Turbo Training

I was leaving a local bike shop recently and noticed a guy who was proudly carrying away a newly purchased turbo trainer, this got me wondering – would he still be using it in 3 months time? A friend of mine has a turbo trainer that resides in his front garden on top of a pile of building rubble as a permanent feature like some art installation; in fact I’m sure the Tate Modern would pay handsomely for it. Its last known use was to hold his bike whilst he washed it; the truth is that he hates turbo training.

I’ll be honest with you I’d rather go out for a proper bike ride in preference to spending an hour sat on a static trainer. Never does an hour seem so long as when perched on these instruments of torture. Having said this sometimes you just can’t go for a proper ride, plus using a turbo trainer you can be incredibly specific with your training.

Here’s where I confess that, yes, I still own a turbo trainer. I used it a fair bit last year between January and May as I prepared for a couple of sportifs. My wife was working strange hours and I had child minding duties to contend with, so out came the trusty turbo trainer. This enabled me to keep an eye on our child (watch those spinning spokes though) whilst I put in some truly gruesome workouts without so much as leaving the house. My daughters’ friend did find it highly amusing however, and god knows what she told her parents on returning home!

You see the key to successful turbo training (if you don’t want the thing to end up as an art exhibit) is ‘structured training’. It’s no good just sitting on it for hours at a time just spinning, you have to do ‘intervals’ to keep it interesting and the time will fly by – well almost.

I like to set-up my bike and turbo trainer outside, under an awning at the side of the house. This keeps the weather off me but I get the cooling benefit of being outside plus I get to watch what’s going on in the garden, if anything. Having said all this I still use a large pedestal fan, bought from a DIY store in the summer for about 10 quid, you’ll have difficulty finding one in the winter as there’s obviously not much demand apart from the odd weirdo cyclist.

The reason for the fan and being outside is that you get incredibly hot and sweat buckets. The heat build-up in your body eventually affects your ability to sustain the effort at the required heart rate. Your pulse rockets to extreme levels whilst you don’t feel that you’re working any harder, just that you feel like you’re in a large unventilated Perspex box (I’m not selling this too well am I). The rocketing pulse is called ‘cardiac drift’.

You can now see the reason for the next two items – a litre of drink and a towel lain over the handlebars to mop your fevered brow from time to time. It’s pretty important to make sure that you drink plenty of fluid during any cycling but even more so with static training. I also wear very little (ooh ere, now you know why my daughters’ friend found it so funny), usually just a pair of cycling shorts and a (sweat) wicking vest.

Another important training aid is music, and the heavier the better. So if you hear Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Queens of the Stone Age, etc. emanating from my house you know I’m on the turbo. I’ve got a file on my computer dedicated to turbo training tracks, the neighbours love it (note to self; must get some headphones).

I almost forgot the final piece of kit; a pulse monitor – you can get these from as little as £12 now if you shop at Aldi’s. Most training schedules are set-out in heart rate zones unless of course you’re flush and have a power meter – the latest and probably more accurate training measure.

Now there are quite a few different theories on training zones but most use either four or five levels – for the purpose of this article I’ll use the five level example. This is where the beauty of the turbo trainer really comes into play because you can ride exactly in the heart range you are aiming for; there are no hills, cars or traffic lights to affect your exertion. The heart rate zones detailed below are based on a percentage of your maximum heart rate. To find your maximum either ride like stink up a big hill ‘til you collapse, or alternatively go on a midweek YOGi road ride!

The five heart rate zones are as follows:

Target Heart Rate
(percentage of max)
One <65 Easy Aerobic
Two 65-80 Moderate Sub AT Endurance
Three 75-90 Moderately Hard Anaerobic Threshold
Four 90-95 Hard VO2
Five 95-100 Extremely Hard Sprint

You can find further explanations of all the terms used above here.

So here are some ‘wonderful’ interval sessions to try out on the turbo trainer. For all sessions you need to warm-up and down for 10-15 minutes before and after completing the workout.

