling?

An FTP test is a simple 20-minute hard-as-you-can and sustain for the duration of the interval. Ideally, this is done with a power meter but can also be tracked with heart rate. It starts after a warm up and also includes a cool down at the end. This is the key workout to give you your zones and check you current fitness level.

There are a variety of ways of doing an FTP test but the 20 minute effort is the most popular. If you don’t possess a power meter, you can also track your heart rate in this test, although it isn’t as accurate. This is not your everyday workout but one we use every 4-6 weeks to check on progress and adjust our training zones.

These turbo trainer workouts will not only give you bang for you buck, but will actually make the time go quicker on the turbo. Don’t forget to include that aerobic longer, lower intensity ride, which ideally is completed outside. Spread the workouts carefully as some are pretty taxing on the system, so make sure you manage your recovery, especially if you add in swim and run workouts too. 

You can read more training advice by Danny on his blog.