Endurance Strength

This is brutal but it works to improve anaerobic threshold and endurance strength.

Start with one 15 minute set and progress over four to six weeks to two 20 minute sets or one 30 minute set.

The workout consists of 5 minutes in each of three to four descending gears. Begin with 52×15 for 5 minutes, then shift to 52×14 for 5 minutes and finally 52×13 for 5 minutes with no rest between each segment. The target zone is 3-4 (75-95% of max).

The gearing really depends on your fitness and/or the resistance of your turbo trainer, so some tweaking may be required. It’s important that you maintain a cadence of at least 80 rpm and not completely loose it in the last set. Some may want to start in 52×17 whilst you may want to finish with 10-15 minutes in the 12 or 11!!!

It’s a tough workout that builds strength and endurance and is much more specific than any weight program – just be careful of overdoing it and damaging your knees. Concentrate on using all the muscles essential for a good 360° pedalling action, stay in the saddle as much as possible and try to maintain good form with a relaxed flat back keeping upper body movement to a minimum.

Anaerobic Threshold

Whilst with VO2 Max you are pretty much stuck with what you’re born with, anaerobic threshold is highly trainable. Basically this is your sustainable pace. Top pros have a sustainable pace (i.e. time-trial pace) that is over 90 per cent of their maximum. Most recreational cyclists have a sustainable pace that is under 80 per cent of their maximum (not most Yogi’s though).

20 minutes (or 10 sets) of the following:

One minute on 42×15, cadence 90 rpm, (target zone 2+) followed immediately (no rest) by one minute on 52×15, cadence 110, (target zone 3).

Build up to two 20 minute sets or one 30 minute set.

This workout helps you to perform a longer effort at your sustainable pace. The idea of the gearing changes is to drive your pulse up without fatiguing your muscles. If you do it properly you should not feel your muscles ‘burn’.

These are not intervals of a minute ‘on’ and a minute ‘off’. Don’t get out of the saddle or accelerate as you would for high intensity intervals. Just make the gear changes and concentrate on the cadence. As you improve you can increase the duration of the set and/or increase the resistance.

Aerobic Capacity

This workout will develop aerobic capacity or VO2 Max as it is known.

5 minutes of 15 seconds ‘on’ and 15 seconds ‘off’. ‘On’ meaning high rpm/high workload effort and ‘off’ meaning pedalling lightly.

Active recovery for 5 minutes then repeat the set two or three times.

By working intensively for short, 15 second bursts and recovering only partially during the 15 second recovery phase, you drive up your breathing without taxing your legs too much. It also develops your speed and power.


This session will help to increasing leg speed and power whilst decreasing the recovery time you need from sudden changes in pace.

Include about four 15 stroke accelerations towards the end of the warm-up period.

Do five of the following continuously i.e. no rest for 10 minutes.

One minute on 42×17, cadence 90 rpm, then one minute 52×17, cadence 90 rpm (target zone 3-4).

Adjust the gearing/resistance and cadence to hit zone 4 during the big-gear minute. Your heart rate will climb steadily throughout the 10 minute set.

Now do five minutes of recovery riding at a moderate cadence and low resistance.

Then do the following; 45 seconds 52×17, cadence 90 rpm followed immediately by 15 seconds at a cadence of 110 rpm+ at target zone 4. Repeat this five times with one minute at recovery pace between each pair.

Finally finish with three 30 stroke sprints at a cadence above 110 rpm.


Finally we come to the infamous 2×20 in which one national standard rider was asked, ‘How long he left between each effort?’ by his coach, to which he replied, ‘About 3 months!’.

2 x 20s. Warm up for 10 min, 20 min at a constant effort, 5 min recovery, and another 20 min at that same constant effort. The 20 min efforts should be at a pace you can only just hold at the end of the second interval. Nominally the effort you may want to use is the average power you can hold for the last 20 min of an all-out 30 min.  It may take a session or two to get the intensity dialled in just right, and you may be surprised at what effort level you actually can hold!

Helmit Wiskir

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